“A calorie is a calorie” is a long held misconception about food and nutrition. The varieties of food that we choose to eat have an impact on our weight and our general health. An extreme case highlighting this point recently made headlines when Stacey Irvine, a 17- year old British girl, collapsed after consuming a diet almost entirely consisting of chicken nuggets. Most of us understand that chicken nuggets, French fries or ice cream are not the backbone of a healthy diet or healthy meals to eat on a routine basis, but there are finer points that can play a large role in our nutrition. Our bodies have to use twice as much energy to metabolize a calorie from protein compared to a calorie from a carbohydrate. Diets high in protein, like eggs or Greek yogurt for breakfast, can help boost metabolism and also enhance the sensation of feeling satisfied. Cutting back on sugar and processed foods can also cut down on cravings and lead to weight loss. Knowing that our bodies do not process a calorie from bread, a calorie from fruit, a calorie from meat and a calorie from alcohol in the same way, we need to be aware of the calories we personally chose to eat.
Low fat does not equal healthy. So where did the low fat food craze come from? Research conducted in the ’70s linked the consumption of saturated fats with heart disease, which led the food industry to trim the fat from American diets. Recent large epidemiological studies have shown that eating a diet low or high in saturated fat does not necessarily lead to heart disease. (1) So does that mean that we should be eating cheeseburgers to stay slim or stick to the Snackwells? Neither. A funny thing happened when we removed the fat from processed food, we had to replace it with something in order to maintain the favor, texture and shelf life of foods. The magic ingredient…sugar. Low fat means higher sugar. Diets high in sugar lead to abnormal cravings, weight gain, heart disease and type II diabetes. The low-fat food culture has created a dangerous environment. Eighty percent of food items in American grocery stores contain added sugars, often without tasting particularly sweet. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons a day of added sugar, despite the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men. Eliminate any low-fat products from your kitchen and aim to make your diet more retro by swapping out the sugar and processed foods for fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and satisfying fats, like avocados, nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, fish, and sustainably raised meat.
Half of all Americans drink one or more sodas per day, with 7% of us guzzling four or more sodas in a day. Diet versions have become a popular option for health conscious consumers due to the high calories and sugar content of regular soda. A single can of Coke set you back 138 calories and 33g of sugar. But are diet sodas actually any healthier? The evidence says no. The artificial sweeteners used to sweeten diet sodas have been shown to lead to metabolic derangements and cause cravings for even more sugary foods after consumption. In time, frequent consumers of diet soda have been found to be at risk for weight gain, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. What about the regular versions? While probably a safer option for rare soda- drinkers, regular soda is one of the most common sources of added sugars in our diets. A single can of Coke exceeds the recommended amount of sugar for women in a day, and leaves men with only 18 calories from sugar to spare. The bottom line is that no soda is healthy. Soda should be regarded as a special treat or indulgence not a daily habit.
Over the last decade, the popularity of gluten free-foods has lead to a $4 billion annual market. Yet, according to research by the American College of Gastroenterology, less than 2% of the population suffers from celiac disease, wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Despite growing popularity, eliminating gluten from the diet of healthy individuals is probably not a healthy choice. There is no published evidence that going gluten-free leads to weight loss in healthy individuals and there is mounting evidence that a gluten-free diet has negative impacts on the health of people without celiac disease. Wheat is the most commonly consumed grain in the US and its consumption has been linked to reduced body weight and lower triglyceride levels. In contrast, gluten free diets have been shown to reduce healthy gut bacteria, which help protect against colon cancer, inflammatory conditions, and heart disease. (2) While some gluten-free products may offer a healthier alternative, make sure to carefully read the labels to rule out that you are not consuming a more expensive, more processed product with less nutrients than the wheat-version. If you think you may have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, see your doctor to get tested before going completely gluten free. For the general public, the best advice is to eat whole grains, including wheat, as part of a well-balanced diet.
What about a way to boost your health? Recharge your system? Lose a few pounds? A juice cleanse sounds like a healthy option that is popular amongst health- conscious people. Well maybe. The purpose of a juice cleanse is to give your metabolism a rest, which while not scientifically proven to be necessary, some people feel a cleanse can serve as a good “reset” button. Most juice cleanses consist of a daily diet of raw, unpasteurized, organic juices with the occasional protein-rich nut milk. A cleanse will throw most people’s bodies into starvation mode, using their muscle mass for fuel, and slowing down their metabolism. While some short-term weight loss is possible, it usually comes right back when you return to regular meals. There is not one standard juice cleanse and there is no scientific evidence to support health or harm as a result. A one to three day cleanse to embark on a healthier eating pattern or break habits may be reasonable but anything longer or with the goal of weight loss is probably not in your best health. The surest path to health is a well- balanced diet.
1. Chowdhury, R., Warnakula, S., Kunutsor, S. et al. Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014;160(6):398-406-406. doi:10.7326/M13-1788.
2. Gaesser, G and Angadi, S. Gluten-Free Diet: Imprudent Dietary Advice for the General Population? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 12 (9): 1330-1333, Sept 2012.