Amidst the onslaught of attention to the growing obesity epidemic, which encompasses upwards of 68 percent of the population, according to the CDC, health professionals are advising people to "eat healthier" and many people are exploring these options on their own. But "eating healthy" isn't as simple as it sounds. Much of the advice given by medical professionals is fairly generic, and there is a lot of conflicting information about healthy eating found floating around in various new sources and online information hubs.
A good part of the recommendations for healthy eating are based on the USDA's Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion -- known as MyPlate, previously known as the food pyramid. These healthy eating recommendations, updated every five years by law, are the basis for all federal nutrition programs such as school lunches.
These guidelines, however, have come under heavy fire from a number of sources for being too heavily influenced by various industry lobbyists. Critics say that the food guide is much too vague in its recommendations for limiting certain "unhealthy" foods such as red meat and processed grains; is silent regarding treats, sweets, salty snacks and healthy fats/oils; includes oversimplified portion depictions; and simply doesn't do much in the way of instructing people how to eat healthy.
Medical professionals and researchers have associated heart disease and high cholesterol levels with "bad" fats from dietary sources, and so have their own recommendations for low fat, no fat, or reduced fat products which marketers have picked up on with a vengeance and tout as healthy foods. With the plethora of low fat and frozen diet foods on the market, a full 90 percent of Americans believe that they eat healthy according to a 2011 survey by Consumer Reports.
Those statistics are clearly belied by the fact that the obesity and disease rates are continuing to climb. The American Heart Association estimates that 75 million Americans suffer from heart disease, 25 percent of the population is on a statin drug, an astonishing 33 percent of adults over the age of 20 are hypertensive, and another 77 million have pre- or full-blown diabetes. These people aren't eating as healthy as they believe themselves to be.
In 1980, the obesity rate was around 12 to 14 percent. By the end of that decade the rate was hovering around 22 to 25 percent. So what happened? Starting in 1977, the U.S. government started recommending healthy eating guidelines pushing low fat diets to the American people. In the mid-'80s low fat products started to hit the market. These low fat products removed the fat, but to maintain the flavor, the fats were replaced with sugars and simple carbohydrates. Calorie contents often either remained the same or dipped an insignificant amount. As any farmer can tell you, grains and simple carbohydrates work wonders on fattening up animals; it appears they do the same for humans.
Now the low fat rationale is being called into question as a healthy option. An American Society of Nutrition meta-analysis showed that saturated fat from the diet is not associated with cardiovascular or coronary heart disease. A multitude of studies have been published in various peer-reviewed journals showing that reduced fat milk is tied to disease progression, while it's full fat counterpart is protective of heart health and associated with a more healthy weight.
But it goes beyond milk. Two of the three recognized anti-oxidants (vitamin E, and beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A) are fat soluble vitamins, and essential vitamins such as D and K are also fat soluble. These vitamins have to be ingested with fat to be properly absorbed, and many experts are decrying the deficiencies of D and K in the American population. Vitamins D and K are especially important for general immune system function and the prevention of cancer and osteoporosis. Truly healthy eating is much more dynamic than cutting out arbitrary components of the diet.
In light of all these flawed healthy eating recommendations, it begs the question: what should people be eating to be healthy? The answer is complex.
What is good protein versus great protein? How do GMOs and pesticides figure in? Organics? What is processed food? How about fats? Which do you eat, which do you avoid? Good fats are essential, but are getting difficult to find. Real extra virgin olive oil. Real butter and/or ghee. Coconut, sustainable palm, and walnut, and avocado oils are good, healthy choices. Processed man-made fats such as canola, vegetable, soybean, and corn should be avoided or severely limited. Meat that has eaten a natural diet is good for you. Grass fed beef has a better Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio than conventional corn and hay fed beef.
Corn is high in Omega 6 (and is found in nearly all processed foods and animal feeds) and is grossly distorting the healthy ratio of the Omegas. They should be consumed in a 1:1 or 1:3 ratio. Corn tilts that to almost 1:15 or 1:30 in the average American's diet -- according to cardiac surgeon Dr. Dwight Lundell. Of course protein from fish, chicken and nuts is rated highly -- but always search for wild caught and free range options.
If you are hoping to lose weight, try to avoid simple carbs like grains and instead eat colorful and dark leafy green vegetables. Purchase and cook meats yourself for sandwiches and lunches instead of opting for unhealthy processed meats such as bologna, hot dogs, sausage and packaged lunch meats. Anything that comes out of a can, a box or a fast food restaurant is considered processed, not healthy eating, and should really be avoided.
Fresh is best, but frozen vegetables often retain most of their healthy vitamins and nutrients. When choosing grains, look for whole grain versions such as bread or pasta with whole grain wheat flour listed as the first ingredient, and better yet, actual whole grains such as steel cut oats, quinoa, whole grain barley, bulger (cracked wheat), and wild rice.
When debating on a purchase, read the label. A long list of ingredients, unpronounceable ingredients, and definite negatives such as monosodium glutamate are red flag disqualifiers. As a general rule of thumb to healthy eating, eat like your grandparents did: real, whole, unprocessed foods.