The Facts About Healthy Eating
What do we really know about healthy eating? What are the facts about eating healthy foods, versus the myths? I'm a health writer. For over a decade, I've read countless books about food and nutrition. I subscribe to all the journals about health and eating. I've interviewed experts in diet and I know my A from my Zinc. Yet I still find it hard to sort through the myths and facts about healthy eating.
Much of what passes for knowledge in the media is really marketing hype. You'd be amazed at how many "super foods" are nothing of the kind. Their super status is nothing more than a cleverly disguised marketing campaign by an MLM (multi level) marketing company or a manufacturer of supplements.
First, let's explore what is really the truth behind healthy eating. Then, let's talk about how to eat healthy on a budget. Lastly, I'll give you some pointers for evaluating what you read and hear about food and nutrition so that you can make up your own mind about what's healthy for you.
What do we really know about healthy eating? When you cut through all the junk that's out there, it's pretty simple. Here are the basic facts about healthy eating:
- The human body evolved to eat a variety of foods.
- We need fats, protein, carbohydrates and water to survive.
- Our bodies are very adaptable and can survive on many diets, although probably not thrive on them.
- From the Harvard Nurses Health Study to large population studies of longevity and health, the best diet for people appears to be plant-based, that is, heavily based on fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
- Refined sugar is known to cause health problems, particularly obesity and tooth decay, but is also linked to everything from hypertension to diabetes.
And that's about it. The rest of what passes for nutrition science is speculation or splitting hairs.
The RDA or Recommended Daily Allowance
You may wonder about the RDA of foods, such as the RDA shown on food labels or vitamin jars. Most people think it's the maximum amount of any vitamin or substance they should get. In fact, it's usually the MINIMUM for good health. That does not mean you should pop pills. Just know for example that an RDA for vitamin C means the amount you need to prevent diseases such as scurvy, but not necessarily what's the best for human health. The jury is still out on that one.
Eating Healthy on a Budget
We all want to eat healthy meals, right? But so much gets in the way! There's not enough time, we tell ourselves, or it's too expensive. Wrong. You can eat very cheap meals that are healthy. And you don't need to slave over a hot stove for hours, either.
- Buy foods on sale, and cook meals according to what you have in the pantry. Stock up on staple items you know your family likes when they are on sale.
- Shop with a list.
- Plan meals for the week, especially dinner.
- Limit dining out or fast food to treat status. As in, once a year or on birthdays only.
- Eat dessert sparingly. It's not good for you. Dessert used to be a treat reserved for holidays and Sundays in olden times. Since when do we "need" a cookie a day?
- Choose frozen vegetables over canned.
- Buy only enough fresh food for the week, such as fruit or vegetables - if it goes bad, it's a waste.
- Cheap cuts of meat, such as chicken thighs, can be cooked in a Crock Pot or slow cooker and taste like gourmet food.
- Avoid packaged meals, frozen meals, and boxed side dishes. Not only are they expensive but they're full of additives, preservatives, sugar and salt.
For those who are feeling adventurous, growing a simple garden is a great way to grow organic, fresh vegetables. You can start small with pots of tomatoes and peppers on the deck or a small pot of lettuce.
How to Decide for Yourself: Evaluating Evidence
People believe much of what they hear in the news, a fact which companies exploit to promote various products. For example, the evening news may announce that "pomegranate juice prevents heart attacks." Such a headline is ridiculous in and of itself. No one food can prevent a heart attack. Heart attacks can be caused by many factors, and a food cannot influence every factor. Nor is it possible for a research study to take into account all aspects that influence heart disease, such as genetics, lifestyle habits, smoking, complete dietary intake etc. If you just add pomegranate juice to the diet of an obese chain smoker, is it going to change his risk of heart attack? Probably not as much as if he gave up cigarettes and lost weight.
But let's go back to the headline: "Pomegranate Juice Prevents Heart Attacks." If you're watching the evening news, chances are good that's all you'll remember from the story. In fact, the manufacters of pomegranate juice are counting on it.
Since the television reporter has a whopping 30 seconds to cover the story, she just reads off the highlights: a recent study found that women who drank a cup of pomegranate juice every day had a 30% reduced risk of heart attack.
And that's it.
Now if you could get your hands on the study itself, you might notice a few odd things about the study:
- Only 25 women were enrolled
- There's no mention of follow up studies
- The sponsor was XYZ Pomegranate Juice company
Those three facts alone would make most people discount the results of the study. Why?
- The sample size - the number of people enrolled - is so small that the results probably cannot be applied to the entire population. If you think about samples and predictions, for example, you know that a political poll usually has a sample size of at least a thousand people, right? That's because the pollsters know that you need to talk to about that many people to be about 95% confident that the results can be applied to everyone! The same goes for research like this.
- Most rigorous scientific studies use a double-blind, placebo controlled method. This means that even the research team doesn't know who gets the test substance and who doesn't. This prevents their body language or other subtle cues from influencing the subjects. In addition, a group of people in the study get a placebo - an inert substance that looks, tastes and smells like the test substance, but doesn't act in any way.
- Always look at the money trail when deciding if you should listen to a scientific study. Studies conducted by companies on their products may have a degree of bias. Even if the study was conducted ethically, companies have been known to promote only the good results of a study and just not mention bad results. Since they're funding the study, they can do this. But it's up to you, the consumer, to pay attention to these facts when evaluating claims such as "super foods", "diet to prevent cancer" and all those other headline-grabbing items about nutrition.
Healthy Meal Planning
So how do you get started eating healthy meals? Begin with healthy meal planning. Plan a meal around one healthy entree. Choose a green, leafy vegetable such as spinach. Add a whole grain like rice and a side of fish or chicken. That's already one healthy meal.
At each meal, try to include one vegetable or fruit and one whole grain. Snack on fresh fruit. always choose unprocessed, unrefined products for the best nutritional bang for your buck.
If you've been eating the typical American diet -fast foods, lots of meals on the run, and little thought to what you're putting into your body as fuel - don't despair. It's a good idea to start slowly. Try replacing one fast food meal a day with a healthy meal. Eat fruit between meals instead of candy. Ditch the diet soda or sugar filled soda and drink water instead.
If you focus on changing just one habit every week, by the end of a year, you'll have 52 new and healthy habits - and you'll probably lose a little weight and feel better, too.