Trying to make sense of the challenges of healthy eating
We all try to eat healthy, don’t we? Well, we try, yes. Maybe. But it is not that easy. Learning to say no to all those yummy cakes and cocktails is one thing, but an equally difficult matter is the question: what is healthy these days?
Scanning the internet, we can find millions of conflicting opinions on what ‘experts’ (either scientifically trained or self appointed) believe is good for us. Some promote high fat, others low fat eating. Some worship meat, others ban it. There is the Eatwell plate (‘schijf van vijf’ in Dutch), 5 a day, Paleo, Atkins, vegan, superfoods, glutenfree, low fat, low carb, high protein, and much more. Can’t see the forest for the trees? You’re not the only one.
In the nineties we were led to believe that eating too many eggs would raise our blood cholesterol. So we limited our egg intake, or didn’t but felt guilty at every bite. Then, a few decades later, the big news came: the effect of dietary cholesterol, like the one found in egg yolk, on our blood cholesterol is minimal. Even the heath authorities admitted their mistake. We can gorge on eggs again.
Then there is meat. Protein is good for you, it makes you strong, gives you energy, so if we stick to lean meat we are good, right? No, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, red meat and particularly processed meat like ham and salami, will increase the risk of cancer. A worldwide outcry from meat lovers resulted. Many disagree, especially followers of low carb, high meat diets like Paleo, where you eat only things that were available already in the era of cavemen. Whether cavemen were particularly healthy is unknown, and beside the point, believers claim that the evolution of our digestive system is so slow that it has not yet adapted to ‘modern’ additions like dairy, potato and grain.
Are you still there? Let’s take an easy one now: fruit. Fruit tastes delicious, and has an amazing reputation. Fruit is healthy, say five a day preachers, as it is full of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. So can we unanimously applaud fruit? No, say some, fruit is full of sugar, and whether sugar comes in the shape of a can of coke or a round red apple, it is still sugar. And sugar is bad, that is the one thing experts seem to agree on. Not only does it increase risks on obvious things like diabetes, tooth decay and obesity, it has also recently been linked to blood cholesterol, cancer and heart disease.
So do we need to further discuss sugar? Can we just agree that sugar is bad for us? What about the difference between naturally occurring fruit sugars, unrefined raw sugars, honey, maple syrup and highly processed table sugars or worse, the high fructose corn syrups that are so cheap and therefore popular in the food industry? Different types of sugars have a different effect on our blood sugar levels, yet have the same amount of calories. And yes, they all provide energy, but apart from that they have mostly negative effects on our bodies. Having said that, naturally occurring sugars are balanced by the fibre, vitamins and enzymes in fruit and vegetable, which help the body deal with the sugars more easily and give added benefits. Refined sugars, on the other hand, are mainly ‘empty calories.’
Fat then, you ask, what about fat? It is surely bad for you too? If we can’t rely on simple facts like ‘fat will make you fat,’ we will completely lose it. For sure, public opinion is still very much anti-fat. Products claiming to be low fat, or even fat free, fly of the shelves. That the fat is replaced by other ingredients like sugar, starch or chemical additives, is conveniently hushed up. While most official food authorities still take the anti-fat stance, many others, often backing themselves by scientific studies, will disagree. The thing is that, like with sugars, one fat is not the other.
You knew that already, it’s the saturated fat that is bad for your, right? It clogs up your arteries, raises the risk for heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer, you name it.
Sure. Following that line of thought coconut fat, one of the most saturated fats in the world, coming in at a whopping 80%, would be the worst for you. In comparison butter, which contains only 55% saturated fat, should be much healthier.
Yet, in recent years, foodies have hailed coconut oil as the best thing since cod liver oil. It is a miracle, and can cure most diseases under the sun. With my degree in chemistry and 10 years of experience in the food industry, I have to scratch my head here.
To brush up my knowledge on saturated fat, I google ‘why is saturated fat..’ I wanted to add ‘bad for you’ but my eye fell on the first two suggestions google gave me for my query: ‘why is saturated fat bad for you’ and ‘why is saturated fat important.’
The food industry loves saturated fats. Why? They are stable, solid, and have many other properties that make them easy to use in ready-made food products, like increasing stability, mouth feel and shelf live. Highly saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature (butter/ ghee, cocoa butter, coconut fat) whereas the more unsaturated ones are liquid (olive oil, sunflower oil, canola/ rapeseed). Every fat is in fact a blend, and to really judge a fat you need to look at the entire profile, but I won’t bore you with too much chemical detail. Simply put: highly unsaturated fats are seen as ‘healthy’, and saturated ones as ‘bad.’
Saturated fats are also expensive. That’s why the food industry has found a trick: hydrogenated oils, also called trans-fats. Basically, you chemically trick liquid oil into being solid fat. These artificially saturated fats are especially bad for you. And our coconut fans claim the naturally occurring saturated fat, like the one in coconut oil and butter, is a whole different story.
In a similar way, margarine tricks liquid oil into being a spreadable substance by adding emulsifiers. Originally invented to save costs (butter was dear), margarine was later recommended for health reasons. After all, it is made from liquid, unsaturated fats. And by adding more additives, even less fat is needed to make a spread. Food authorities still promote non-dairy fat spreads like margarine, particularly low fat varieties.
Are they right? Who knows, but one thing is clear: there is more to fat than saturation. Highly processed vegetable oils like sunflower and rapeseed contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, which can be harmful in excess. In contrast to the omega 3 fatty acids, which you can’t really get enough of. These beneficial fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, walnuts, (soy)beans, olive oil and fish.
I could go on for pages about fat, but let’s leave it in limbo for now.
What about those additives, you wonder? Health authorities claim they are researched, approved and therefore safe to use, but the opposition cries murder. There is often no clear evidence to prove them right, but even I, a trained (food) chemist, struggle to believe that all these chemicals can be good for you. So sorry, no univocal answers there either.
Now for the good news, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: vegetables. Vegetables are good for you. Vegetables are the best. Yeah.
I thought one option at least was safe. Until I recently visited a nutritionist. I had to sum up what I liked to eat, and as I am such a vegetable lover I was sure to get kudos. I smiled when I read out my list.
On spinach, she shook her head. Full of oxalates.
Beet roots? No, root vegetables are full of carbs, better avoid.
Tomatoes, I offered, hesitantly, or aubergine, my absolute favourite.
The look on her face said it all. Oh no, nothing in the nightshade family.
Apart from sweet peppers. They were the best, she said.
And onion and garlic were super healthy too.
The thing is, I hate the taste of sweet peppers, and onion and garlic make me so bloated I look 3 months pregnant.
So at that point, I gave up.
Right now, to me, only one thing is perfectly clear: Nutritional science is very complex. If even the experts disagree, how are we supposed to understand what is good for us? I have decided on a different approach: common sense.
I feed my family a varied diet, rich in wholesome, natural, unprocessed products. Low on processed carbs, sugars and chemical additives. High on flavour. I avoid products where my experience has shown they cause adverse reactions in my own body. And sometimes we cheat. We are, after all, only human.