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Columns: Health Yourself

Eat real food, not ingredients

By Victor Katch

So much to digest

In my last three columns I introduced the basics of the three major macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids.

Consider this:

  • The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  • The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  • The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  • The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  • The Germans drink a lot of beer; they eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.
  • CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English causes heart attacks!

There is much to know and understand about healthy eating — so much to know and understand that eating to health yourself can be an overwhelming ordeal. Much of the nutritional research over the last 25 years only adds to the confusion. For example, depending on what you read, an avocado can be either a super food to be embraced or a high-fat food to be avoided.

Why has eating become so complicated?

At least since the 1980s several groups have contributed to the confusion on what’s best to eat. These include Big Food (the food industry), government regulators, food journalists, and even nutritional scientists.

We began to change eating behaviors in our quest to decrease food-linked chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and obesity and diabetes, not to mention such food-related disorders as allergies, intestinal disorders, and mood and performance-related issues.

As scientists began to report links between food ingredients and disease, a few things happened. Regulators began requiring packaged foods to include a label listing all ingredients. Big Food began marketing and selling “the ingredients.” And we started buying and eating those ingredients instead of real food!

Before long, packaged food took its place at the center of the food universe. Journalists began reporting the latest research findings on obscure ingredients without placing those ingredients in the context of healthy eating. Shopping evolved into a quest for the ingredients we thought we needed to optimize health. New foods produced by unique combinations of ingredients began to appear on supermarket shelves, accompanied by aggressive ad campaigns touting their purported benefits.

A recent rollout of new packaged items parading as food includes the following. I promise, I’m not making this up.

Co-opting of food with ingredients is just what Big Food likes, and they have no vested interest in changing the situation. In fact, Big Food will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo – and will push the envelope to convince us we should be eating ingredients, particularly the ingredients they sell, and not real food, even at the cost of our collective public and financial health.

The standard American diet (appropriately referred to as S.A.D.) now has us shopping for ingredients, disguised as food, at gas stations with no mechanics, pharmacies with no pharmacists, and all-night food marts with no food, only packaged ingredients.

What to eat?

Think about it. Most of us rarely plan what we eat on a daily basis. We seldom count calories or think about how many grams of protein or fat we consume, or whether we even drink enough liquid. We are creatures of habit. Every day, we eat nearly the same foods, the ones that were introduced by our caregivers at a very early age.

The average American eats only about 20 or so different foods – we have a very limited palate – with most of what we eat divided into breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods. (Cereal is a breakfast food, except in college, bacon is a breakfast/lunch food, pork chops and lasagna are dinner foods, etc.)

What not to eat? One should reduce or limit the following:

  • Beverages: Alcoholic drinks, energy drinks, flavored milk/milkshakes, fruit juices, powdered drinks, all soft drinks
  • Dairy products: Yogurt-type products with ≥10g sugar per 100g yogurt
  • All fried foods: Enough said
  • Meats: Luncheon meats, sausages, and other processed meats
  • Snacks: Corn chips, high-fat crackers (≥ 10g fat per 100g), popcorn with butter or oil
  • Cereals: Any breakfast cereal with ≥15g sugar per 100g cereal
  • Fats: Butter, lard, dripping or similar hard fat (used as a spread or in baking/cooking etc.), coconut cream, cream, mayonnaise, sour cream
  • Fruit in syrup (even “lite” syrup) and fruit roll-ups
  • Pastries, pies, and quiches
  • Sugars/sweets:  Chocolates, jams, syrups (i.e., maple syrup), and any foods with added sugar, including drinks

When we do change what we eat it’s usually for the short term after the fact – when we finally admit we are too fat, too tired, too sick, or we are underperforming at home, at work, or in the bedroom. At that point we turn to the tabloids for the latest celebrity diet. We check the bookstore for this week’s best-seller. Many of us search the Internet for “the best diet on the planet.”

Thinking about food choices

Food has two main purposes: To eat to live (to nourish your body with required nutrients), and to live to eat (to provide joy and pleasure).

Nourishing your body and experiencing joy and pleasure are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, ask any person who enjoys healthy eating and they will tell you how much they enjoy eating. For the most part, healthy eaters share three common traits:

  1. They eat a variety of different whole foods that are nutrient-rich (dense) relative to their caloric value. These foods (mostly from the plant world) contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals, and other essential nutrients.
  2. They eat a minimum of processed, packaged foods that are calorie-rich but nutritionally deficient. This is not simply avoiding high-calorie foods, but avoiding or minimizing foods that are usually high in calories and either devoid of nutritional benefits or easily replaced with lower calorie, more nutritious alternatives. See the box on the right for a sampling of calorie-dense, nutrient-deficient foods. Reducing or eliminating intake of these foods can markedly improve your diet.
  3.  They practice moderation. Healthy eaters know when to push away from the table. They develop coping skills to avoid overeating. They listen to their bodies.

Break it down

The image below shows the “Healthy Eating Plate,” devised by nutritional scientists from Harvard (aka “the Michigan of the East”), depicting a scientifically defensible eating guide that is relatively easy to master. Emphasis is on choosing real, whole foods to supply all of our nutrient needs.

Healthy eating plate diagram

Taking action

Highlights of this healthy eating guide include the following:

  1. Ensure that 50 percent of your plate consists of vegetables and fruits. Include as much color and variety as possible. Potatoes don’t count as vegetables because of their high glycemic index. (See “You’re sweet enough already.”)
  2. Fill 25 percent of your plate with whole grains. Examples include whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats, and brown rice.
  3. Fill 25 percent of your plate with high-quality protein. This can include fish, chicken, beans, and nuts. Limit red meat and avoid processed meats, such as bacon and sausage. Remember, you can get all of the protein your body requires from a whole-food, plant-based diet.
  4. Consume healthy plant-based oils. Examples include olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, and peanut oil in moderation. Avoid partially hydrogenated oils that contain unhealthy trans fats.
  5. Drink water, coffee, or tea. Skip sugary drinks, including sodas, juices, and specialty drinks like sports drinks. Limit milk and dairy products to one or two servings per day.
  6. Stay active. The red figure running across the Healthy Eating Plate’s placemat is a reminder that staying active is also important in weight control.
  7. And repeat after me: Eat real food, not ingredients, to health yourself.


Victor Katch

Victor Katch

VICTOR KATCH has been active in the exercise, nutrition, and weight control arena for more than 40 years at the University of Michigan. He earned his undergraduate degrees in international relations (political science) and physical education (kinesiology) from California State University at Northridge. He also did undergraduate work in international relations at the prestigious University of Uppsala in Sweden. Katch's graduate degrees are from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a professor in movement science in the School of Kinesiology. He has three children and five grandchildren, and is an avid exerciser who enjoys year-round walking and jogging with his wife, Heather, and playing golf whenever possible, weather permitting.