Maybe it was my love of pretty graphs, maybe it was the fact that 25% of “nutritionists” called pizza healthy, maybe butter needed to be defended. The itch was too strong: Must. Restore. Order.
The New York Times recently published an article comparing the “healthiness” of 50 common foods, as rated both by a panel of nutritionists and a representative sample of the US population. The results demonstrate that the average American believes sugary foods (like granola bars) are healthier than nutritionists rate them to be. So far, so unsurprising.
As I kept reading the article, things went from making perfect sense to perplexing me more and more. Then, it got really icky.
The panel of experts consisted of 672 nutritionists -all part of the American Society for Nutrition, and mostly academics. For what happened next, I blame an anomaly in the spacetime continuum (I can’t think of another explanation):
25% of these the nutritionists rated pizza as healthy, and 12% rated ice cream as healthy.
Still in shock, I decided to make my own comparison graph. I present to you the ratings of the NYT panel of nutritionists (data here) vs. my own view of what constitutes a healthy diet.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
My scale goes from 100% healthy (I would eat it every day) to 0% healthy (avoid as much as possible). (This is an imperfect comparison: continuous vs. discrete axis, aggregate of hundreds of opinions vs. a sample size of 1.)
Important caveat: in order for animal products to be part of a healthy diet, it is imperative that they be of good quality. I’m talking grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs full of omega-3 fatty acids, not processed or industrial meats.
Thankfully, nutritionists, Americans, and myself, all agree that fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, and chicken are part of a healthy diet. (yay!)
Let’s look at where we disagree.
Demotions from the healthy category
These foods were rated by 45-70% of nutritionists as being healthy, with agreement from the public (ratings > 70%), while I place them in the “avoid as much as possible” category.
- Whole wheat bread
There are unfortunately no nutritional advantages to eating bread (white, whole wheat, anything). What you get are calories, processed wheat, and blood sugar spikes (which lead to inflammation and weight gain). Bread is not a food that should be actively seeked out as part of a healthy diet. If you want carbs, reach for a fruit, which along with its carbohydrates, contains a myriad other healthy things, such as large quantities of fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals. It is true that if you must eat packaged bread, whole wheat might be better than white bread, but not necessarily. (see my post on things to look out for on packaging to not be fooled by marketing techniques).
- Baked potatoes: baked potatoes are one of the foods with the highest glycemic index possible. They will send your blood sugar through the roof and not add much to your diet except calories. It would be better to favor sweet potatoes over regular potatoes.
When consuming an orange as a whole, you do ingest sugar, as well as a host of other healthy things. The key is that an orange contain a lot of fiber, which slows the absorption of sugar by your body and moderate bad blood sugar spikes. It’s also difficult to eat more than one orange in a sitting, which naturally caps the amount of sugar you consume to a not-to-unhealthy dose.
In order to make a serving of orange juice, the sugar – and only the sugar – is extracted from oranges. You are left with the sugar of 4-5 oranges (which is as much sugar as in a can of Coca-Cola), and no fiber to slow the absorption down. The very inflammatory blood sugar spike is made worse by the speed at which orange juice is drunk (compared to the time it would take to eat 5 oranges).
Industrial orange juice should be considered as “healthy” as any sort of sugary soda. Toss it and eat an orange instead.
- Granola: Along the same lines, commercially-bought granola (and all packaged cereals) are in general full of refined sugars and resemble more a desert than they do real food. (see more about this here)
From bad to healthy
In the category that nutritionists deemed unhealthy, but that I would place in a healthy diet (caveated by good quality) are two very fatty foods: butter and bacon. After decades of fear, we now know that cholesterol-rich foods are not the cause of heart disease. (I wrote about it extensively here). Instead, it appears that one can have a very healthy heart while eating saturated fat and cholesterol, under the condition that one’s carbohydrate intake is kept limited.
As such, I placed butter and bacon back in the healthy diet category.
Note: What is important is to both prioritize the good foods, and remove the bad foods. I would not recommend to simply add butter to your diet while still consuming large quantities of sugar.
There are still large silos of misinformation, even among professional nutritionists regarding what is part of a healthy diet. The internet is full of inflammatory headlines and Facebook memes that are very confusing to someone who is trying to eat well.
What to do: Avoid simple carbohydrates and sugar as much as possible, and don’t fall prey to marketing. Orange juice is not healthy. Seek out nutrient-dense options, good quality protein, veggies, fats, to replace simple carbohydrates and avoid sending your blood sugar on a roller coaster and on a path of inflammation and fat storage.