There are so many mixed messages about what we should be eating. Organic, GMO, sugar-free, healthy fats—it’s a lot of noise to cut through just to be able to figure out what you should be eating. (And heaven forbid you eat the wrong thing, lest the judgment of everyone and their dog rain down upon you.)
Just kidding. But it can feel like that sometimes, with all of the pressure to eat perfectly and know exactly what the FDA thinks about canola oil this week.
What’s a person to do, apart from giving up on eating entirely and relying solely on water to survive? Wait, even that’s complicated. To choose bottled or tap or sparkling? Does it need to be reverse-osmosis filtered? Sigh. Nevermind.
So we have to eat. And we want to make the best choices we can. But we also want to cut down on all the unnecessary buzzword chatter. Here’s where to start.
Bad fats and good fats
Fat is essential to the body and an entirely fat-free diet—although famously over-promoted in the 1980s, 90s and even now—is a dangerous and unhealthy idea. Dietary fat allows the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; helps keep organs, skin and hair healthy; and provides warmth and protection for our vital systems. The key is to get it from the right sources.
“There are certain types of fats we typically refer to as ‘bad fats,’” explains Toronto-based holistic nutritionist Tara Miller. “These are fats that can harm the body, including trans fats [like hydrogenated palm oil]; rancid oils from overprocessing, which become oxidized and cause free radical damage; and fats that contain excessive omega-6s, like canola, grapeseed, soy, safflower and sunflower oils. These upset the ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in the body,” which can have a host of negative health consequences.
On the other hand, “’Good fats’ are those that are health-promoting, not damaging, to the body,” Miller explains. “Healthy fats include omega 3 polyunsaturated fats found in fish, eggs and flax, monounsaturated fats like avocado, olive oil and nuts—even the once-feared saturated fats found in butter, ghee, eggs and yogurt, as long as they are from high-quality, pasture-raised sources.”
These good fats help promote digestion, nervous system health and healing. Good fats, when they truly are the good kind, are great for you and should make up about 30% of your daily calorie intake.
Sugar, sugar-free, natural sugar, sweetener…
For something so sweet, sugar sure has a sour reputation in the health world. And with good reason. Too much sugar intake leads to inflammation, weight gain and even metabolic conditions like diabetes and insulin resistance. Sugar-free, unsweetened and natural-sugar-only products can be found in most stores, but they’re not created equally.
For one, sugar occurs naturally in foods like fruit, honey and maple syrup. When it’s eaten with fiber (as in its natural form, like an apple), sugar can easily and regularly be broken down in the body without upsetting blood sugar levels. This is a form of carbohydrate, the macronutrient that provides the majority of energy we take in and use from food.
Trouble is, much of the sugar we eat in a day does not come from whole fruits. It tends to come from added sugars, like cane sugar and cane syrup, or from even more devious sources: those labeled as natural sugars, like coconut sugar and agave. We should be consuming no more than about 6-8 teaspoons of sugar per day (ladies on the low end, men on the higher end). For context, a can of Coke has about 9 teaspoons. It’s easy to overdo, and easy to find yourself addicted to the sweet stuff. For best health and least cravings, aim to get your sweetness from whole plant foods: fruit, pumpkin and sweet potato and a little unrefined maple syrup here and there.
Many foods are vegan—that is, they do not contain any animal products or by-products—just by nature of being plant-based, processed without animal fats or not tested on animals. This is a helpful label to look for if you eschew animal products, but it can be misleading. Just because something is vegan does not mean it’s healthy.
Oreos, texturized vegetable protein, Froot Loops and Fakin’ Bacon are all vegan, but they’re also loaded with sugar, processed soy, food coloring, additives, preservatives and non-food ingredients.
If you’re seeking out the vegan label for health, your best bet is to stick with whole foods (fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains) or minimally processed snack foods containing a combination of these.
There is really nothing to differentiate a superfood from a regular food. Basically, a superfood is nutrient-dense and has some notable health benefits like being rich in antioxidants, fiber or flavonoids. But there is nothing to regulate what is or isn’t labeled as such. Blueberries, salmon, apples and wild rice are all super in their own right, so stick with these and other whole foods—whether or not they’re specially labeled—to get the most nutrients per bite.
Probiotic and prebiotic
Our gut bacteria carry out many important functions in the body. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to digest our food, absorb nutrients, fight off infection or regulate many hormonal processes. Stress, medications, environmental toxins, drinking alcohol, over-consuming sugar and not consuming ample fresh produce can decrease our gut bacteria population and hinder our body’s overall health.
We can help keep our bacterial colonies happy and well by consuming foods and supplements that contain strains of bacteria. These help bolster our gut health by literally introducing billions of tiny “good” bacteria into the body to help carry out essential functions and promote growth of our own internal bugs. Because there are so many factors that can lead to decreased gut health, a daily probiotic supplement can be beneficial for most people. Look for one that has at least seven different strains of bacteria and at least five billion colony-forming units (CFUs).
You can also find probiotics in cultured foods like sauerkraut, kim chi and kefir. Be aware that some products will market themselves as being “probiotic, but typically, if they’re in a protein bar or shelf-stable product, you’re likely being sold something that is more likely to be prebiotic—essentially dietary fiber (if anything at all) that feed bacteria, rather than being actual bacteria themselves. Look for products that require refrigeration to ensure you’re getting the most living bacteria for your money.
The FDA does not regulate use of the term “natural” on food products. It essentially has no meaning, so if the reason you’re choosing a food is this word appearing on the label, make sure you check the ingredients and nutrition panel. There might be a lot more “natural” garbage in there than you think.