Picture healthy food; what comes to mind? A farmer’s market stand brimming with organic fruits and vegetables? Maybe the “health food” section of your local grocery store stocked with granola, coconut oil, and almond milk. Perhaps you recall the trendy Washington Post article, No Food is Healthy. Not Even Kale., which proposed an interesting thought: Food is not healthy, cannot be healthy, and never will be healthy. We are healthy; food can only be nutritious.
Semantics aside, healthy food means something different to everyone, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking what it should mean for our individual health.
How We’re Taught Which Foods Are Healthy
Most of us learn to judge a food’s healthiness from the people around us. Mom, a teacher, a fit friend, and experts, like doctors and nutritionists, guide our opinions. This knowledge of food comes from a rich, but conflicting, body of science focused on nutrients. Science can help explain phenomena when we know what questions to ask and which nutrients to measure, but food is not just the sum of its nutrients. It’s problematic to judge a food’s healthiness simply by reading the nutrition label. Yet, we do it anyway.
Is There an Official Definition for “Healthy” Food?
Yes. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a food can only be marketed as healthy if each serving:
Contains less than the threshold amount for total fat (Contains at least 10 percent of your daily value for vitamins A, C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber.)
By this definition, high-fat foods like almonds, avocados, and salmon would not make the cut, but Pop-Tarts would. Cue the outrage!
Last year we saw the repercussions when KIND bar, beloved by many, got a slap on the wrist for labeling their products as “healthy.” But, in May 2016, the FDA changed its mind and told KIND that it could return to its original labeling. Confused yet? What you have to understand is that the FDA’s definition was written in the ’90s during a time when we as a nation focused on low-fat foods, and wondered how the French could eat all that butter and still stay skinny!
To understand why we have guidelines that ignore the benefits of nuts, we have to step back in time.
Fat: Friend or Foe?
In the 1940s, heart disease was the leading cause of death in America and scientists and doctors were hot on the trail to find ways to prevent and treat this killer. They published large, epidemiological studies — like the Framingham Heart Study and Seven Country Study — following thousands of people over decades. By the 1960s, early findings suggested that eating a high-fat diet filled with saturated fat and cholesterol was linked to increased risk for heart disease. Respected organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) adopted a low-fat diet recommendation for people at risk for heart disease, but acknowledged no conclusive proof that heart attacks or strokes would be prevented by doing so.
These low-fat diets, originally intended as a way to help protect against heart disease, became a popular path to follow for weight loss and overall health. Fear of being fat led to a fear of fat and had a huge impact on how Americans viewed their food. Butter-loving, beef-stew-slurping Americans were about to enter into three decades of the “low-fat craze.”
The ’80s and ’90s featured toned Cindy Crawford, Jane Fonda, and hours of jazzercise. We dug into Jell-O cups, munched on bagels smeared with reduced-fat cream cheese, and downed non-fat milk. After all, “healthy” food contained low, or better yet no, amounts of fat. (Remember, this era birthed Olestra-fried, “fat-free” potato chips, whose side effects included cramps, gas, and loose bowels.)
Fast forward to the new millennium, when Americans were fretting over the Y2K bug in addition to heart disease, which kept its place as the leading cause of death. Adding lower-fat foods into the diet didn’t seem to help. In fact, the rate of obesity doubled between 1980 and 2003, by which time one third of Americans had a body mass index that classified them as obese.
Is Sugar the New Fat?
These days, the low-fat trend has quieted, and there are signs that it’s reversing. Many experts are leaping off the “blame fat bandwagon” and recommending that we eat more avocados, nuts, salmon, and even egg yolks — all sources of “healthy” fats. For example, when the 2015 Dietary Guidelines were revised, the upper limit on total fat consumption was absent. In its scientific report on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion noted, “…reducing total fat (replacing total fat with overall carbohydrates) does not lower CVD (cardiovascular disease) risk.”
Today, heart disease is still the leading killer, about 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and type 2 diabetes is on the rise. In order to make low-fat and nonfat products taste good, many food companies replaced fat with… sugar.
Highly-processed carbohydrates (e.g. sweetened cereals, cookies, white bread) and sugary beverages are the new focus. The AHA’s current standing recommendation is to limit added sugar to no more than 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. The World Health Organization suggests lower is better, if possible.
To give you some real-world context: A 12-ounce can of cola contains about 37 grams or 9.25 teaspoons of added sugar — more than what a typical male should have in one day by the AHA’s recommendations.
Even more shocking: A 2009 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that of 85,451 consumer packaged foods purchased in the U.S., 74 percent contained added sugar.
This year, the FDA announced it would revise the definition of “healthy” on food labeling to keep up with evolving nutrition science; this is good news for everyone. The definition for what we consider “healthy” is still evolving, and it’s easy and exciting to get swept up in the latest changes in nutrition science.
But, I would argue that it’s equally (if not more) important to focus on what hasn’t. Eating a minimally processed, mostly plant-based diet centered on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is time-tested advice not even grandma will argue with. Instead of boiling it down to nutrients, judge your food as a whole.