What to eat now—the latest advice holds some surprises!
Don’t eat fats...no, eat healthy fats! Try this fad! Try that fad! If you were to take all of the advice you’ve heard about healthy eating in the past few decades, you wouldn’t know what to eat. But increasingly, according to the experts, what’s old is new again. In some cases, very, very old.
The fundamentals of how to eat right have been known for a long time. “The experts have recommended for at least 50 years, and closer to 100 years, that we eat more fruits and vegetables,” says Dr David Katz of Yale University and the True Health Initiative, a global coalition focused on lifestyle as medicine.
Fats and oils
Recent advice on fats is one area where expert advice probably was wrong for a while, Katz admits, going a little “overboard” in advising people to avoid fats completely, at the expense of healthy fats that we need, such as omega-3s in fish. “Painting with such a broad brush got us in trouble,” he notes. His advice today? Eat wholesome foods in sensible combinations and amounts. That means lean meats such as venison or grass-fed beef, both of which are low in saturated fat.
Eggs are OK in moderation as well. And don’t leave avocados, almonds, olives and salmon out of your diet, since they are high in healthy fat. They contain nutrients we need. But at the same time, don’t worry about whether you’re eating enough vitamins and minerals—if you eat a variety of wholesome, real foods, you’ll get everything you need. “Focus on foods and let the nutrients take care of themselves,” he says.
Oils are another way to get more healthy fats in your diet. “The fats you use to prepare a meal are as important as the fats you take in,” says Govers. Healthy oils include olive oil, soy oil, peanut oil and rapeseed oil. Use coconut oil sparingly, though, as it’s loaded with saturated fat.
How can you tell whether your oil is a good choice?
An oil that’s liquid at room temperature tends to be better for you. “The problem comes when you have hard fats that are solid at room temperature,” Govers notes.
Read more: 6 Simple tricks to eating less
It’s no secret that foods grown locally are fresher. As a result, they usually taste better—and they can be cheaper too! But thinking about where your food comes from is an important part of eating in what Manuela Thul, a dietitian in Germany, calls a “whole-some and substantial” way.
“Substantial is more than just an organic way of growing; it’s also how far it comes,” she says. “Try to eat what’s growing in your country at the time.”
Of course, that’s easy to say in the summer. But even in winter, you can get the recommended five servings per day of fruits and vegetables. Frozen fruits and vegetables can be cooked, or made into a smoothie. Aim for three portions of vegetables and two portions of fruit every day, she says.
Helping people know how to eat healthily using foods available locally is one of the goals of the profession of dietetics. Groups such as the World Health Organisation, the UN and the European Food Safety Authority suggest what nutrients we need. Then it’s the job of people such as dietitians to translate the science of micronutrients and macronutrients into food-based recommendations.
“Each country has developed their own model for it and their own food content, to address the national population and to show them what the healthy choices are in the food that’s available,” says Govers. “The original idea is a worldwide idea, but in every country is a national guide-line. They don’t differ much.”
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Fibre is a nutrient that we get from several food groups: vegetables and fruits, but also from grains. Fibre helps with bowel function and can help you feel full if you’re not used
to it in your diet. It can also help your cholesterol and blood-sugar levels.
It’s recommended for most people to eat around 30 grams of fibre a day, but that’s quite a bit, and many don’t do that, Thul says.
Look for wholegrains, she says: muesli, wholegrain breads, lentils and beans. Choose brown rice and wholegrain pasta whenever possible. And try baking with wholegrain flour. But don’t give up white flour all at once. “You need to get used to the taste of it,” Thul says. “When you have a recipe and you have 200g of flour, use 100g of white flour and 100g of wholegrain so you become accustomed to the taste.”
School lunches are often a focus when it comes to how children eat, since children spend so much time at school. But it’s about more than just what’s on their plate, says Maarit Laurinen, a food scientist based in Finland who runs the online blog Kouluruokatietopankki (“School Lunch Data Bank”). “School lunch has its obvious nutritional values and benefits,” she says, “but school lunches can also contribute to food education, social well-being, sense of community, sustainable development and local food production.”
School lunches can help young people develop what some are calling “food sense”—the understanding of how our choices affect ourselves as well as our surroundings. In Finland, Laurinen says, which is one of two countries that guarantee free lunch to all pupils during compulsory school years, some schools occasionally provide “climate-friendly” meals such as vegetarian and organic lunches, or serve locally produced fish as an ethical and ecological alternative to farmed meat or imported fish.
But school menus in some places have a way to go, especially in light of rising rates of obesity among kids, Thul says. Many children are eating too much meat, just as adults are. Laurinen notes that adding more fish to school meals (as well as home meals) is a good way to reduce the amount of red meat consumed.
Other advice for helping children eat better is, as with the advice for adults, not terribly new but with a new focus. The obesity epidemic—or endemic, which is the word Govers uses—is an issue in almost every country now.
Thul agrees. Get children to drink water, juice or fruit teas instead of soft drinks, she says, and be sure they eat enough fruits and vegetables so they don’t go looking for sweets. There’s
an understanding that the way we feed children needs to change, she adds. “It has to, because the obesity problem is just becoming so severe.”
Read more: 20 ways to sneak vegetables into your food
The “latest and greatest” advice on how to eat is often coloured by fads. And fads have got us into trouble in the past. Low-fat junk food is one example Katz points to: it’s not a good idea to indulge in high-sugar, high-carbohydrate biscuits just because they’ve been engineered to have no fat. “We keep inventing new ways to eat badly,” he notes.
Many food fads are focused on the idea of strenuously avoiding one type of food or nutrient, sometimes at the expense of others—or at the expense of good sense. Thul points
to the current vogue for gluten-free foods as one example. “Sometimes I stand in front of the package and think, It didn’t have gluten to begin with!” Same goes for “lactose-free” labels, she says. “When you buy a package of flour and it says it’s lactose-free, it’s confusing to people.”
Only a very small number of people legitimately need to avoid gluten, Thul says. “It doesn’t make sense to advise every healthy person to eat gluten-free or lactose-free these days.”
Read more: Don't fall for fad diets
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