What foods are healthy? Do you know? Does anyone?

SodaAre you eating foods and drinking beverages that are likely to decrease your risk of illness and lengthen your life?  I'll bet you're not sure. Of course, you know that too much sugar (especially added sugar), salt, and fat (especially saturated fat) are not good for you. You know that a diet  long on plant food and short on food from animals is healthier than the reverse. But the specifics are more difficult to rate.   frozen yogurt healthy?  How about butter, soy, and pizza? Is skim milk healthier than whole milk?  Is diet cola healthier than regular cola? Read on to find some answers.


How much do today's experts actually know about nutrition?


According to Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of  Nutrition Science and Policy, "Twenty years ago, I think we knew about 10 percent of what we need to know [about nutrition], and now we know about 40 to 50 percent." The FDA recently agreed to review what foods can be called healthy because so much remains unknown, and the public needs more guidance.


Do nutritionists and the general public agree on which foods are healthy and which are not?


A recent New York Times study investigated.  The survey questioned hundreds of nutritionists, asking them about 52 foods.  A representative sample of the American electorate was also surveyed. "The results revealed surprising diversity of opinion, even among experts." However, there was general agreement among both groups that apples, oranges, chicken, kale, and oatmeal were healthy and that soda (carbonated beverages) French fries, and chocolate-chip cookies were not. 


The gap between the scientists and the public was largest on granola bars and granola. Let's look at some other foods with large gaps between percentages. The first figure represents a "healthy" rating by nutritionists and the second represents the opinion of  the public:



Granola bars                                 28%                                           71%

Coconut oil                                   37%                                           72%

Frozen yogurt                               32%                                           66%

Orange juice                                 62%                                           78%

American cheese                         24%                                           39%


The lower ratings by nutritionists often related to the quantity of sugar in a food.  As a result of concern about added sugar, the FDA has approved a new template for nutrition labels, one that distinguishes between sugar naturally occurring in a food and added sugar. 


Some foods rated as more nutritious by the experts than by the public included these: quinoa, tofu, sushi, hummus, wine, and shrimp.


The following foods got scores in the 55%-69% range from both nutritionists and the public:  popcorn, pork chops whole milk, steak, and cheddar cheese. Pork chops, cheese, steak, and whole milk have health benefits but also saturated fat, which, in excess, is bad for the heart.  It's difficult to slap either a "healthy" or "unhealthy" label on foods that have both benefits and deficits, so we wind up getting a split decision. 


Is sugar poison? Should you switch to diet soda?


We'd sure miss sugar if it were banned. But there's no question that Americans consume much more sugar than we should. Sugary drinks (including soda, fruit juice, and energy drinks) especially are getting a lot of bad press these days. These are very popular in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean. Here's what the Tufts [University] Nutrition Magazine (winter 2016) says: "A new study in the journal Circulation found that participants who drank sugary soft drinks regularly (especially daily) gained more abdominal fat than those who rarely or never drank them.  Excess abdominal fat surrounding the inner organs is biologically active and increases the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers." 


According to the study on sweetened soda, DIET soft drinks were not linked to abdominal fat. Here's a quote from an article on the Mayo Clinic website. "Drinking a reasonable amount of diet soda a day, such as a can or two, isn't likely to hurt you. The artificial sweeteners and other chemicals currently used in diet soda are safe for most people, and there's no credible evidence that these ingredients cause cancer. Some types of diet soda are even fortified with vitamins and minerals. But diet soda isn't a health drink or a silver bullet for weight loss." BUT other writers say the body may respond negatively to the stuff, causing diabetes, headaches, tooth stains, cardiovascular problems even weight gain Want to learn more?  Google "Are diet colas unhealthy?"  You'll find a lot of answers.  Who knows which ones are correct? Here's another article you may want to check out: "10 Reasons to Give Up Diet Soda."  


In defense of diet cola, a Webmd article entitled "Sodas and Your Health: Risks Debated" cautions that research suggesting that diet sodas may boost the risk of stroke does not prove this connection. Considering the diverse opinions and uncertainty, perhaps the best beverage options are water, unsweetened tea (caffeinated or not), unsweetened coffee (caffeinated or not), and moderate amounts of wine.  Says Webmd, both diet and regular sodas have been linked to obesity, kidney damage, and some forms of cancer.


Why are the enemies of sugar particularly picking on sugary drinks rather than candy or cake?  Because popular carbonated and juice-based beverages are consumed in greater quantities than candy or cake.  Some people, especially teens, drink a few cans of "pop"every day.  The RC cola shown in the accompanying photo has, in a 12 oz. portion, 42 grams of sugar; that's about 10 teaspoons!  Also beware of bottled lemonade drinks. Some contain outrageous quantities of sugar, too.


Are foods that cause inflammation the reason why people develop certain illnesses?

Is there a relationship between obesity, inflammation, morbidity, and mortality?

