No one food is a magic bullet, and no one food will doom you. The reality is that most people eat both good and bad foods. Yet, even those of us not obsessed with eating a wholesome, balanced diet for every meal, often entertain a familiar inner dialogue about what we should and shouldn't be eating.
A new study, published in the journal Nature Food, evaluated more than 5,800 foods, ranking them by their nutritional disease burden to humans and their impact on the environment. It found that substituting 10% of daily caloric intake from fried foods, fatty snacks, bacon, beef, and processed meats for a mix of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and select seafood can not only reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease but can also make those who do 33% more likely to sustain the healthier eating habits.
“Generally, dietary recommendations lack specific and actionable direction to motivate people to change their behavior, and rarely do dietary recommendations address environmental impacts,” said Katerina Stylianou, who did the research as a doctoral candidate and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at University of Michigan's School of Public Health. She currently works as the Director of Public Health Information and Data Strategy at the Detroit Health Department.
"As a dietitian, I’m always telling people to ‘eat the rainbow’ because all those different colors represent different nutrients that help keep us healthy long-term," offers Mackenzie Burgess, a registered dietitian nutritionist. "The key is balance since most people eat a variety of foods, both good and bad, and we find that it helps to know what you're eating and finding a balance between foods you enjoy eating but also ones that nourish a healthy mind and body."
Elena Paravantes, a registered dietitian and Mediterranean Diet expert, says, "it's important to note that a combination of lifestyle factors contribute to longevity. And, sustainability is the key to all of them - a balanced diet, physical activity, social and community support, naps, and other practices play a role."
When you notice yourself eating too much of the bad types of food, try and balance it out by adding some of the good ones to your diet.
Let’s get this fan-favorite out of the way first. Bacon is not good for your health.
“Many don’t know that the World Health Organization has classified bacon in the same category as tobacco when it comes to carcinogenesis,” says Reyzan Shali, MD, referring to the process by which normal cells are transformed into cancer cells. “We have done a good job asking people to give up tobacco, but how come we have not done a good job asking people to not eat bacon?”
Turkey bacon isn’t a healthy choice either. "If I can convince my patients to give up bacon, the next question I get is usually whether they can have alternatives to bacon, like turkey bacon. I explain that it’s the processing that makes the meat harmful. So replacing bacon with turkey bacon to make it healthier is misguided,” says Shali.
“All types of bacon are processed to become bacon, so changing the type of bacon does not change the fact that it’s processed meat,” she says, noting that this is a difficult diet change to make, especially if someone has been eating processed food all their lives.
With that said, Shali urges people to remember when they reach for turkey bacon at the grocery store that “it’s processed meat that has nitrates. And according to a study in the Meat Science Journal, in the stomach, nitrite can eventually form carcinogenic nitrosamines in the acidic environment.”
Leafy green vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. They're packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber but low in calories. Eating a diet rich in leafy greens can offer numerous health benefits including reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental decline.
Greens such as spinach, kale, collard greens, chard, etc. are a nutrient-dense food," says registered dietitian Elena Paravantes. "Research has shown that consuming at least one serving of greens a day resulted in slower cognitive decline as measured on tests for memory and thinking skills.
If you see any added sugars on the nutrition facts panels of packaged foods, steer clear. “Added sugar has essentially zero nutritional value and has been shown in medical research to increase risk of obesity and metabolic disease,” Paul explains.
“I recommend that consumers try to cut out added sugars entirely from their diet,” she adds. “You can replace added sugar with whole foods like fruit or healthier sugar substitutes like blackstrap molasses, which is nutrient-dense and has a lower glycemic index.”
Start your day with some blueberries or raspberries atop your oatmeal or slip them into smoothies, friends.
"Berries like blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are filled with ‘anthocyanins’ which are responsible for the red, blue, and purple colors found in berries. Anthocyanins have been studied in-depth, and some research points to them as a potential source of anti-aging agents," says Burgess.
“Fried foods, yet another staple of the American diet that is terrible for our health,” states registered dietitian Angela L. Lago,also known as the Mental Wellness Dietitian. “I’m not suggesting that one never has fried foods, however, fried foods should not be a staple of anyone’s diet. In general, fried foods are higher in fat, salt, and calories, all of which are horrible for heart health and the risk of developing obesity,” she continues, highlighting that the type of oil that fried foods are cooked in is of great concern.
“Many times, especially in restaurants and fast-food businesses, hydrogenated, trans-fats are used, which are associated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. A great alternative is to pan-fry at home in olive or avocado oil or use an air fryer to get the same effect without the negative health benefits,” Lago comments.
Sardines, anchovies and salmon are particularly great for people over 50.
Paravantes calls out these fatty fish as being particularly great for those over 50. "They are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and can protect from diseases such as arthritis and heart disease," she says.
Andrea Paul, MD, medical adviser to Illuminate Labs, chimes in on why this popular snack food is bad for you: “Chips are known to be unhealthy for a number of reasons. They’re low in nutrition and high in cheap fats and sodium,” she says. “This obviously varies by brand, but health-conscious consumers want to avoid chips as a snack.”
If you’re craving crunchy food, opt for nuts or veggie snacks like kale chips, Paul says.
Burgess says that cauliflower is the latest trending healthy food for a reason.
"It’s low in calories while being high in important nutrients like vitamin C, folate, and fiber. Cauliflower also contains a type of plant pigment called anthoxanthin, which has anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Reducing inflammation helps protect the cells in our body from damage and can contribute to longevity," she says.
Hydrogenated fats lurk in many packaged foods and fast-food products.
