by Michael Lohre, MS
Contrasting advice on what constitutes healthy eating
It is my perspective that an aura of confusion exists amongst dieters, the media, and even health care professionals as to what constitutes a healthy diet. It seems a daily occurrence that I run across information touting the health benefits of a certain food only to turn around and see another source warning of its toxicity. A contemporary example of this is whole grains. The US government issued food pyramid advises whole grains as the foundation of a healthy diet and suggests 11 servings a day. (1) (2) Integral to most whole grains, including wheat, barley and rye, is the protein gluten. (3) Recently, a gluten-free movement, exemplified by the Paleolithic diet, is quickly gaining popularity. Many advocates of this gluten-free movement suggest ubiquitous wheat consumption is extremely unhealthy and is at least partly responsible for many of the health concerns that currently plague our nation. (4)
How does one explain contracting viewpoints when both positions are presented logically and provide supporting research?
My goal for this post is to generate thoughts and discussion on healthy eating. I present several observations regarding inconsistencies in recommendations for healthy eating and questions I have formulated to explore the reasons for these inconsistencies. With these questions I encourage the reader to consider the current healthy eating paradigm in a philosophical context. It is my hope to explore answers to these questions with future posts and am relying on your thoughts and feedback to set a framework for these discussions.
Shifts in national dietary patterns and the super food villain
I’m old enough now to remember countless shifts on public opinion on a great array of topics. From cigarettes (there was a smoking lounge at my high school for students) to gay and race issues to humor (watch any number of early eighties sitcoms and you soon realize that sexual harassment used to be funny) to what constitutes healthy eating, “healthy” is in constant flux. A classic example of this shift in opinion is with sugar. About 20 years ago there was a great movement against sugar, specifically sucrose (table sugar). At this time, fructose sweeteners were being touted as a healthier alternative to sucrose due to their lower glycemic indexes. As a result, manufacturers quickly ditched the sucrose and started using the “healthier” high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Public sentiment has changed, again, and we are now more comfortable with evaporated cane juice (sucrose or sugar) than HFCS. Does anyone remember the push for artificial sweeteners?
Another example of a shift: For an entire decade, we were constantly reminded to avoid fat like the plague. The following decade, the war on fat ended only to be replaced by the war on carbohydrates. My prediction? The next food war will be against protein.
How do you explain these massive shifts in public sentiment? Furthermore, does the labeling of foods as either healthy super foods or villains/junk food, create confusion by turning dietary choices into a black and white decision?
On occasion when I read an article or listen to someone advocating a particular dietary practice, I feel as if I am listening to a sermon. With religious fervor, I am preached at about the qualities of certain foods while emphatically educated about the dangers of others. It seems unavoidable that to eat anything at all we must choose to accept some information while rejecting others. It is in this pattern that many decide what constitutes a healthy diet and are forced to choose a diet based on “faith”. As a result, we put our trust in a particular organization, such as the government and the food pyramid, or a diet strategy such as Paleolithic, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, etc and accept their philosophy and recommendations while ignoring contradicting viewpoints.
Could this faith-based acceptance of healthy eating be detrimental to our understanding of nutrition?
The Search for the Unequivocal Health Food
Below is a small list of foods that I would personally consider “healthy”. As an experiment, I did a quick internet search for a coherent argument against consuming these foods. I quickly found information that warned against the eating, or over eating, of all my food items.
Spinach: A frequent source of microbial contamination spinach is often the culprit of E. coli outbreaks. Furthermore, spinach contains Oxalic Acid, a toxic substance, which is the major component of kidney stones and interferes with the absorption of calcium and other minerals. (5)
Fruits: Full of sugar (fructose), some claim fruit consumption causes premature aging, low energy, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes and even cancer. (6)
Bison: Independent of fat content or cholesterol, all red meat contains L-carnitine, an amino acid that increases cardiovascular risk and promotes atherosclerosis.
Salmon: Contains chemical contaminants that are known to cause cancer, memory impairment and neurobehavioral changes in children (higher levels are present in farm raised compared to wild salmon). (7)
Almonds: High in fat calories and contain anti-nutrients and lectins. (8)
Avocado: Loaded with calories and fat (9) which, if overeaten may make you fat.
Do any foods remain that everyone can agree on as being healthy? If so, is an unequivocally healthy diet reduced to eating only a handful of low-calorie food items?
If you read this and it got you thinking, please leave a comment. Here are a couple of extra questions to get a discussion brewing:
- Have you noticed any trends in diet that have shifted with new “knowledge” and public opinion?
- Have you noticed the religious nature of diet movements and if so, why does this occur?
- Are you a devoted follower of a specific diet movement that you feel passionate about and if so, why?
- What do you think about super foods or super villain foods? Do they exist?
- How do you justify eating certain foods that you have been warned against eating due to health risks? Examples of such foods: meat, wheat, dairy, sugars, alcohol, etc.