These days inflammation is blamed for many serious illnesses, and many articles are urging consumers to avoid foods identified as ones that cause inflammation.  But not everyone has enthusiastically jumped on the anti-inflammation bandwagon.  An article posted on Webmd says that several diet books and many online sites have promoted the idea of "anti-inflammatory eating" to reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and soothe sore arthritic joints.  BUT, says WebMD, "Experts concede that anti-inflammation eating is more effective for some health problems than others--and that the scientific evidence for disease reduction benefits is still being gathered."  The diet emphasizes eating foods rich in omega-3s such as cold water fish.  "Phytochemicals--natural chemicals found in plant food--are also believed to help reduce inflammation." You can find much more about this diet (pro and con) by searching Google. 


Is pizza healthy?


It depends upon the ingredients--what kind of crust and cheese, what toppings.  If you're trying to keep the calories, fat, and carbs down, go for whole-wheat, thin crust; ricotta cheese (instead of mozzarella; and, of course, veggie toppings rather than meat.  These suggestions come from the online article "Pizza Anyone? How to Choose a Healthy Slice." The author says that a typical slice has 300 calories, so it's best to stop after just one.


Is soy healthy?


Consumer Reports on Health (December 2015) published a clear and intelligent discussion of the above question in "The Scoop on Soy Safety."  The article points out the following: Soy contains a lot of protein and fiber; it also contains "isoflavones--estrogenlike compounds thought to help strengthen bones, dampen hot flashes, lower cancer risk, and more."  The presence of estrogen may scare women who have had cancer, but, according to the American Cancer Society, there is no reason for women (even breast cancer survivors) to avoid soy food.  However, "until further research is done, it's prudent to skip supplements--which contain much higher levels of isoflavones."


Soy is consumed in whole foods such as tofu, soy milk, and edamame.  It is also used in many processed foods such as energy bars, veggie burgers, and protein powders.  The article concludes that it's best to consume soy as whole food.  The other uses of soy may not provide the same benefits and may contain more sodium and sugar than is healthy.


What's wrong with white bread?

White bread is sometimes labeled a source of "bad carbs."  Wedmed recommends consuming more "good carbs," which tend to be more filling.  "Make half of your daily grain servings whole grains.  This will slow absorption, help meet your fiber needs, and keep you feeling full longer." Note: this trustworthy website does not say you must totally avoid white bread. 


Which is healthier: skim milk or whole milk?

For years we've been told that low-fat or no-fat dairy products are healthier than the full-fat ones.  But nowadays, researchers are saying that the opposite may be true.  An April 4, 2016 article in Time magazine reported that some research suggests that people who consume full-fat dairy weigh less and no more likely to develop diabetes than those who limit themselves to reduced-fat  dairy products. 


How can whole fat be less fattening and healthier than reduced fat?  Scientists have suggested these possibilities:


Perhaps the fatty acids that are in whole dairy products and are removed from reduced-fat dairy may help a person feel full sooner and longer, causing them to eat less at the time and later that day.


These fatty acids may "crank up how much energy your body stores or limit the amount of fat it stores."


ŸWhole-fat dairy products may make it easier for the body to absorb nutrients in the food.


There may be a psychological factor involved. Perhaps drinking skim milk gives one "permission" to consume three cookies.


But not everyone favors whole-fat dairy.  National health organizations, while softening their stance on fat, still recommend buying non-fat dairy. Registered dietitian Isabel Maple says, "Foods that pack a lot of micronutrients into every calorie are healthier." She points out that reduced fat dairy provides calcium, potassium and other  good things that Americans need in their diet while also helping them cut down on saturated fat.


Editor's notes: Decisions about what you should and shouldn't eat are best made with your doctor, considering the physician's expertise and your familiarity with your own body's reactions.


A comment on  grammar: I much prefer saying that living animals or plants are healthY (or not) and food is healthFUL (or not). However, when articles use "healthy" for both meanings, I try to be consistent with the language of my source.


In case you're wondering why this article did not mention organic food or foods containing GMOs, the reason is that Shelf Life Advice has covered both topics extensively and concluded that 1) Organic food is no safer or less safe than conventional food, and  2) GMOs in food create no additional health risk.  To find support for these statements, just type "organic food" or "GMOs" into the search box on the home page.  Doing so will get you to many links to articles on these subjects.



nytimes.com "Is Sushi 'Healthy?' What About Granola? Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree"



Tufts Nutrition "Why sugary drinks are more dangerous than  we thought"

Winter 2016. 


Webmd.com    "Anti-inflammatory Diet: Road to Good Health?"

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/anti-inflammatory-diet-road-to-good-health - 1

Webmd.com "The Diet Soda Debate"

http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20140731/diet-soda-debate - 1 


health.usnews.com "Pizza Anyone?  How to Choose a Healthy Slice"



health.com "Reasons to Give Up Diet Soda"



Consumer Reports on Health  "The Scoop on Soy Safety,"  December 2016.


Webmd.com "The Truth About White Foods"

http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/features/truth-about-white-foods - 1



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