You know the feeling: You're standing in the grocery store, eying a selection of cereal, snacks or frozen foods and wondering which ones to buy. Should you choose the cereal with "35% less sugar!" or the chips made with coconut oil instead of vegetable oil? Is the "light" meal better than the others surrounding it in the freezer case? Should you even be eating any of these things on the restrictive fad diet plan you're trying to follow?
Believe it or not, eating healthy really is straightforward. It's only in the recent past that the simplicity of eating has become obfuscated by the insane amount of choices the food industry puts before us every day. Just a few generations ago, planning meals and snacks didn't involve wading your way through a dizzying selection of processed food-like products. Food, for the most part, was recognizable, and it wasn't necessary to have a degree in food science to understand what you were putting in your body.
Making healthy choices in today's over-saturated food environment can be more than a little baffling. Food companies make wild claims apparently backed up by science, the media takes nutrition studies out of context and a host of dubious "authorities" fill the remaining space with conflicting opinions on every type of diet known to man. It's no wonder people have a hard time knowing what to eat.When you walk down store aisles stuffed with stuff and feel confused beyond belief, you're not alone. Many people make several common mistakes when trying to sort out what's healthy and what's not.
The health benefits emblazoned on food packages are there because food companies want consumers to buy their products, not necessarily because the product is good for you. Chances are you've seen most of these labels as you shop:
Many of these labels are exaggerated or downright misleading. A product claiming to have no trans fat can have as much as half a gram per serving and still list zero on the package. The term "natural" has no official definition, and using organic ingredients can't turn a highly processed product into a health food. The synthetic vitamins and minerals added to processed foods are often synthesized in factories overseas from products such as lanolin and likely don't have the same benefits as nutrients found in the original context.
Have you ever noticed food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes rarely carry these sorts of labels? These foods contain nutrients packaged together with other compounds, many with functions yet to be documented, which are designed to work together in our bodies to deliver essential nutrition on a cellular level. There's no need to add anything or make any claims because the health benefits you experience from eating unadulterated foods speak for themselves.
Note: The oil debate is ongoing in the plant-based space. For an updated perspective, see my interviews with Simon Hill and Ginny Messina, as well as my ebook, The Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Starter Guide.
Olive oil and coconut oil have enjoyed an almost mystical status, being touted as "healthy" additions to any diet. Although these two oils are technically better for you than the highly processed vegetable oils used in most restaurants and packaged foods, no oil can be rightly categorized as healthy. Repeated consumption of oily foods causes stiffening of the arterial walls, making it difficult for blood to flow as it should and increasing your risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Since this is the case, why do you hear so much about the benefits of switching to olive, coconut or another "healthier" oil? Any move away from processed vegetable oils, which are usually made from soy or canola using a chemical-laden process resulting in the extraction or destruction of nearly all nutrients, is likely to show some improvement.
The high levels of omega-6 fats in processed oils cause inflammation. When combined with oil's artery-stiffening effects, this can promote the formation of plaques in your blood vessels and potentially leading to heart attacks or strokes. Coconut oil doesn't trigger inflammation, so people who make the switch after years of slamming their circulatory systems with heavily processed oils will probably feel better, at least at first. The anti-inflammatory polyphenols in olive oil may provide a similar effect.With that said, more research is necessary to determine if consuming small amounts of oil on occasion as part of a diet otherwise made up of unprocessed plant foods has similar harmful effects in the long term.
This doesn't mean some oils have superpowers or can magically turn a bad diet into a good one. Oil usually contains between 120 and 130 calories per tablespoon, which adds up fast, especially if you're eating foods containing the stuff at every meal. These calories can be better obtained from unprocessed foods, including the whole fats found in nuts, seeds and avocados. Whole foods also contain anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which can help to combat inflammation instead of causing it.What can you eat for the same amount of calories found in a tablespoon of oil? Here's just a small sample:
Remember the Snackwells craze when consumers snapped up and scarfed down more low-fat cookies and snack cakes than stores could keep on the shelves? The thought at the time was, if the label said low fat, the treats were automatically healthier. Unfortunately, people wound up eating more calories -- and more processed food-like substances -- than they would if they'd stuck with the originals.The same confusion prevails today in fad diets (see point #4 below) and fad foods like "100-calorie" snack packs and "lean" frozen meals. Restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon with "lighter" menu items for health-conscious diners. To understand why these labels don't mean you're getting a more nutritious product, take a look at what's really in a few mainstream options masquerading as healthy choices:
And those snack packs? They may have only 100 calories, but most of these come from processed flour, sugar and oil. (One exception is these 100-calorie roasted edamame packs from Seapoint Farms.) Fortunately, as noted above, there are plenty of low-calorie, nutrient-dense "grab and go" options available right from nature.
Low-carb. Low-fat. High-protein. All these popular diets have one thing in common: they demonize one macronutrient while singing the praises of the others. Such an approach ignores the health benefits that may be gained from whole foods in the "forbidden" group. High-carb diets are prime examples of this mentality. These diets lump all types of carbohydrates together, creating confusion over the difference between processed and whole grains and making vegetables and fruits seem like dietary enemies.
The problem with this approach? Nearly all food is composed of more than one type of macronutrient. Beans have protein, but they also contain complex carbohydrates. Nuts provide both beneficial fats and protein. Even green leafy vegetables deliver trace amounts of fat. Diets advocating severe restriction of an entire macronutrient category put you at risk for deficiencies in essential micronutrients and often perpetuate false information about why such a diet is healthier than others. Pay attention to the rhetoric, and you'll often discover proponents of these diets make their claims seem like something new and revolutionary, a stunning "expose" proving something you always thought was good for you has actually been killing you slowly your whole life. After convincing you of the error of your ways, they'll probably try to sell you something.
While certain medical conditions may require specialized restricted diets, healthy people should aim to consume foods containing all three "macros" every day. Choosing whole plant foods the majority of the time and eating a variety of different types of food should deliver the right balance of major nutrients.
Thanks to "low carb" diet fads and the persistent idea that consuming sugar causes diabetes (fat has a lot more to do with it), there's a great deal of confusion about the difference between naturally occurring sugar and sugar added to products. The biggest offender? Fructose, the same sugar found in both high fructose corn syrup and fruit.
It's become common to question whether fruit's concentration of fructose makes it unhealthy. The demonizing of sugar in all its forms makes it easy to become wary of a food that's been a staple of our diets since God placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. However, putting products like soda in the same category as whole, unprocessed fruits ignores a much bigger picture.
In terms of context, the fructose added to beverages and packaged foods bears about as much resemblance to fruit's fructose as bleached white flour does to whole wheat berries. As this article on Whole 9 points, out, "fruit isn’t just fructose. It’s also a rich source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber – things that make you healthier."
Because fruit's sugars come in a package containing all these other compounds, blood sugar doesn't rise as quickly. In fact, one study showed adding berries to a sugary meal can actually prevent the expected "sugar high," in which the body releases large amounts of insulin in response to an onslaught of undiluted sugar. You're also much less likely to over-consume fruit than soda or sweetened processed snacks. It takes a lot more effort to crunch your way through an apple than it does to polish off a bottle of your favorite brand of sugar water.So what's the best way to make truly healthy food choices?
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the white noise in the world of nutrition and the constant battles between proponents of conflicting dietary dogmas. But when you stick with the basics and eat a variety of unprocessed plant-based foods, it's easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle -- and enjoy delicious meals every day.