August 15, 2003

Healthy Foods?

Just as people continue to ask whether infomercial products are "good" or "bad," they perpetually want to know if a given food is "good," or whether or not it's "healthy."

In the course of my work with Personal Trainers, I find this "what food is healthy" dilemma permeates many of the discussions trainers have with their clients. Because trainers are not always credentialed in nutrition, this brings them into a gray area, and to complicate matters further, trainers, as most Americans, are often confused as to the fine points of truly supportive eating. The clients often have their preconceived notions, and while the trainers want to offer direction, the firm commitments to those notions raise continued question marks.

In attempting to minimize the questions, let's eavesdrop on an exaggerated conversation between a personal fitness trainer and his client as they veer off into a nutritional discussion:

Trainer: "In reviewing your nutrition journal, I notice for breakfast you're eating oat cereal and drinking orange juice. Why?"

Client: "I'm eating it because it's healthy."

Trainer: "And I also notice there isn't any fish in your nutrition program. Why is that?"

Client: "Because fish is unhealthy."

Trainer: "Why are you having peanuts as a daily snack?

Client: "Because peanuts are healthy"

Trainer: "And why are you having red wine every night with a piece of chocolate?"

Client: "Stop asking stupid questions. It's healthy!!!!"

In the real world, with just a hint of researching skill, the client can find literature to back up every one of his statements.

Before writing this, I showed the above dialogue to 20 people and asked whether the client was correct. I couldn't find any pattern of agreement or disagreement. Some said the client was 100% right, others said he (she) was way off base. Some agreed with the idea of oat cereal being healthy, but took issue with the idea of chocolate being healthy. This little experiment of mine reinforced what I already knew. People are confused.

I'm going to make a statement that may surprise, even shock you. No food is healthy!

I'll go even further. No food is unhealthy, at least, not in and of itself.

Food, if we are referring to a mix of nutrients suitable for human consumption, is nutritious. If you're low on fuel, a handful of gummi bears can provide a short term glucose driven energy supply. If you're close to famished, a McDonalds Happy Meal can provide vital nutrients for survival. The idea of a specific food, in and of itself being healthy, is in my opinion a combination of old wives tales and marketing driven by food sellers.

What's up with Soy?

Is soy healthy? Sure, if you read the literature put out by the Soy Protein Council. They have a mission. The Council's primary purpose is "to promote the growth and interests of the soy protein industry and broaden the acceptance of soy products as key components of the worldwide food system." Of course the Soyfoods Association of North America would agree. If you attend their annual symposium you'll leave ready to make soy the mainstay of your diet. Way back when soy wasn't given much attention at all, at least not as a source of quality nutrition. It found it's place as a "meat extender." Today natural markets have trouble keeping everything from soy burgers to Tofutti, a soy based ice cream alternative, on their shelves. You can find research to support the idea that soy lowers "the bad cholesterol," that it prevents cancer, and that it offsets the risk of coronary artery disease. Articles in health magazines will introduce words such as "phytoestrogens" and "isoflavones" which are "proven" contributors to health.

Here's what's happening. Marketers of products, soy farmers, and those who stand to prosper by the ever-growing popularity of soy are cleverly exploiting the health virtues of components of a food, but if we fail to look at a food as a piece in a synergistic puzzle, and if we fail to recognize that just as we can extract nutritional elements that may be virtuous, we can find potentially dangerous elements, we are being short sighted. There are those who stand to prosper by making "good fats" the hero of the decade, and many of these organizations have identified the "dangers" of soy. They'll refer to a 1985 study titled "The USDA trypsin inhibitor study," and point out that the soybean contains toxins, some of which inhibit enzymes need for protein digestion. Extrapolating upon this "research information" they'll point out that the ingestion of such toxins can lead to issues such as gastric distress, amino acid deficiency disorders, and cancer. They'll also point out that soy contains haemagglutinin which can inhibit oxygen uptake and growth. Phytic acid is another element present in the soybean, and guess what it does. It blocks the transport and hinders the absorption of minerals. Can this be proven? Sure. We can turn to research studies conducted on tribal populations in various parts of the world and draw correlations between phytic acid intake and disease. We can turn to research on animals to show that soy intake causes increased incidence of thyroid cancer in rats. There is in fact so much research, and so many meta-analyses, we can pick and choose the information we want to use to support whatever side we opt to lean on.

So is soy good? Well, sure. Is it bad? Umm. Yup. Does it have its place as a component of a supportive nutrition program? Absolutely. Is it, in and of itself, the great nutritional health salvation to cure all that ails us? I think you know the answer.

