What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

Nutrition fads draw attention, but the real harm is in common, processed foods.

Food myths abound, but whether or not you try to cure a hangover with food from the greasy spoon or lose a few pounds with a maple syrup fast, you’re probably not doing a significant amount of damage to your body in the long term. There, is however, a whole lot that we don’t know about our standard diet that is causing a problem. Studies show most Americans know very little about what they’re eating, and in a society seduced by labels like “low fat,” “sugar free,” and “reduced sodium,” we are very trusting. How many of us really take the time to know what we’re eating? We’re not all chemists and nutritionists, but there are laymen’s terms when understanding food that we should focus on.

According to a report by U.S. News Health, 76 percent of 1,000 Americans polled, agreed with the statement: “Wine can be good for your heart.” Partly true, it turns out that only 30 percent of those polled actually knew what the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends as a daily limit for consumption. Think you know how many? It’s two glasses per day for men and one glass per day for women. Exceed that, saysthe AHA, and you’re at increased risk for a handful of serious health issues like heart disease, cancer, and obesity.

That same report found that we know very little about the sodium in our food choices. 46 percent of those polled said that table salt is the primary source of sodium in American diets, when in fact, processed foods like canned foods and condiments make up almost 75 percent of sodium consumption in the U.S.

This brings me back to a recent Michael Pollan lecture I attended. We’re stuck in a vicious cycle of focusing on all of the various “health” labels, and yet we have totally forgotten about what foods are really good for us. In our quest for finding quick fixes to our health problems, we have totally lost touch with epicurean reality.

Forget the organic, gluten-free vegetarian fusion dishes; when it comes to our national food culture, we have to get back to basics, and with that, an understanding of what we’re putting into our bodies.

Some common misunderstandings:

Fat free means calorie free

As a society, we’re way too focused on fats, and anything that screams “fat free” is probably compensating with ample amounts of sugar, an ingredient that as of late, is much discussed as a food toxin.

If you’re not eating meat, you’re not getting enough iron

You don’t need a portion meat a day or even a month to keep up your iron levels, and in fact, most Americans are getting too much iron. Green vegetables, beans and lentils will supply plenty of iron for your body, and are less absorbent when you’re already at your iron intake maximum.

Fats and oils are bad

We don’t need to be dousing our plates in olive oil and butter, but if you’re swapping natural fats for synthetic replacements in the hopes of canceling out the negative effects, you’ve gone a step too far. Our understanding of fat’s role in health and weight has evolved since the 90s fat phobia that gripped the country and left us collectively fatter and sicker. Monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vital, according to the Mayo Clinic. Even butter can be healthy in reasonable amounts. Opt for what’s minimally-processed over what’s “free,” and trust what Mother Nature provides.

While we each have to find the balance of nutrients that works for our own bodies, that should be built on a foundation of unprocessed, unbleached, unrefined whole foods. Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks seems to have a good grip on that idea. Her Super Natural Cooking cookbook is a frequently skimmed-through publication in my own kitchen.

Over the last several decades we’ve made it acceptable to eat unhealthy food, to the extent that simply seeking out fresh produce from the farmers’ market makes one a foodie. When did it become snobby to choose broccoli over a microwaveable pasta dish with processed alfredo sauce?

We obsess over crash diets and cleanses, miracle nutrients and superfoods, and argue about the risks and benefits of them all. But it’s not fad diets that hurt us so much as the diet.

Editor’s note: Our Foodie Underground column will resume next week, including a special announcement. Stay tuned!

Images: stevendepolo


Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.