Why People Are So Confused About What to Eat
By Shelby Olson, MS, LN
May 12, 2020
Should I eat low fat or low carb? Are eggs good or bad? What should I be eating to keep my brain and body healthy? These are just some of the many questions that I get in nutrition counseling sessions and classes. In short, most people are utterly confused at what it takes to have good nutrition. It shouldn’t take an advanced degree in nutrition to be able to shop for food and feed our families healthy foods.
There is an understandable frustration when people feel they have been following the nutritional guidelines and yet health problems are increasing. One example is the rise in obesity. A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine predicts that 1 in 2 Americans will be considered obese by 2030 and one in four American are projected to be “severely obese.” I often share with clients struggling with their weight (or any other health condition) that it‘s not a lack willpower that got them here, but potentially more a product of our food system. So how did we get here?
Industrialization of our Food System
Post World War II brought many changes, including both the technology to produce food in mass quantities and the transportation to move that food to all corners of our country. This rapidly changed the American food system into quantity of crops (soybeans, corn, and wheat) over quality, increased processed foods, and dramatically increased the content of fat, sugar, and calories in the average diet. Those shifts, coupled with the movement of more women into the workforce, created a demand for convenient food options. From 1966 to 1999, the average time an adult (aged 25-54) spent cooking decreased 25%, with a 43% decrease among women. Sure industrialization has driven down the cost of food and kept those costs down, but I liked how Dr. Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, said “when it comes to the mass production and consumption of food, strategic decisions are driven by economics – not science, not common sense, and certainly not health.”
In the rush to convenience, manufactured foods have dramatically increased on shelves today with 60% of our calories coming from processed and refined foods, otherwise known as “ultra-processed foods.” These are foods that combine refined grains, processed vegetable oils, and sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup – all connected to the production of corn, soybeans, and wheat. Dr. Mark Hyman, author of Food Fix, hit the dangers of these foods home when he shared “for every 10% of your diet that comes from processed foods your risk of death increases by 14%.”
Fast-paced lifestyles mean prepared and pre-packaged convenience foods have become a way of life for many, but not without affecting our health, as Dr. Hyman stated above. That is a great reminder that the best defense we have for our health and vitality is real food; real protein, real vegetable and fruit carbohydrates, and real natural fats.
Debunking Confusing, Conflicting Nutrition Recommendations
Since the 1950s we have heard conflicting information on the role dietary fats play in our health, especially with regards to heart health. The theory that fats and animal proteins increased our risk for heart disease was used as the foundation for the USDA’s (United States Department of Agriculture) dietary guidelines. Unfortunately, in recent years, it’s been found that the sugar industry paid researchers to point the finger to dietary fats as the problem for heart health. How disheartening! Dr. Marion Nestle, in her years of research, uncovered that many food companies are the sole source of funding for the scientists that are tasked with determining the health effects of foods on human health.She cautions consumers that it’s critical to ask “Who is funding the research?”
With the low fat or no fat recommendations coming from the medical establishment and government policymakers, food manufacturers started to create a host of products that were low fat. As the fat decreased, the amount of sugar and other food additives dramatically increased in processed foods to adjust for the change in taste and texture. In simple terms, these companies swapped sugar for fat, which didn’t help anyone’s health.
The recommendation to avoid fat or eat low fat continues to create confusion for consumers even today. In 2015, the federal nutrition advisory committee reversed their previous recommendations for cutting out saturated fats – stating that butter, eggs, and other cholesterol containing foods do not increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood. So yes – you can eat eggs for breakfast each day! The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also removed limitations on total fat consumption, noting that reducing total fat does not lower the risk for cardiovascular disease. After almost 40 years of low-fat recommendations, you can understand why many still believe that fat is bad for our hearts and bad for our waistlines.
Onward and Upward!
Ok … so where do we go from here on our road to better health?
I often encourage my clients to focus the changes they can make for their health – starting with simple foods – much like our grandparents or great grandparents would have eaten. When we go back to the basics, we choose real foods to support our body and brain; real protein like you would get from your local farmer, real carbohydrates that you could grow in your garden, and real fats found in nature (fresh guacamole anyone?).
What you put on your plate does not (and should not!) have to be overcomplicated to be delicious and healthy. If you want help in making sense of the confusing nutrition recommendations and what is right for you, I’d highly encourage you to sign up for a video or phone nutrition consultation. We can create an eating plan for your unique biochemistry and personal health goals.
- Ward, Z. et al. (2019) Projected U.S. State-Level Prevalence of Adult Obesity and Severe Obesity. New England Journal of Medicine. 381:2440-2450 https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMsa1909301
- Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Food System Primer. http://www.foodsystemprimer.org/
- Nestle, Marion. (2007). Food politics: how the food industry influences nutrition and health. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press.
- Kresser, Chris. (2020). Revolution Health Radio. https://chriskresser.com/fixing-our-broken-food-system-with-dr-mark-hyman/
- Hyman, Mark. (2020). Food Fix: How to save our health, our economy, our communities, and our planet – one bite at a time. New York, NY.
- Kearns, Cristin & Schmidt, Laura & Glantz, Stanton. (2016). Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Internal Medicine. 176. 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394. https://www.drperlmutter.com/study/sugar-industry-coronary-heart-disease-research/
- Mozaffarian, D., & Ludwig, D. S. (2015). The 2015 US Dietary Guidelines: Lifting the Ban on Total Dietary Fat. JAMA, 313(24), 2421–2422. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2015.5941
- McDonald, B. L. (2017). Food Power: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar American Food System. Oxford University Press.
- Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food
- Taubes, Gary. The Case Against Sugar.