This month marks the 40th anniversary of National Nutrition Month. This year’s theme is “Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day.” The theme is designed to encourage people to eat healthfully while including foods they love, their own traditions or health needs and preferences. In other words, all healthy diets are not alike.
We’ve all seen the food pyramid and most of us have a basic idea of what a healthy diet looks like, even if we don’t put our knowledge into practice. But interestingly, many nutrition experts have a new mission: to help Americans re-learn what constitutes healthy food.
The back-to-basics argument is that less-processed food is inherently better for us. Consider the high rate of obesity now in comparison with that of previous generations. When folks ate primarily what they grew on their farms and processed food was virtually non-existent, not too many people were obese. Now, with so much readily available highly processed convenience food, many Americans eat very little “real” food and obesity rates are sky high.
Many leading researchers believe we have been misled into thinking processed low-fat foods are healthy, when they aren’t necessarily. A low-fat Pop-Tart, for example, is still a highly processed food filled with additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients. Essentially, the argument states that low-fat foods are the healthier option only when they are foods naturally low in fat — fruits, vegetables and whole grains or lean meats. The processing and additives required to make packaged foods low-fat and tasty actually makes them no healthier than their full-fat cousins.
One example is diet soda. Even though it contains no sugar, it’s actually one of the least healthy things Americans consume, often while thinking they are making a healthier choice. Artificial sweeteners, once the sweetheart of the dieting public, have been linked to kidney problems, cell damage, stroke, reproductive troubles and — oddly enough — obesity. Sugar-laden sodas are also unhealthy, of course, but they do not masquerade as healthier alternatives.
We’d all be better off cutting down on processed foods and eating more foods in their original, whole form. Choosing butter over margarine, for example, may go against what we’ve been told about fat and calories, but butter is minimally processed and generally does not contain additives, preservatives and questionable ingredients.
Reading labels is vital to a healthier diet. When choosing packaged items, natural foods experts advise against buying products containing ingredients not found in the average kitchen. Most kitchens have staples like butter, salt, spices, milk and eggs; most do not include unpronounceable additives or powerful preservatives.
Another big nutrition topic in recent news is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Though many short-term scientific studies have shown the safety of GMOs — used to produce extra nutrients and protect from certain pathogens — most natural food advocates are highly opposed to their use because of ecological, environmental and food safety concerns. They argue that at the most basic level, the use of GMOs interferes too much with nature — they are man-made ingredients being injected into natural foods.
GMOs are found in many of the products we buy because they are in ingredients such as corn starch, corn syrups, sugars, flours and vegetable oil.
There’s a strong grassroots movement aimed at requiring any products containing GMOs to be clearly labeled, so consumers can make informed choices about their purchases. Many other countries — even the much-ballyhooed China — require GMO-containing products be labeled.
Another source of controversy is the use of certain food additives in packaged foods — ingredients allowed by the FDA but banned in many other countries. In fact, the same products made by the same companies differ from country to country in terms of the ingredients they contain.
For example, food dyes, harmful chemicals, artificial growth hormones and arsenic are all present in our food but illegal in European countries.
The FDA is often accused of not having consumers’ best interests at heart when determining what additives are allowed in our food supply — as in other areas, big corporations and lobbyists hold undue influence on government policy.
The subject of nutrition is far more complex than it once was, but National Nutrition Month is a perfect time to consider — and perhaps discuss with your physician, particularly if you have special health concerns — what good nutrition means to you and how you can improve your diet.
Whether you choose to eat fewer processed foods, add more fruits and vegetables, cut down on artificial sweeteners or simply enjoy less-healthy foods in moderation, every little bit helps improve overall health.
Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist.