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.
Fats in our diet have gotten a bad name for a long time now. Low and non-fat foods are widely promoted as healthier. But are all fats bad? The answer is no.
“The fact is there are healthy fats and unhealthy fats. Some, when eaten in moderation, have heart health benefits,” Dr. Parr says.
Saturated and trans fats are the unhealthy fats that should be limited. Saturated fats can be found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Trans fats are found in animal products, egg yolks, high fat dairy products, full fat yogurt and cheeses.
Monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats are considered healthy fats when eaten in moderation. Most fats in your diet should come from these two fats. They can be found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, whole olives, avocados and fatty fish.
Healthy fats can help reduce high cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. These fats are important for energy, hormone production, cell function and absorption of nutrients.
Almost all fruits and vegetables — whether they are fresh, frozen, dried or juiced — can contribute to a healthy diet.
Studies show frozen or canned fruits and vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh produce. They also cost less. The only things to watch for are added ingredients, such as sugars, saturated fats and sodium.
“Make sure to read the nutrition labels and choose products that keep those added ingredients to a minimum,” Dr. Parr says. “These added ingredients should be avoided if possible, specially added sugar. If any added salt is seen, just make sure to stay under your daily recommended salt intake.”
Unfortunately, most Americans don’t come close to filling their plates with enough fruits and vegetables. The lack of produce in American diets help explain the rise in diet-related illnesses, such as obesity and diabetes.
Fortunately, there are many ways to work in more fruits and vegetables per day into our diets.
Proteins are needed for the body to function properly. Animal-based foods are considered complete proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies need to build protein. Plant-based foods generally lack one or more of the essential acids. However, it’s not hard to get your fill of protein from a plant-based diet.
“People who want to meet their protein needs without consuming meat or dairy may do so by consuming a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes,” Dr. Parr says.
Some of the best sources of plant-based protein are soy-based products, such as edamame and tofu. Legumes, including beans, chickpeas and lentils, are also a great source of plant-based protein.
Plant-based protein has one clear advantage over animal-based protein. Only animal-based foods are associated with high intakes of saturated fats and cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Current evidence does not support that soy consumption is harmful to people. The exception may be people who are allergic to soy.
Concerns have been raised about the relationship between soy and certain health issues. High doses of plant estrogen in soy called isoflavones have been found to stimulate breast tumor cell growth in animal studies. However, studies do not indicate a link between soy and breast cancer in humans.
Studies also show consuming soy products, such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso and soy milk, may have a protective effect toward breast cancer risk and survival.
Soy products also contain nutrients that can help reduce the risk of heart disease, including high quality protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Soybeans are low in saturated fats compared to animal sources of protein.
As a plant-based source of protein, soy foods can be part of a healthy vegetarian diet, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“The healthiest soy foods are the least processed,” Dr. Parr adds.
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.
While there is some evidence that organic produce has potential health benefits, there are no definitive conclusions that organic is better. 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.
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.
“Whether you eat organic or conventionally grown produce, fruits and vegetables of all types are nature’s gift to us,” says Dr. Parr.
If the decision to buy certain produce comes down to price, Dr. Parr 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, sweet corn and pineapples.
Not all processed foods are created equal, says Dr. Parr. 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)
“Choose processed foods that most closely resemble their natural state. If the packaging lists a lot of scientific-sounding ingredients, that food is probably not your healthiest choice,” Dr. Parr says.
Multigrain and whole grain are not the same. Whole grains consist of the unrefined grains whose components — the bran, germ and endosperm — are still intact along with all the fiber, vitamins and minerals produced by nature. Whole grains are more nutritious, and consumption is associated with lower risk of several diseases.
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.
When buying whole multigrain products, look 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. Research has shown that the cholesterol from eggs does not have a significant effect on blood cholesterol.
Conventional wisdom today holds that moderate consumption of eggs is just fine. A 2019 study showed that high consumption of eggs could increase the risk of heart disease, however. So, the debate continues.
If you like eggs, Dr. Parr 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.
The American Heart Association suggests one egg (or two egg whites) per day as part of a healthy diet.
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and some oats. There is no reason to avoid gluten in your diet, unless you have a sensitivity to gluten or have been diagnosed with celiac disease. If you are sensitive to gluten, incorporate gluten-free grains, such as corn, millet, rice or quinoa, into your meals.
Whatever you choose, Dr. Parr recommends incorporating grains into your diet every day to get the nutritional benefits of complex carbohydrates, vitamin B and iron.