Got Milk?

Is dairy healthy? Well, whole milk gets 49% of its calories from fat. Hmm, so that's not healthy, is it? Well, let's see . . . some of the diet gurus say fat is good. Maybe it is healthy. It contains calcium, doesn't it? And we need calcium. In fact, some of the hot new calcium products claim calcium deficiency is responsible for every disease known to mankind. But wait a minute. Doesn't milk contain hormones, and toxins, and Bovine Growth Hormone? Aren't those milk producing cows injected with antibiotics that result in the growth of drug resistance bacteria? Doesn't milk have lactose and aren't many Americans lactose intolerant? Then again, milk is a valuable source of biologically available proteins. We need protein for tissue maintenance and growth. Oh, wait . . . but it causes mucus which clogs up your lungs and sinus cavities much like the gunk that plumbers have to remove from clogged drains.

So how do we make healthy food choices?

If you're looking for a resolution of the "good or bad" issue, you won't find it in this article. I don't believe you'll find it at all. Anywhere. The point is, healthy nutrition is a regimen that allows you to function at your best, to maintain optimal metabolic function, to sleep well at night, to have consistent energy, and to keep your immune system, your skeletal system, and your cardiorespiratory system functioning at optimal capacity. Specific foods aren't healthy or unhealthy, but habits can be. I've been encouraging people to eat sensibly, to make the most natural food choices possible, to avoid simple sugars and refined and processed grains, and to get a mix of proteins, complex carbs, fiber, and essential fat. In attempting to make this simple, I've been encouraging people to consume a lean protein, starchy carb, and fibrous carb every time they eat and to attempt to make their selections from a wide variety of foods. I've been encouraging people to drink water, lots of water, and of course, I've been encouraging people to integrate both aerobic exercise and resistance exercise into their lives so the body is best equipped to utilize the ingested nutrients for processes that lead to health and well being. Unless you have specific food sensitivities, I assure you, you can be healthy with or without soy, with or without dairy, and with or without meat. You just have to find a manner of consuming those nutrients you require to keep the human machine functioning at its best and with the guidelines I've laid out, I believe most "experts" would agree you're "eating right."

Let's go back to the foods I mentioned in the trainer:client conversation at the beginning of this article:

Oats. Good or bad? We know they're good. How do we know? Well . . . let's see . . . the Cheerios commercials tell us they're good. The Quaker Oats product marketing tells us oats can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. That started around 1986, when a study, that was in part funded by Quaker Oats, was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. That study prompted Quaker to advertise that research had proven a 10% reduction in cholesterol. What they failed to make evident was that the study initially put just over two hundred subjects on the American Heart Association modified fat diet and found the fat modification resulted in a 7% drop in cholesterol. At that point oat bran was added to the modified fat diet and the cholesterol continued to drop another 3%. Was it the result of the oats? Who knows, but Quaker was quick to run with it and shortly thereafter oat bran was being added to just about everything containing grains. Oat bran muffins, oat bran breads, and oat bran cereals were all jumping on the "reduce cholesterol" bandwagon. In 1990 a Harvard study by Sacks and Swain showed that oat bran had no effect upon cholesterol. Still, today, people are buying oat bran cereal believing they are taking a step toward health. Is it bad for you? No, but will a bowl of cereal in the morning have a dramatically positive impact upon your health, fitness, and well being? Not likely. If you're concerned with body composition, and have more fat on your body than you'd like, is a bowl of oatmeal and orange juice ideal? far from it. The release of glucose into the bloodstream is certain to impact insulin levels and create a hormonal environment that is not conducive to fat release.

Is fish "healthy?" Well, fish is typically low in fat, contains an abundance of protein and is rich in the much praised Omega 3 essential fatty acids. You can also read articles scaring you away from ever consuming fish as they'll lay out the hazards of mercury toxicity. Is fish good? Yup. Can fish be bad? Uh-huh. So is there room for fish in a supportive eating program? I believe there's lots of room, assuming again, it is a part of an overall program and that seafood choices come from a variety of sources.

Is there room for peanuts in a nutrition program? Sure. Peanuts have valuable essential fats and can be a source of protein. Does that mean they're healthy? Well, too much saturated fat can lead to fat accumulation and peanuts are relatively high in saturated fats. So are they "good?" Well, sure, as long as they're integrated into an overall program of supportive nutrition.

