The Truth About “Health” Foods

The more I read about the food industry, the more I am blown away by the way Americans eat. We are told one day that in order to live long healthy lives we should eat a diet low in fat and high in whole grains while the next day a book comes out touting the merits of a high fat, high protein, low carb lifestyle. Who is right? What is the truth?

One of my favorite authors on the subject of food and nutrition science is Michael Pollan. In his book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” he states: “If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

Take a look around you – my guess is someone you are sitting near is drinking a diet coke, someone else is mindlessly snacking on a bag of sugar free cookies while yet another is eating low-fat string cheese. Each one of these people consciously chose their respective snack because someone, at some point, told them it was ‘healthy’ or at least ‘healthier’ than an alternative treat.

I am baffled by this; how did this happen? Who started the myth that sugar free and low-fat foods are good for us? Although we may never understand how we got here, we do have the knowledge and the power to make a change. I want to spend the next few minutes discussing how you can make some subtle changes in your diet that will yield long term and impactful results not only to your waistline but most importantly, to your health.

First and foremost, contrary to what most people think, eating healthily is really not all that challenging – just go back to the basics.  We all know that a diet balanced with organic fruits and vegetables, responsibly raised and sustainable lean meats, and seafood never killed anyone. Where eating healthy gets dicey is when we need it to be fast and convenient. If we all had the luxury of time and money or a strong desire to cook, eating healthy would be a breeze. Unfortunately though, most of us burn the candle at both ends and want our food to be fast, delicious, and not empty the wallet. The challenge lies in striking the balance between spending all of your free time in the kitchen preparing meals for the week and reaching for those “healthy” snacks that come in a package, could sit on a shelf for months without going bad, and contain a string of ingredients (in many cases, chemicals) not understandable to the average consumer.

Going back to Michael Pollan’s argument, let’s dive a little deeper into self-proclaimed “health foods.” According to him, if the product says it’s healthy, it’s actually probably not. The more I thought about his argument, the more it made sense to me. Just take a look at any number of the items on the shelf that claim ‘extra fiber, high-protein, reduced sugar, gluten-free” – do you recognize all of the listed ingredients as actual foods? Or as Michael says, are they “food like substances?” I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite sure what soy lecithin is; it certainly doesn’t sound natural!

When I first started working towards a healthier and more active lifestyle, I too fell prey to these myths about food. I packed my lunch with low-fat cottage cheese, processed deli-meats, protein bars, and sugar-free snacks. I had no idea the food I was eating was not actually making me healthier but in fact was full of chemicals and preservatives. However, I happen to have a very strong interest in health, fitness, and food so I started doing my research. And with each new study and article I read, the more and more I was convinced that the food that is so readily available to us, and for cheap, isn’t really food at all.

I get it though, not everyone wants to comb through blogs and books about the optimal diet. The good news is you don’t have to.  Below are a few simple guidelines that I have instituted into my daily life for eating healthily and hopefully, you will be able to do the same:

  • Try to eat most of your meals containing foods that have a natural shelf life (i.e. eggs, organic produce, lean meats). The easiest way to accomplish this is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The perimeter generally contains food that tend to go bad within 7-10 days so it ensures you are eating as freshly as possible!
  • When grocery shopping or eating out, choose the item(s) that are presented in their truest form – avoid “low-fat, reduced sugar, etc.) – generally speaking, when one part of a food is taken out, it’s replaced with something else that can often times be worse for our health.
  • Whenever possible, carry extra snacks with you (i.e. almonds, apple slices, jerky) – most convenience foods available to us on short notice are filled with junk we do not want in our bodies.
  • Try and choose foods that have less than 5 ingredients; the fewer ingredients, the better your chances that the food is actually food and not genetically engineered materials full of additives and preservatives.
  • Beware of foods that make health claims. Not all “health foods” are bad, but this is a good general rule that will cause you to check the ingredients before naively believing the claim on the package.

It sounds overly simplistic, but it really is true – eating healthily isn’t all that complicated. Just ask yourself next time you order a meal or do your weekly grocery shopping: “Is this food?” Or is this a “food like substance?”