We all want to stay young, healthy and vibrant, and we all know that what we put in our bodies affects our ability to achieve those goals. The problem for most people isn’t that they’re unwilling to eat healthy foods—it’s knowing what foods are healthy and too much reliance on the “experts” to tell us what to eat.
Unfortunately, nutrition science has been less than fully consistent on many health-related issues. Adding to the confusion, advertisers for the commercial food industry have viewed as their primary objective not the promotion of health, but rather the generation of profits. Their claims, conveyed in ads and on their packaging, often distort scientific fact to their financial advantage. And the popular press has not been sufficiently diligent in seeking the truth, leaving health enthusiasts to navigate a patchwork of fact, quasi-fact and outright myth: “eating fat will make you fat;” “eating carbs will make you fat;” “eggs are bad for you.” What’s true; what isn’t?
Through all the background noise, those who want to eat healthy foods try to distinguish between myth and fact. A prominent example involves the decades-long belief that saturated fat compromises heart health. Several recent studies, including one published in the British Medical Journal, have determined conclusively that this belief is not grounded in science:
“Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective. The source of the saturated fat may be important.”
The Weston Price Foundation has argued for decades against the so-called “lipid hypothesis” of a “direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease”, relegating that contention to the province of “politically correct nutrition”. More recently, Time Magazine concurred in an article which concludes that “the war on fat was wrong”, but also adds, somewhat disturbingly, that one should not expect others in the mainstream media to follow suit.
These studies, among many others, have demonstrated persuasively that eating saturated fat neither compromises heart health nor contributes to weight gain. In fact, the avoidance of saturated fat in the diet tends to have the opposite effect because it increases sugar intake. Said differently, the culprit when it comes to heart health is not the burger, but the ketchup on top of it. (Though the source and quality of our meat supply is another colossal issue.)
The widespread belief in health dangers associated with saturated fat consumption is one which has been effectively leveraged by the processed food industry. Manufacturers reduced (and advertisers promulgated the reduction of) saturated fats in their products. But, because saturated fats contribute to taste, the industry increased the concentration of processed sugars to compensate, even in “health foods” like fruit juices.
In addition to adding flavor, saturated fats make you feel full. When they are removed, you feel hungry and often satisfy that hunger by consuming more sugar, which increases blood sugar levels. When those levels drop, you compensate by eating even more sugar. On average, Americans now consume 132 pounds of sugar every year, contributing to obesity and the onset of diabetes, and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Most Americans are too busy to stay on top of the science or to investigate every health claim made by the food industry. There are, however, some common-sense guidelines one can follow. For example, the fewer ingredients, the better, and one ingredient is best—natural foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed nuts and grains, healthy proteins, meat in moderation (preferably fish and fowl rather than red meat).
We need to actively and relentlessy seek to eat foods closest to the way nature intended. We need to more actively know where our food comes from because the long-term health consequences of not doing so are just too costly.
“Why don’t we pay more attention to who our farmers are? We would never be as careless choosing an auto mechanic or babysitter as we are about who grows our food.”
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s View of the World