How do you know when a food is good for you? Fat free, sugar free, gluten free, cholesterol free, low sodium, low calorie, high calcium, whole wheat . . . . With all the nutritional claims out there, how can you know what to eat?
Years ago, margarine was a health messiah. Less saturated fat, no cholesterol; lower risk of heart disease. Now its prominent ingredient, trans fat, is banned from the entire city of New York. Why? It’s too darned dangerous.
Cruise the supermarket aisle and you’ll see all sorts of nutritional claims. Some products brag how much they have: “Twice the potassium!” “Fortified with vitamin D!” “35% more fiber!”
Sometimes they brag how little: “25% reduced sodium!” “Cholesterol free!” “Low fat!”
These claims sell food. People are scared to death that too much or too little of a particular nutrient is unhealthy. And they hope getting more of a nutrient can make up for the adverse effects of our calorie-loaded, sedentary modern lifestyle.
Who can blame them? From TV to the government, doctors to nutritionists, ads to product packaging, nutritional information comes at us fast and furious all hours of the day.
Sow how do we sort through these claims to find the healthiest diet? Simple: pick foods that don’t make them! Here are five reasons why:
1. We still don’t know what, if any, nutrients are “good” or “bad.” People complain that getting proper nutrition is hard because doctors’ nutritional advice constantly changes and contradicts itself. And it does. The reason: we simply don’t have the answers.
Margarine is one food that’s fallen in and out of favor. Trans fats were lauded for reducing saturated fat; now they’re even worse than what they replaced.
Eggs are another: Years ago, they were healthy: the “incredible, edible egg!” Then they fell from favor: too much cholesterol. Today, we’re not sure dietary cholesterol contributes much, if any, to cholesterol levels in our arteries. So eggs are back on the table.
What lesson should we learn from these examples? That trans fats are bad, or that cholesterol’s OK? No. The lesson here is that we just don’t know. Some day we may know exactly what nutrients we need, in what proportions, and what nutrients to avoid whenever possible. But does anyone really think we’re there yet?
2. Adding nutrients to a food may have little or no positive impact. Many foods come naturally packed with nutrients. We expect to get vitamin C from oranges, calcium from milk. But many products’ nutrient claims tout vitamins or minerals only added during processing. For instance, most vitamin D in milk isn’t there naturally: somebody added it between a cow’s udder and your refrigerator.
Do these added nutrients have an impact? Studies on supplements, which are themselves simply added nutrients, have turned up very hazy evidence that they actually work. It’s true that on average, people who take a daily multivitamin are healthier than those who don’t. But studies suggest they’re only healthier because they tend to follow healthier lifestyles across the board. Caring about health may lead to multivitamin consumption; but multivitamin consumption may not lead to better health.
Are we sure it’s any different with the vitamin D added to our milk? Maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t. (We add vitamin D to help us absorb calcium, which is thought to strengthen our bones; yet the highest dairy consuming nations (including the U.S.) also suffer the world’s highest rates of osteoporosis. Despite our advances in adding nutrients, we still seem worse off dietarily than countries that eat foods they don’t need to add vitamins to.)
3. Too much of a vitamin can be harmful. We all know taking fat and sugar out of their natural sources, and plugging them into artificially created processed “foods,” has exposed our bodies to more fat and sugar than they ever experienced in nature. Today’s burgeoning rates of obesity and the diseases that go with it—diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers—suggest our bodies haven’t responded well to the change.
A similar effect seems to happen with vitamins. Vitamin E, long prescribed to heart patients, actually increased death rates in studies where large quantities of the vitamin were prescribed. Evidently, in these high concentrations, the vitamin E acts too strongly to prevent blood clots, preventing them even when they’re actually needed.
These problems are easy to solve: Eat foods that exist in nature, rather than products we’ve created in the lab or factory. Natural foods don’t need added nutrients, because we haven’t stripped away the nutrients they’re naturally endowed with. (You don’t see them adding nutrients to fresh fruits and vegetables; and yet nearly everyone agrees those are the healthiest foods we can eat.) And when we don’t add nutrients, we don’t risk overdoing it.
Of course, if your doctor tells you that you have a deficiency of a certain vitamin, then take the steps your doctor prescribes to resolve that deficiency, even if it means taking supplements or eating fortified foods. But vitamin deficiencies are rare in the developed world. And if you’re treating yourself to excess vitamins you’re not deficient in, it may not only do no good; it may do affirmative harm.
4. Many vitamins only work when balanced with other vitamins. Take vitamin E, which comes in several forms. Two of the most common in our diet are called alpha-tocopherol and gamma-tocopherol. Both combat free radicals, which if left unchecked may contribute to maladies from heart disease to cancer. But each form of vitamin E acts in different ways, and if we consume too much of one, it tends to counteract the performance of the other. What’s important seems to be not absolute quantity, but balance: We need a certain proportion of each.
But most vitamin E pills on the market today have only alpha-tocopherol--no gamma-tocopherol. And studies have shown that people taking more than a certain amount of alpha-tocopherol supplements each day were at higher risk of heart disease, one of the very illnesses vitamin E is thought to help prevent. No wonder: They weren’t taking comparable amounts of gamma-tocopherol.
This sort of relationship among nutrients may prove the rule, and not the exception. And since we’re far from understanding how different nutrients interact with each other, it’s very hard to know if our supplements or vitamin-fortified foods are getting it right. Another reason to fall back on nature, and the properly-balanced foods it’s already providing for us.
5. If a food wouldn’t be healthy without an added nutrient, it probably isn’t healthy with that nutrient. Nutritional claims come in two forms: one—foods that carry that nutrient naturally; two—foods to which that nutrient has been added.
The first category includes foods like bananas. Banana producers love to talk about how much potassium bananas have. But even if you didn’t know bananas had potassium, wouldn’t you still think they’re healthy? Of course you would—they’re whole, natural fruits. What does potassium do for you anyway? Do you know? Are you sure? So why would you care?
The second category includes foods like sugary beverages. Most of these are simply sugar, water, and sometimes artificially added vitamins and minerals. If you didn’t know those vitamins and minerals were in those sugary drinks, would you think those drinks were healthy? Probably not. Knowing that they are present in these beverages, do you still think they’re healthy? What makes you think you need more of the particular vitamins included in that beverage? Are you sure they’re doing something for you? No? Then why are you drinking sugar water that’s been fortified with those vitamins?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for nutritional research. The more we know about the foods we eat and their effects on our bodies, the greater our chances of improving our health while delighting our taste buds. Some day we may create a Boston Crème donut fortified with everything we need, in perfect balance, and stripped of everything we don’t. I’ll be the first to eat it.
But it’s pretty clear we haven’t reached that stage yet. And in the meantime, in light of all the conflicting dietary advice, the wonder-nutrients of the moment, the good becoming evil and the evil becoming good, do you really want to eat a food because we say it contains—or eliminates—a particular nutrient?
Studies show time and again that the best foods for us are the ones nature already provides. By all means, let’s keep working to accumulate the knowledge and technology to finally match nature on our own. And if your doctor tells you you’re deficient in an important vitamin, do as he says and take your vitamins. If you’re allergic or have some other adverse reaction to a particular nutrient, by all means look out for it and avoid it.
But in the meantime we don’t have to settle for second best. We don’t need to play the guessing game. We already have the perfect recipe, the ideal balance, in whole, natural foods. And we don’t need a nutritional claim to tell us that it’s right.