Food advice seems to change drastically every few years. Fat was bad. It was good. No, it was a little bit bad, but that was only the saturated fat. Next, we heard that saturated fats were OK, Dr. Atkins said so. Lately, people are starting to pick on olive oil—the veritable saint of fats and foundation of the mighty Mediterranean Diet.
That's just one category of confusion. But some diet and food advice should be pretty clear.
For instance, suppose I tell you that you should try this for breakfast... take 1 ½ cups of oatmeal. Now top that with a cup of sugar. Some of it can be brown sugar.
You're thinking I'm crazy, right?
How about if I tell you to add a half cup of cup of chocolate chips?
Still not convinced this is health food? OK, then, throw in a half cup of creamy sugar-sweetened peanut butter.
Don't look at me like that. I got this recipe from a famous national newspaper article on cookies that are secretly nutritious. Although it also included some spices and a bit of flour, even the power of oatmeal has its limitations as a health food. An equal volume of sugar and chocolate chips are definitely over the limit.
Sometimes food trends are more fickle than Parisian fashion. It can be hard to know what to do, even when we don't have newspapers telling us chocolate chips and sugar are health foods. Take potatoes.
Harvard Health has proof from 50,000 nurses that potatoes are two of the top seven most fast-causing foods implicated in weight gains over a lifetime. They appear on the list once as chips, and once as just “potatoes,” which includes French fries. Even butter and dessert didn't get credit for packing on so many pounds.
And yet there is the little matter of satiety. Potatoes are exceptionally good at making people feel full. Much better than pasta or rice, so we are apt to eat less of them.
Potatoes that have been boiled and chilled are also a source of resistant starch. Meaning they resist digestion in the stomach. Thus, they do not cause blood glucose or insulin spikes and they tend to feed the good bacteria in your digestive system rather than the bad ones.
Potatoes have highly respectable amounts of fiber and vitamins as well. One potato offers half your daily B6 requirement and 45% of the recommended Vitamin C, along with 5 times as much calcium as rice.
There are lots of reasons why dietary advice is so changeable and hard to follow. The main one is the history of the US Department of Agriculture. Unrealized by many, it's not a health agency. Its mission is to help farmers, and that means helping them sell product.
So the USDA continues to recommend 2-3 servings of dairy products per day, despite the fact that 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant!
USDA might be a good source for information on canning and preserving food, but for dietary advice, well we are reminded of those cute little Chik-fil-A cows that advise you to Eat Mor Chikin. Vested interest, much?
Ultimately, the best answer to the question, “what's healthy” may come from the new field of nutritional genomics. Some companies are already offering to test your blood to find out what your genes say you should be eating. But the science is complicated.
Very few of our food reactions are a matter of one gene causing one particular kind of reaction. There are some 150 genes that are related to the development of Type 2 diabetes and 300 that are related to obesity, according to Jose Ordovas, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at Tufts University. Taking a cheek swab or blood sample to a geneticist for a personalized diet will one day be a valuable tool. But for now, there are more unknowns than knowns.
With the field in such disarray, what do you do?
You should probably lean on your own instincts. You know without consulting a dietician that a cup of oatmeal mixed with more than a cup of sugar and topped with chocolate chips is not health food.
Obviously, if milk makes you sick, then the USDA is wrong.
There are very few real rules about eating that seem to hold up. Unfortunately, the link between bologna, bacon, fatty red meat and cancer looks like a keeper. So set some limits on those. Eat more vegetables, have more fruit for dessert.
No, we don't mean Fruit Loops and jelly beans.
And even though the idea comes from the USDA, the best advice might be something close to the MyPlate design, a little more than half your food coming from fruits and vegetables, less than a fourth from protein, and slightly more than a fourth from grains.
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