A look at how healthy eating fads have led us astray. Credits: Getty Images
Fad diets and nutrition headlines can be misleading. Experts are looking at decades of eating patterns and identifying the true secret to healthy eating.It's easy to be confused by nutrition headlines. First, eggs were bad; now, they're good. We were told to eat fewer carbs, then only healthful carbs; to eat whole grains, then no grains. And did you hear that it's OK to eat butter again? So many of the dietary directions we've followed have been missteps, but, ironically, they've taken us full circle. That's right: The secret to healthy eating lies in our past, but it took straying from those food fundamentals to get us here.
Making smart dietary choices was once considered a concern of only the overweight or the overly thin. And even then, calories were all that mattered. But that thinking came to a halt in the mid-1970s with the revelation that cholesterol can kill. Suddenly, everyone began taking notice, and cholesterol-rich foods, such as eggs and seafood, became dietary demons virtually overnight.
Shortly after, scientists realized that a high intake of saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol. But instead of instructing the public to cut back on saturated fat, experts simply recommended eating less fat across the board. Consumers began counting grams of fat, and manufacturers kept pace by eliminating the nutrient from processed foods and adding sugar and refined carbs to compensate for changes to flavour and texture.
The fat-tracking frenzy incited the era of SnackWell's, a brand of fat-free cookies and crackers that became synonymous with our eating habits. What's more, because we need fat to feel full and to absorb certain vitamins, we consumed packages of fat-free snacks, devouring sugar and calories with abandon. Soon, many were shocked by climbing numbers on the scale.
Life in the fast lane
As our increasingly hectic lives began to necessitate convenience, processed foods became more commonplace. To make grab-and-go foods, manufacturers turned to packaging plastics like bisphenol A (BPA), preservatives, artificial colours and flavourings, salt and trans fats—hydrogenated oils that are long-lasting and solid at room temperature.
But science soon revealed the perils of what lurked inside those packages. Artificial colours were linked to hyperactivity in children. BPA was found to interfere with hormones, which may lead to fertility problems in women and an increased risk of breast cancer. Certain preservatives also came with cancer risks, sodium overload brought skyrocketing blood-pressure levels and trans fats wound up being the worst type of fat for cholesterol levels and heart health.
When the low-fat, refined-carb approach to eating led to unrelenting hunger and weight gain, the stage was set for Dr. Robert Atkins and his low-carb mantra. His diet, which first emerged in the 1970s and was then popularized in the '90s, touts high-protein choices that contain lots of fat, much of it saturated. Though it appealed to meat lovers, it was criticized for its lack of nutritional balance. Yes, people lost inches and pounds—at least short term—but at the cost of their well-being, as the lack of fibre brought constipation, and excess protein increased the risk of osteoporosis.
A new wave of naturals
These days, having learned from some of our past mistakes, we're less trusting of food manufacturing "innovations" than ever before. Trans fats have been banned in processed foods south of the border. Experts blame sugar and refined carbs for rising rates of obesity and diabetes, while ultra-processed foods and their inflated sodium counts are linked to high blood pressure.
Increasingly, we're moving toward eating whole, natural foods. Today's grocery stores are filled with products labelled "organic," "BPA-free," "non-GMO," "free range" and more. Our attitudes are shifting, too. In a 2015 Tracking Nutrition Trends survey, only six percent of Canadians said convenience is the most important factor in the foods they buy. Instead, we look for foods that are free of pesticides, additives, hormones and preservatives. Organic choices are on the upswing, and we seek out locally produced, sustainably sourced foods. This approach is changing conventional farming—in some cases leading to fewer pesticides in our food.
Home cooking is also resurging, as we want to know what we're eating. According to Tracking Nutrition Trends, 66 percent of Canadians cook their meals from scratch. Despite the availability of premade foods, novice cooks are getting lessons from bloggers in making fresh recipes, including things like yogurt and almond milk, in the name of avoiding additives and preservatives. And the taste of real food, from our gardens or local farmers' markets, is regaining appeal.
New context for old basics
While more and more of us yearn for simplicity in food, there's more to healthy eating than simply reacting to nutrition mistakes of the past. Last fall, at a scientific conference in Boston called Finding Common Ground, world-renowned nutrition experts gathered to find a better path for the future. After they assessed past mistakes, one fact became clear: When restrictive nutrition recommendations, such as "eat less fat," are made without providing substitutions, chaos will follow. Had the advice to eat less fat been coupled with recommending more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, for example, the phenomena of fat-free cookies, refined carbs and trans fats might never have happened.
The conference's experts agree that we need a return to food basics, but one diet doesn't fit all. They state, "A healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or nonfat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains." But perhaps the most notable recommendation amid our history of extreme eating? "It is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern." In other words, good nutrition is about balance, not buying into a single habit or headline.
Eating as our ancestors ate 100 or more years ago is a step in the right direction. Their homemade fare offered plenty of fibre and less sodium. Sugary desserts were reserved for special occasions. Back then, people weren't noshing through Netflix marathons; portion sizes were smaller, and people were generally more active. Obesity and the chronic diseases that accompany it were not the concern they are today.
One of the trendiest diets in nutrition circles is an echo of the past: the Mediterranean diet. Traditional Mediterranean eating—including lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, healthy fats and small amounts of animal products—emerged in the 1990s and continues to make headlines for reducing risk for heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's and a variety of cancers, to name a few.
Trends will come and go, but healthful food has always existed. So, as nutrition research continues, be a skeptic: Healthy eating is based on a consensus of many scientific investigations, not one sensational headline. And most often, human innovation and modern manufacturing aren't needed to make something natural healthful. The most nutritious options we have available to us are straight from the earth and label-free—just like our ancestors used to eat them.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and the author of The Enlightened Eater's Whole Foods Guide.
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This story was originally part of "Is This The Secret To Healthy Eating?" in the March 2016 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!