Saturday, March 11, 2017

Diet and Health: The Big Picture

After teaching an undergraduate public health nutrition course (i.e., not a course for aspiring dietitians) for a couple of years, I realize that there are a few points that are most important. The first is that healthy is a very squishy word and must be defined when used. In fact, at this very minute the FDA is taking public comments as they consider whether food companies can continue to use the word on their products and what exactly it would mean if they did (same for the word natural). I define healthy in the spirit of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Therefore, a healthy food would be high in nutrients that we need and do not get too much of (e.g., we need sodium/salt but we easily get plenty, so a food high is sodium is not considered healthy), and low in calories and things we need less of (e.g., solid fats and added sugars). So healthy foods are usually whole foods (i.e., produce, whole grains), lean proteins (e.g., some fish, legumes), certain oils (e.g., olive oil, omega 3, flaxseed) and some low fat dairy products. Unhealthy foods would be ones likely found in a box or bottle (e.g., sugar sweetened beverages) with high calories, high sodium (e.g., 10% or more of the daily value on a food label), and added sugar. Unhealthy would also include whole foods that were prepared in a way that adds excess calories, sugar or sodium, and cooking with healthy oils instead of adding a small portion (less than a tablespoon) of raw oil after preparing the food.

The remaining points are these:

  • Just because something is good for you (aka healthy) does not mean it is free of calories and that you can eat as much of it as you like.
  • Just because something is bad for you (aka unhealthy) doesn't mean you should NEVER eat it (with a few exceptions, e.g., raw fish or unpasteurized milk).
  • Calories matter no matter what you tell yourself and its important to have a general idea of how many you need and how many are in the foods and beverages (including alcohol) that you consume. On that note, the national calorie disclosure law for restaurant chains and vending companies has NOT BEEN REPEALED and is due to take effect in May.

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