So much to digest
In my last three columns I introduced the basics of the three major macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids.
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.
- Doc’s Nutrilicious Inc. — Frozen Pizzas Infused with Fruits and Vegetables: This product uses dehydrated fresh fruits and vegetables blended into the pizza’s crust and sauce.
- Farm Rich Inc. — New Microwavable Snacks: The Buffalo Blue Breaded variety is made with real cheese and spicy buffalo wing sauce, paired with blue cheese dip and celery sticks. The Pretzel Crusted Cheddar offering combines real cheddar cheese with a crispy pretzel coating.
- Hormel Inc. — Compleats Good Mornings Shelf-Stable Meals: The new heat-and-eat breakfast options come in four varieties: Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal, Bacon Breakfast Scramble, Sausage Breakfast Scramble, and Sausage Gravy & Roasted Potatoes.
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.
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.)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Highlights of this healthy eating guide include the following:
- 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.”)
- Fill 25 percent of your plate with whole grains. Examples include whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats, and brown rice.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- And repeat after me: Eat real food, not ingredients, to health yourself.
- Brownell K.D. “The humbling experience of treating obesity: Should we persist or desist?” Behav Res Ther. 2010;48:717-719.
- Elmslie, J.L., Sellman, J.D., Schorder, R.N., Carter, F.A. “The Neednt Food List: Non-essential, energy-dense, nutritionally-
deficient foods.” New Zealand Medical Journal; 125) 1350:834, 2012.
- McArdle, W.D. et al. Sports and Exercise Nutrition. Fourth Edition. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins Publ. 2013.
- McGill, A.T. “Malnutritive obesity (‘malnubesity’): Is it driven by human brain evolution?” Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2008 Dec; 6(4):241-6.
- Nutritionfacts.org, “Do vegetarians get enough protein?”
- The Nuturition Source, Harvard School of Public Health
- Sacks, G., et. al. “‘Traffic-light’ nutrition labeling and ‘junk-food’ tax: A modeled comparison of cost-effectiveness for obesity prevention.” Int J Obes (Lond). doi:10.1038/ijo.2010.228.