What are health foods? Great question, and one that can be harder to answer than you might think. As it turns out, the definition has been changing. It’s clear that the general understanding of nutrition has been flawed in the past and may remain so today— to a certain degree.
That said, increasing research and developments are improving the general understanding of what makes something healthy or unhealthy. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently agreed to review the current standards for what foods can be called “healthy.”
What is striking, however, is how widely the beliefs of nutritionists and the public differ regarding which foods are healthy and which are not (save for a few items like apples, kale, oatmeal, broccoli, and chicken breast, which are practically unanimously regarded as healthy). Meanwhile, unhealthy foods like chocolate chip cookies, French fries, and soda show a rather wide discrepancy between what the professionals and the general population think—and it could be negatively affecting your health.
Why Do Health Foods Discrepancies Exist?
If you’re struggling to understand what is or isn’t healthy, it’s probably not your fault; it can be hard to keep up with.
1. New Research
For example, fat used to be public enemy number one. Steak, eggs, dairy, and other health foods were attacked for being high in cholesterol and fat. They were believed to lead directly to heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and increased risk of mortality. But nowadays, this assessment is not exactly concrete. Multiple studies have shown that these items don’t pose the dangers they were believed to.
The damage, however, may have already been done. New products had fats removed and replaced with added sugars to make them “healthy,” even though they did nothing of the sort. And because habits and beliefs are hard to break—and let’s face it, most people don’t follow nutrition news closely—you end up paying the price. Furthermore, not all nutritionists agree with the results of every study.
2. Food Fads
Another reason why discrepancies exist among health foods is familiarity. As you’ll see shortly, many foods with the biggest gaps in perspective are those that are relatively new to the traditional American mainstream diet. Items like quinoa, sushi, and hummus are all relatively new to store shelves in many communities across America, so there may be a slight fear of the unknown.
3. Media Reports
Lastly, sometimes negative news associated with some items (whether right or wrong) like red meat and shellfish, can leave people with the wrong perspective.
The Biggest Health Foods Discrepancies
The New York Times and Morning Consult (a media and polling firm) surveyed a nationally representative group of the American public, in addition to hundreds of nutritionists about their perspective on “healthy foods.” Here are some of the biggest health foods discrepancies they found.
Foods Considered Healthier by the Public Than Nutritionists
- Granola bars (71% vs. 28%)
- Coconut oil (72 % vs. 37 %)
- Frozen yogurt (66% vs. 37%)
- Granola (80% vs. 47%)
- Slimfast shake (47% vs. 21%)
- Orange juice (78% vs. 62%)
- American cheese (39% vs. 24%)
Foods Considered Healthier by Nutritionists Than the Public
- Quinoa (89% vs. 58%)
- Tofu (85% vs. 57%)
- Sushi (75% vs. 49%)
- Hummus (90% vs. 66%)
- Wine (70% vs. 52%)
- Shrimp (85% vs. 69%)
How Misinformation Can Harm Your Health
Recently, much of the health foods debate has been focused on where it should be: added sugars. Added sugars, as it’s widely believed, are largely (but not exclusively) responsible for the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics facing our nation. There is also evidence they contribute to heart disease, atherosclerosis, and high blood pressure.
The problem is that added sugars are in so many foods, and were put there in response to misinformation about the dangers of certain fats (trans-fats withstanding since it’s dangerous to health). Granola, for example, is loaded with added sugars. So is frozen yogurt and other “healthy” alternatives. Added sugars are in almond milks, yogurts, fruit juices, salad dressings, tomato sauces, and countless other items you believe to be either neutral or healthy.
What to Look for on Nutrition Labels
Reading labels is the most important thing you can do to ensure the food you’re eating is healthy. And truthfully, most of the healthy foods don’t come in packages—they are found in the produce, dairy, and butcher sections. But if you do venture down the aisles of the grocery store, it’s advised you bring your reading glasses. The number you likely pay most attention to is calories, and that’s understandable. I recommend you to start paying attention to the breakdown of those calories—focus on the protein, fat, and carbohydrate sections.
Each gram of protein and carbohydrate equals four calories, and each gram of fat is nine calories. So, based on that info, you can see if the calories add up and where the calories are coming from. Carbohydrate is another word for sugar, but not all sugars are bad. For example, naturally occurring sugars in their unrefined form are actually good for you; it’s the refined and added ones you have to worry about. So you also want to look at the amount of “sugar,” which usually represents added sugars.
For example, a packet of regular Quaker Quick Oats has the following macronutrient breakdown: 110 calories; 2 grams of fat; 20 grams of carbohydrates; 4 grams of protein; 0 grams of sugar. So how does a product featuring 20 grams of carbs have no sugar? There are no added sugars.
When you see a product with a discrepancy between its carbohydrate content and sugars, for example 30 grams of carbohydrates and 15 grams of sugar, it means there are 15 grams of added, refined sugars to the product.
Questions You Should Be Asking
If you want to make healthy food choices, there are some questions you can ask yourself before putting certain items in your cart, or ordering them at restaurants. They are as follows.
- Have I read the nutrition label?
- Have I read the ingredients list?(In general, the less ingredients a product has, the healthier it is.)
- Are there several ingredients ending in “ose?” (Sugar has a number of names, many of them ending in “ose.”)
- Is this food processed and packaged?
- Does it look like it came from an animal, the land, or out of a factory?
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Quealy, K. and Sanger-Katz, M., “Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? What About Granola? Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree,” The New York Times, July 5, 2016; https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/05/upshot/is-sushi-healthy-what-about-granola-where-americans-and-nutritionists-disagree.html, last accessed February 9, 2017.