Debates over nutrition are always rampant in newspapers, magazines and on television. There are entire sections in bookstores devoted to healthy eating and weight loss cookbooks, and there are hundreds of diets that claim to be the best for you and your body. Whether it is a Paleo, gluten-free, vegan or low-fat diet, each has its own horde of followers. Entire careers of chefs, writers and personal trainers are based on convincing consumers that a certain way of eating is best.
To decide which type of diet is truly best, some people may turn to the federal government’s guidelines as an ultimate authority. Unfortunately, recent findings have shown that these guidelines may be in fact outdated and underresearched.
While I am really interested in learning about healthy eating and strive to maintain a healthy diet, balance is the most important thing to me. Rather than trying to eat fewer than a certain number of calories per day or completely cutting out certain foods, I like to focus on getting in a variety of important nutrients. Even though the majority of my diet is healthy, I will never pass up really good chocolate chip cookies or a slice of pepperoni pizza. Unfortunately, our society is made to believe that certain foods or things like salt and cholesterol must be avoided as much as possible.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines on The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s website health.gov dictate that one should consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, less than ten percent of their calories from saturated fats and fewer than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. However, as more and more research is done, it has been revealed that some of this advice is not correct.
Sodium, for example, is an essential nutrient that the human body needs to survive, and a diet extremely low in salt can be bad for one’s health. Cholesterol has always been feared, but the majority of people don’t respond negatively to dietary cholesterol, which is highly concentrated in foods like egg yolks, red meat, butter and cheese. A study in which people were told to consume three whole eggs per day for 30 days showed that their cholesterol levels barely changed, suggesting that dietary cholesterol intake does not have much of an effect on cholesterol levels for most people (Harvard School of Public Health, “Eggs and Heart Disease“).
People have long avoided eating egg yolks and red meat because of the stigma against cholesterol, missing out on beneficial nutrients like protein, vitamin A, calcium and omega-3s. Because it is becoming increasingly apparent that the amount of cholesterol consumed does not have a significant impact on the levels in your body, a government committee is now encouraging the repeal of the guideline that declares that we should consume less than 300 milligrams of the substance per day.
The root of these unsound guidelines is epidemiological studies, or the branch of medicine that deals with the possible control of diseases. More useful, however, than epidemiology are randomized controlled studies, such as the one in which participants ate three eggs everyday. For some research topics, like cigarette or drug use, randomized controlled experiments are unethical because these subjects are actually detrimental to one’s health, but for food-related questions this is not an issue.
When randomized controlled studies have been done, the results that prompted the instatement of dietary guidelines from the government were not all that powerful. In a study on a low-fat diet in which one group ate a low-fat diet and was compared to a control group, cholesterol was shown to have decreased for both groups, indicating that the diet was not actually a huge factor in the cholesterol levels of these individuals. In only one of the experimental trials were the participants completely free of any known health issues. Therefore, the less healthy groups showed exaggerated results with a change in diet (The New York Times, “Behind New Dietary Guidelines, Better Science,” 2.23.15).
Instead of looking at what we should specifically avoid in our diets, amended dietary guidelines should lean more towards teaching Americans moderation. If you eat too much of any one thing, be it spinach or French fries, it can lead to negative health effects. Aaron E. Carroll, a writer for The New York Times, recently published an article including his rules for eating healthy, and he does not exclude any food group.
Rather than telling us not to eat too much salt and cholesterol, Carroll urges his readers to stay away from highly processed foods and eat more foods in their original state. He doesn’t say to avoid all processed foods completely, but instead suggests that we eat processed foods much less.
The tip I appreciate most is to use salt and fats as needed in food preparation. Without these cooking components, it is very difficult to make foods such as vegetables more appetizing. Carroll says, “Things like fat and salt are not the enemy,” and I wholeheartedly agree. While people have tried to abstain from these things for many years, incorporating them into your diet makes it more likely that you’ll include nutrient dense foods like vegetables (The New York Times, “Simple Rules for Healthy Eating,” 2.23.15).
The only reason people should cut out entire food groups is if they have an allergy or taste aversion. After being told for so many years to avoid sinful things like fat, salt and sugar, it is sort of a mental game for people to learn to accept back into their diets. Hopefully as government dietary guidelines improve, Americans will realize that balance is much more healthy and realistic than exclusion.
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.