Editor's note: This article was written in response to Cameron English's piece entitled, "5 Healthy Eating Myths." Excerpts from Cameron's story appear below, followed by Jessie Nagin's response.
1. Fast food is unhealthy.
Cameron English (CE): "But the truth is that there is nothing particularly unhealthy about fast food. Hamburgers, french fries, and soda are widely available today. And whether they're purchased from McDonald's or the local grocery store, those foods are bad for you. The key ... is making good choices when you eat out."
Jessie Nagin (JN): There IS something inherently unhealthy about fast food. It is highly processed and typically contains a much higher content of sodium and saturated fat, as well as additives/fillers. You can cook the same burger and fries at home in a healthier way using fresh local foods – such as lean ground beef and spices, whole wheat bun, veggies, baked (sweet potato) fries.
However, I agree that not all fast food is unhealthy – you can make healthier choices when on-the-go. Fast food chains now offer items like fruit salad, oatmeal, green salad. Look at the nutrition facts posted and choose the items lowest in saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Most rest stops/airports have snack items such as whole fruit, Kind bars, unsalted nuts. Choose chains that are more health and environmentally conscious. For instance, Chipotle promotes a focus on finding sustainable farmers, local/organic produce, meat/dairy without antibiotics/hormones (whenever possible); Shake Shack serves burgers made without hormones/antibiotics, fries cooked without trans fat, and frozen custard made from milk without artificial growth hormones.
2. Diet soda causes weight gain.
CE: "Diet soda is a clever invention. It's calorie-free and tastes pretty good compared to the regular version. Nonetheless, scary stories about the drink's effects on weight gain are easy to find online. But there's no reason to think drinking diet soda causes weight gain, because "... the science just isn’t there to back it up.”
JN: This is clearly a controversial topic and the research is mixed. Proponents of diet soda maintain that it can help promote weight loss/management if individuals replace caloric beverages with their calorie-free counterparts. However, research has also demonstrated that diet soda can lead to weight gain. Proposed explanations include: the sweet taste of diet soda can inspire cravings for additional sweet items; the consumption of something sweet tricks the brain into thinking that energy (calories) were consumed – however, it is suggested that this can inspire later hunger/consumption once the body realizes there was no energy consumption as it is not satiated by the calorie free soda.
Over last 30 years, increasing rates of obesity have coincided with increased consumption of non-caloric sweeteners. Many diet sodas contain food coloring, chemicals, artificial ingredients – it is not just about weight change. Water, or seltzer, is the preferred natural, calorie-free beverage choice. For a soda replacement, try flavoring water or seltzer with slices of fresh fruit – such as lemon, orange, honeydew, strawberries – or even cucumber!
3. "Insert your favorite bad food here” is the problem.
CE: "Whether soda, ice cream, or some other regularly demonized food, healthy eating is about more than removing a certain food from your diet. The overall composition of a diet is what's important. You may skip your regular starbucks drink or that appetizer before dinner in an attempt to be health conscious, but if you replace the sugar, carbs, and calories with some other equally terrible food or beverage at a different point in the day, you're no better off."
JN: I agree as far as the big picture: The effect of our diet on our health is the accumulation of our average dietary intake. However, while our nutrient status is represented by our average intake, if individuals are struggling to lose weight and have certain trigger foods that inspire overindulgence, it may be helpful for those individuals to not keep those foods easily accessible in their homes/offices/environments. Total deprivation is not the point – no food item has to be entirely off-limits, it just may be easier for an individual to avoid storing tempting foods in one’s environment, and instead, occasionally indulging in those foods when out.
4. Saturated fat will kill you.
CE: "For most of history, saturated fat has been primary part of the human diet, and for most of that time nobody thought it was unhealthy. But beginning in the 20th century, some researchers began suggesting that saturated fat raises cholesterol, which in turn increases risk for heart disease."
JN: Saturated fat has been shown to raise levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”), contributing to plaque accumulation in the arteries. This increases one’s risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, etc.) – the leading cause of death in America.
Saturated fat is fat that is solid at room temperature, found mostly in animal products. Sources of saturated fat include:
- Red meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal)
- Poultry fat (chicken, turkey, duck)
- Processed meats (bacon, sausage, salami)
- Ice cream
- Whole milk
- Cocoa butter
- Coconut and coconut oil
- Palm oil and palm kernel oil
The American Heart Association recommends the following guidelines regarding fat consumption and a heart healthy diet for healthy Americans over age 2:
- 25-35% of total daily calories should come from fat – mostly from unsaturated sources.
- Limit saturated fat intake to less than 7% of total daily calories, limit trans fat to less than 1%– especially eliminate synthetic sources of trans fats such as partially hydrogenated oils.
- Replace saturated and trans fat in the diet with sources of unsaturated fat.
- Choose a diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, and high-fiber foods; select lean sources of protein such as beans, nuts, fish, tofu, egg whites, low-fat yogurt, lean poultry; choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
5. Whole grains are healthy.
CE: "Because they are a good source of glucose, which our bodies use for energy, most nutritionists recommend that we eat a lot of whole grains. But too much glucose from carbohydrates, even complex carbohydrates like whole grains, can have all sorts of repercussions, like metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, there is solid evidence which suggests that the human body prefers fat as a primary energy source."
JN: An average-sized adult requires a minimum of 130 g of carbohydrates per day (per the Dietary Reference Intakes) – just for baseline brain function. However, more than this minimum is recommended to maintain glycogen stores and promote health. If the brain does not receive adequate glucose, it is forced to breakdown body proteins to supply energy. This prevents protein from performing indispensable roles in the body, such: building antibodies for immune function, supporting tissue growth and maintenance, roles in transport, hormones, enzymes, etc. Carbohydrates are therefore referred to as having “protein-sparing” action – carbs enable protein to perform crucial activities in maintaining our bodies and health.
Whole grains are a source of: B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium and dietary fiber (they vary in their dietary fiber content). When a grain is refined, parts of the grain seed containing the vitamins, minerals and fiber (the bran and the germ), are stripped away during processing to yield whiter grains with more refined texture and longer shelf life. Refining a grain eliminates all the benefits —most of the fiber, unsaturated fats/oils, vitamins, minerals and some of the protein.
Whole grains also provide an excellent source of fiber. Per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, adequate intake for dietary fiber is 14 g per 1,000 calories consumed; it is recommended that the average female consume at least 25 grams of fiber daily and the average male at least 38 g per day – however, the average American adult typically consumes approximately half that (about 15 grams per day). Fiber aids in digestion, promotes regularity, and helps eliminate waste and toxins. Dietary fiber can help lower cholesterol by promoting the excretion of cholesterol from body. Fiber also helps us feel satiated and full and helps regulate blood glucose levels. Higher fiber foods tend to be higher in volume (and nutrients) but lower in calories, so they keep us feeling full for longer periods of time – a good tool for weight management. Dietary fiber from whole foods is thought to help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 Diabetes; certain research has suggested that increased dietary fiber intake is associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, at least half of our grains should be whole. Less than 5 percent of Americans consume the recommended amount of whole grains. Examples of whole-grains include: oatmeal, quinoa, brown or wild rice, whole wheat, popcorn, whole-grain barley, whole rye, buckwheat, bulgur, millet.