Red wine? Is it good? Well ask any wine connoisseur and of course you'll get an affirmative response. Ask a sports nutritionist and the response will likely go in the other direction. Yes, wine does contain polyphenols which can keep the arteries clear, and yes, the grapes do contain bioflavanoids, which are antioxidants and can ward of cancer. It also contains sulfites, histamine, and tannin, which have been indicted in causing headaches. It also contains alcohol which is the simplest sugar there is. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram (other sugars contain only four) and has next to no nutritional value. Alcohol can affect insulin levels, can hinder fat release, can lead to food cravings, and we won't even discuss impairment or addiction potential. So, good, or bad? Both . . . or neither. Can you enjoy a glass of wine every now and then and maintain a healthy regimen? Of course. Is it the drink of champions? Well, while Gatorade also has its shortcomings, I don't think the NFL is about to trade it for red wine. At least, not on the field.

And finally, chocolate! If you want to believe chocolate is good, you'll pay attention to the fact that chocolate rich in flavanoids delivers tiny little nutrients that can play a tiny little role in offsetting risk of heart disease and stroke. If you want to be a little more balanced in your approach to supportive eating, you'll recognize that the most publicized studies evidencing the virtues of chocolate were funded by Mars, Inc., the manufacturer of Snickers, Milky Way, and Twixt. Can you eat chocolate and be fit, lean, and healthy? Sure, but the best advice I can offer here is save it for the cheat day.

Allow me to list, in review, the hints I offered for supportive eating.

  • Consume a lean protein, starchy carb, and fibrous carb every time you eat
  • Be certain to get adequate intake of essential fatty acids
  • Attempt to make your selections from a wide variety of foods
  • Drink water, lots of water, all day long
  • Make the most natural food choices possible
  • Avoid simple sugars and refined and processed grains
  • Integrate both aerobic exercise and resistance exercise into your life

Simple? Sure it is. From this point forward, when someone asks me whether a specific food is "good" or "bad," I'm directing them right here, to this article!

If you want more info on supportive eating, look into my programs or consider my book, EAT! Supportive Nutrition For the Body You Love.

Here are a few other related articles (previous updates listed below):

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Previous Updates:

Update 7/7/03 - Bars and Meal Replacements . . . What's Best?

Update 6/9/03 - The Ab-solute Truth
Update 4/20/03 - The Great Diet Debate & Atkins Revisited
Update 3/22/03 - I Know What I Should Eat, But . . .
Update 3/6/03 - Deceptive Food Labels
Update 2/4/03 - The Relationship Between Sex and Fitness
Update 1/25/03 - Phil's Biggest Mistake - The EAT! Formula Screw Up
Update 1/12/03 - The Talk Show Illusion (Infomercials exposed)
Update 12/14/02 - Penis Enlargers and Breast Enhancing Pills
Update 11/20/02 - How Do I Lose This?
Update 8/27/02 - The Promise and the Real Story Behind the Infomercials
Update 8/01/02 - Clearing up Four Prevalent Myths

Update 6/20/02 - Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
Update 5/11/02 - Miracle GH, What "Works"
Update 3/25/02 - Women on Steroids and More on Core Training

Update 2/15/02 - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Fitness
Update 1/14/02 - Counting Calories
Update 12/28 - 'Twas the Night Before New Years
Update 12/8 - The New Electronic Ab Offerings
Update 12/12 - The "Magic" is Within You
Update 11/20 - Holiday eating!

Update 11/3 - Weight Loss Bread and other Nonsense!
Update 10/29 - Supplement Values
Update 10/3 - Getting Back to Doing What We Do
Update 9/19 - Tragedy and Love, RE: Sept 11
Update 8/15 - Myths, Fallacies, False Beliefs
Update 8/1 - The Internet, Leptin, Steroids, and more
Update 7/9 - The New Supplements
Update 6/14 - Seminar offerings and clarity on "Brownies"
Update 5/29 - Lose Weight, Eat Brownies?!?!?
Update 5/1/01
- Pizza, Beer, and Fitness
Update 4/7/01 - "Phil-osophies" and Rip-Off Realities!
Update 4/1/01 - Gourmet Recipes!
Update 3/15/01 - Research Has Proven?
Update 3/1/01 - Preparing for The New Infomercial
Update 2/1/01 - Time, Space, Matter, and Energy
Update 1/15/01 - Atkins hits the UK
Update 10/7/00 - Supplements, Additional Clarity
Update 7/27/00 - The Experts Round Table, Almada, Colgan, Parillo
Update 7/3/00 - Core Training & Metabolism Boosters

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