New studies come out on a regular basis touting the health benefits or risks of eating certain foods. Sometimes, the information contradicts earlier research or refutes common claims. This makes it difficult to determine which foods really do lead to better health.
While there is some evidence that organic produce has potential health benefits, there are no definitive conclusions. When compared with conventionally farmed produce, organic produce has the same vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, lipids and other nutrients, as well as the same number of calories.
The term organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. In the United States, produce labeled certified organic must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticide, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Simply put, the health benefits of organic food are still unclear. There isn’t any long-term, conclusive evidence that consuming organic products can improve health or lower disease risk, according to a 2012 Stanford University study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“Whether you eat organic or conventionally grown produce, fruits and vegetables of all types are nature’s gift to us,” says Dr. Lane.
Takeaway: If the decision to buy certain produce comes down to price, Dr. Lane says both organic and non-organic produce are nutritious and beneficial to your health. However, if your main reason for buying organic is to limit exposure to pesticides, the extra cost will be worth it.
For more information, check out the annual list of the 12 crops that feature the highest amounts of pesticide residue, termed the Dirty Dozen. The Clean Fifteen list refers to 15 crops that have the lowest levels of pesticide contamination, including avocados, broccoli and pineapples.
Not all processed foods are created equal, says Dr. Lane. Whole foods blended in a food processor are still the same food. Some processed foods are good for you, such as nut butters, canned light tuna packed in water and plain flash-frozen fruits and vegetables.
Examples of processed foods that are not so healthy dietary choices for you are those with:
- Sweeteners (syrup, sugar, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame)
- Food coloring
- Preservatives (sodium, oils, nitrites, sulfites)
- Additives (corn, soy, cottonseed, cereal by-products)
Takeaway: Choose processed foods that most closely resemble their natural state. If the packaging lists a lot of scientific-sounding ingredients, Dr. Lane says that food is probably not your healthiest choice.
Multigrain is not synonymous with whole grain. According to the Food and Drug Administration, whole grains consist of the unrefined grains whose components — the bran, germ and endosperm — are still intact along with all of the fiber, vitamins and minerals produced by nature. Multigrain foods are made with more than one grain — but none may be whole grains. Because brown bread is often associated with being healthier than white bread, loaves labeled as multigrain may be dyed to appear darker. Most lack nutritional value after the refining process.
Takeaway: When buying whole multigrain products, Dr. Lane recommends looking for the “100% Whole Grains” stamp on packaging and reading food labels carefully to be sure they list whole wheat, whole oats and whole grain.
Eggs — particularly the yolks — have gotten a bum rap over the years for being high in cholesterol. However, guidelines for egg consumption have been modified as more research is done on the health effects of eggs. Conventional wisdom today holds that moderate consumption of eggs is just fine. A recent study shows that high consumption of eggs can increase the risk of heart disease, however. So, the debate continues.
Takeaway: If you like eggs, Dr. Lane recommends eating them in moderation but to pay close attention to the amount of cholesterol in your diet, especially if you are already at risk for heart disease. The key is knowing your risk factors, she says. The American Heart Association suggests one egg (or two egg whites) per day as part of a healthy diet.
Glutten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and some oats. If you do not have a sensitivity to gluten or have been diagnosed with celiac disease, there is no reason to avoid gluten in your diet. If you do, incorporate gluten-free grains, such as corn, millet, rice or quinoa.
Takeaway: Whatever you choose, Dr. Lane recommends incorporating grains into your diet every day to get the nutritional benefits of complex carbohydrates, vitamin B and iron.