Is this food healthy?
Before the pandemic, I ordered a latte from a local barista. In our exchange, the barista mentioned I might like to try it with coconut milk, because it’s “healthier than cow’s milk.” Whether it’s a blessing or a curse I haven’t decided, but statements like these catch my attention. Where does this claim come from? Is it true? What is the evidence that supports this claim?
With all of us basically trapped at home these days because of COVID-19 and social distancing, many of us have much more time to spend online. Of course we want to stay healthy, even though the world seems like it got turned upside down, so seeking nutrition advice is common. And in the online world, there is no shortage of nutrition claims! But alas, online there is a great shortage of evidence.
Let’s discuss what comprises good nutrition, emphasizing a few concepts that you will hopefully find useful.
The hero’s body
Last week I wrote about how The World Needs You to Be a Hero. I believe you were created with certain gifts and for a purpose, and that having good health will let you live at your best.
If you’re going to be the hero in your own life, healthy eating is one of the ways you can prepare your body for this task. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 3 years reviewing nutrition science and nutrition claims. I still come back to 5 rules that every healthy eating plan follows:
- Focus on plants. Plenty of vegetables and fruits. Think 6-8+ servings per day.
- Avoid/limit added sugars. Less than 37 g per day.
- Avoid/limit sugar sweetened beverages. Goal is none.
- Avoid/limit refined carbohydrates. Whole grains are okay.
- Avoid/limit highly processed foods. Think anything with more than 5 ingredients or that looks like it was made in a factory.
The Mediterranean diet, Paleo diet, Blue Zones diet, Whole-food plant-based diet, and many others will follow these rules. You can also modify any of these approaches or find your own style and still adhere to these rules.
Your nutrition is a system
What is clear from nutrition science is that one food, either “good” or “bad,” is not going to make or break your health. I’m not counting poisonous mushrooms – those are bad for the hero’s body
Your body thrives with adequate nutrients – macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbohydrate and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Consuming sufficient fiber helps support gut health and reduces risk of heart disease and diabetes. In addition, there are components such as omega-3 fatty acids or small molecules like flavenoids, polyphenols, stilbenoids (which have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects) that help your body to run at its best. These are most often found in vegetables, fruits, and spices.
Unless you are allergic to a specific food or have a condition like celiac disease that requires dietary changes, foods like whole wheat, dairy, and soy can be part of a healthy diet if you choose to include them.
There are other molecules in our food supply that impair the proper function of your body. Artificial stabilizers and preservatives, nitrates, hormones and antibiotics used when raising farm animals, and products with added sugars or high sodium are examples. Avoiding highly-processed foods is a simple step to help keep such chemicals out of your system.
Your nutrition is really a system, the sum of all its parts. If you give your body what it needs to run well, and you limit those things that make it run poorly, you’ll be on the right track!
Here are three tips you can use to help improve the quality of your diet:
- Eat more of the good stuff. Trying to eat well can easily turn into a list of rules – don’t eat this, don’t eat that. Try focusing on things you want to eat more of – in my experience many people should focus on increasing vegetables and fruits. Shop the outside of the grocery store. Eat more things that have 1 ingredient. Try produce with many different colors.
- Eat less of the bad stuff. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect! Nudge your diet in the direction you want it to go. Small changes add up over time. Perhaps pick one food, for example potato chips, that you would like to reduce or eliminate and work on it for a week or two. Find healthy alternatives, and remove the tempting food from your home environment. If I were to have you pick one thing to focus on to start, it would be to reduce either added sugar or highly-processed foods.
- Don’t rely on supplements for your nutrients. In general, studies suggest that getting your nutrients from real food, as opposed to in supplements, provides greater benefit. With the exception of vitamin D, vitamin B12 for vegans, and perhaps omega-3 fatty acids, there is simply not good evidence that consuming single molecules in concentrated amounts helps us live longer or healthier. You’ll be better saving that money to buy high-quality food.
Now is the perfect time to get started improving your diet! There’s never going to be a better day than today.
Dr. Topher Fox
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