On Friday, I stated that nutrition information can be confusing. And it can be. However, there are some things that have been regarded as truths. How do we know this? One way is that the vast majority of researchers agree on the results. For instance, everyone agrees that we need a certain amount of protein in our diet. Where confusion begins is when we try to define how much protein we need on a daily basis and from what sources. Another way scientists have developed standards is, unfortunately, because people have suffered from either too little or too much of a nutrient.
Centuries ago, sailors who were at sea for a long period of time would develop scurvy. Back then, ships didn’t carry perishable foods like fruits and vegetables or, if they did, they didn’t last long. We now know that scurvy results from a nutritional deficiency of vitamin C. The disease can start with lethargy and end in death. Back then, vitamins had not yet been discovered. In 1747, a surgeon in the British Royal Navy, James Lind, did an experiment on ship and discovered that scurvy could be cured with citrus fruits. He didn’t know what it was exactly about citrus fruits that cured scurvy and diminished his own work by thinking that the answer had to be more than simply citrus fruits. In 1794, British Royal Admiral Alan Gardner provided his crew with daily rations of lemon juice on a 23-week trip to India. No outbreak of scurvy occurred. Afterwards, the British Royal Navy recommended citrus juice on all long-term voyages. However, it wasn’t until 1932 that the chemical structure of this vitamin was known. So, now we know that vitamin C is necessary for human health. But we’re still learning specifically how vitamin C works and just how much we need on a daily basis.
There are many other nutritional standards that have become generally accepted. A few of these truths include:
- Plant-based foods (fruits and vegetables) are better than animal-based foods (meat, dairy, eggs)
- Lean meats are better than fatty meats
- Whole foods are better than processed foods
- Whole foods are better than juiced foods
- Raw foods are better than cooked foods
- Baked foods are better than fried foods
- Grilled foods are better than fried foods
- Baked foods are better than grilled foods
- Unsalted foods are better than salted foods
- Water is better than soda pop
- Tea is better than soda pop
- Fruit juices are better than soda pop (are you seeing a trend?)
Most of the above are self-explanatory. I want to expand on a few of them. I listed cooking methods from best to worst as raw-baked-grilled-fried. Raw foods are bettered than cooked foods for a few reasons. When a food is heated, it can destroy the nutrients in that food. Some nutrients are more stable under heat, but the higher the cooking temperature, the more nutrients are destroyed. Also, nutrients can “leak” out of a food item when cooked in water. The nutrients end up in the water (that you usually throw out) and not in the food (that you are eating). Grilling foods usually involves cooking at high temperatures, which can lead to the formation of certain chemicals which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Those char marks on grilled food? Those may cause cancer. If you’re going to grill, the best way to prepare foods is to marinate them first to help prevent the carcinogenic compounds from forming and grill at a low temperature. Finally, fried foods contain excess calories from the fat absorbed into the food item. Excess dietary fat can lead to obesity as the fat is really unnecessary for human health.
Some things that fit into my personal list of standards that are controversial in nutrition circles include:
- Foods grown locally are better than foods shipped from far away
- Organic foods are better than non-organic foods
- Fresh is better than frozen
- Frozen is better than out of a can
- Stevia is better than sugar
- Home-cooked is better than restaurant-cooked
I grow a few of my own fruits and vegetables. There is nothing better than a tomato that came right out of my garden. The tomatoes found in a regular grocery store are pale pink, hard, and taste nothing like my bright, red, juicy garden ones. The food industry has consolidated to the point that the tomatoes you see in your store were probably picked green and shipped from hundreds of miles away. They ripened on the way to the store in a refrigerated truck. Not sunlight. Look around and see if you can find a local farmers’ market. Shop there. Taste the difference!
I prefer certified organic foods. Organic food growers must pass a series of very stringent tests to have their foods labeled as “certified organic.” One of these tests is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not allowed. There are levels for a food or product to be labeled as organic. Certified organic is the best.
Foods that are fresh are better than frozen for the same reason as cooking. Cold temperatures can destroy certain nutrients, or at a minimum, make them taste different when they thaw. Raw and frozen foods are better than canned foods, as usually food manufacturers will add extra sugar, salt, fat and/or preservatives to your food.
Stevia is not new, but it is relatively new to the U.S. market. Stevia is a plant native to South and Central America and Mexico and is used as a sweetener. There are cultures that have used stevia for more than 1,500 years. The leaves are 30 – 45 times sweeter than sugar, but the processed versions in the stores can be up to 400 times sweeter. The great thing about stevia is that it doesn’t elevate your blood glucose (sugar) level like sucrose (table sugar). Since it doesn’t elevate your blood glucose level, it doesn’t trigger the release of insulin, which in turn means that it doesn’t lead to obesity like regular sugar. So, why haven’t we heard of it before? Politics. Who has the most to lose from the U.S. government approving stevia as a sweetener? The sugar industry. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has not yet approved stevia as a food additive (i.e., sweetener) even though people have been using it, safely, for over 1,500 years! You can find Truvia in stores, as their processed blend is allowed to be in stores. If you want to find stevia in the grocery store, you won’t find it next to sugar. You have to look in the health food section of your store.
Finally, I believe that home-cooked foods are better than restaurant-prepared foods. This is because restaurants have run endless studies to find out what makes food taste better and makes people eat more. The answer is… add sugar, salt and fat to everything. When I cook at home, I know exactly what is going into the foods I prepare. You really don’t know what a restaurant has added to your food.
I was pretty long-winded today, but the bottom line is that researchers are learning new things every day in the field of nutrition. Some things you can take as a given. Through extensive research, we’ve learned a bottom threshold of how little to eat and a top ceiling of how much to eat. The middle area for optimal health is still in debate for pretty much every nutrient out there. The best thing to do is follow MyPlate, eat a wide variety of foods and in a wide variety of colors, and minimize your intake of fats.
Until next time, remember that… there are no excuses when it comes to your health!