“Hydrogenated fats are conclusively shown to increase mortality rates in population studies. It’s important that consumers read the ingredient label on their packaged food products, because many popular consumer brands of products like peanut butter contain hydrogenated fats,” says Paul, who advises avoiding these fats entirely.
“They don’t even add any flavor, and are used to improve cost efficiency for the manufacturer. Peanut butter with a simple ingredient label like dry roasted peanuts and salt is much healthier than peanut butter with hydrogenated fats and added sugar,” she says.
Tomatoes are a source of antioxidant lycopene and potassium.
"They are a source of the antioxidant lycopene, which not only can protect from certain types of cancer but is a carotenoid that can protect the skin from sun damage," says Paravantes, citing research published in the British Journal of Nurtrition on lycopene being inversely associated with death. "Tomatoes are also a great source of potassium, which plays a role in controlling blood pressure."
Try to cut processed oils out of your diet as much as possible.
Arika Hoscheit, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Paloma Health, an online medical practice focused exclusively on treating hypothyroidism, explains why: “Processed oils like grapeseed, soybean, canola, cottonseed, corn and vegetable oils are generally detrimental to human health and should be avoided. This is because they are heated to extremely high temperatures during processing, which oxidizes the oils,” she says.
“Oxidation produces free radicals that can cause damage throughout the body. As we age, our bodies have to work harder than they used to in order to recover from insults,” she explains.
“Try to limit or avoid processed oils and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are high in antioxidants. Consuming plenty of antioxidants can help to protect the body from any free radicals that are produced,” Hoscheit notes.
Paravantes points to a study that was published in the journal Vascular Medicine, which included 142 mature adults, age 66–91 years old, from the Ikaria Study (a larger study).
Researchers found "that higher consumption of coffee was associated with better endothelial function, and the individuals who drank mainly boiled Greek coffee had better endothelial function than those who consumed other types of coffee," summarizes Paravantes.
"While all types of coffee are a source of antioxidants, Greek coffee contains much higher amounts of cafestol and kahweol, substances that appear to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. An older study had found that consumption of Greek coffee improved the elasticity of arteries in individuals with high blood pressure."
These include white bread, white rice and pasta, pastries, pizza and more.
“I like to describe refined carbohydrates as foods that started out as nature intended, yet were then stripped of most of their nutrients to make them more palatable and enjoyable for the American public. Refined grain products are known to promote inflammation in our bodies, they are generally higher in sugar, and are also associated with obesity,” says Lago. “Gut health is also negatively affected by the standard American diet that lacks fiber and consists largely of processed, refined grain products.”
Lago takes the nutrient profile of 100% whole grain sprouted bread as an example. “It is abundant in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that help our body thrive. Once the bread is processed to become soft, white bread, the nutritional value of the bread plummets, the fiber is stripped, the nutrients are wiped away, and there is little to no nutritional value compared to the original item,” she shares.
“Up to 89% of the antioxidant activity in whole grains is lost during processing, flavonoids, zinc, and vitamin E are reduced by 79%, fiber is reduced by 58%,” she adds. “This can be said for rice, pasta, cereals, flour, and other whole grains that go through the refining process.”
Not a coffee fan? Herbal tea may be for you.
Paravantes recommends drinking herbal teas such as sage, fennel and oregano every day: "Consumption of herbal teas that are rich in antioxidants and polyphenols are associated with longevity. They are drunk daily, usually twice a day," she says.
Consider this while loading your shopping cart: “According to a study [published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports titled] ‘Unprocessed Red and Processed Meats and Risk of Coronary Artery Disease,’ the available evidence points to strong associations of processed meat consumption with the incidence of coronary heart disorder (CHD),” says Shali.
To reduce the risk of developing heart disease, Shali urges her patients to cut out all processed meats from their diet, especially from their breakfast.
“I know that is not easy, and I have found that helping them take small steps over time can help get them detached from these dangerous breakfast treats,” she comments.
"Polyphenols, a specific type of nutrient found in dark chocolate, have been found to lower signs of inflammation and are especially helpful in protecting blood vessels from damage as you age. Make sure to consume dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao (70% or higher) in order to gain the most anti-inflammatory benefits," says Burgess, who likes to add dark chocolate into her day by eating a handful of dark chocolate-covered almonds or enjoying dark chocolate avocado truffles as a healthy dessert.
Even though it’s been explained that processed meats like breakfast sausage, bacon and turkey bacon are horrible for your health, this category of food is unhealthy as a whole. Therefore, it merits a standalone section.
Hot dogs, deli meats, packaged bologna, beef jerky, pepperoni and more should all be avoided as much as possible, if not eliminated from your diet completely. “The World Health Organization has classified processed meats as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning it’s known to cause cancer. Processed meats contain chemicals that are not present in fresh meat,” says Lago.
"Legumes like beans and lentils are a great addition to the diet because they are packed with satiating protein and fiber," says registered dietitian nutritionist Mackenzie Burgess.
"Legumes like beans and lentils are a great addition to the diet because they are packed with satiating protein and fiber. For example, one cup of boiled lentils packs in 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber," says Burgess. "They are also loaded with a class of nutrients called flavonoids. Recent research has proven these flavonoids to be helping in maintaining our brain health long-term," she continues, recommending people add beans and legumes to quinoa salads, blend into healthier dips or stir into bean curry.
This post utilized content from the following:
Global overview of dietary outcomes and dietary intake assessment methods: a systematic review
Small changes in diet could help you live healthier, more sustainably
Experts Name The Worst Foods for Your Health
Superfoods that Experts Say Support Long Life