This week we learned that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) nutrition guidelines considers Frosted Flakes healthy, but not avocados and nuts. This is nuts, but FDA’s PR nightmare mostly underscores why no one should be labeling individual foods “healthy”.
A DEBACLE DEFINING HEALTHY
Over 20 years ago bad science figured low fat was healthy, and now the hubris of yesteryear has come back to haunt us. Today we understand excessive trans fat is not healthy, however a fiery debate rages regarding the healthfulness of naturally occurring saturated fats and polyunsaturated oils. What a mess.
And despite the dispute, the FDA is trying to determine how to define “Healthy”, supposedly so that clueless consumers can figure out what to buy at the supermarket. I don’t buy it.
WHAT’S FOOD LABELING GOOD FOR ANYWAY?
- Whole grain cereals that are little more than highly processed foam with added sugar.
- Juices that are little more than sugar water with vitamin C.
- Hundred calorie packs of highly refined sugar and starch parading as a great way to limit eating too much
- Better for you snacks that don’t always seem better. There’s plenty of highly refined organic junk food stacked on every shelf.
- Products in every department of the grocery store labeled “High Protein!”–until you consider the amount of carbohydrate.
KNOWLEDGE IS NOT THE SAME AS BEHAVIOR
All this information hasn’t seem to improve how Americans eat, with people purchasing more sweets and highly processed food than 20 years ago.
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) effort to guide consumers to better food choices confuses too many. My experience tells me that most regular folk looking at a Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list require coaching. Even I need to check my references to remember exactly what “low calorie”, “reduced fat” or “low sodium” means.
When I taught basic nutrition at Santa Monica College and UCLA, too many students couldn’t calculate a percentage of calories from carbohydrate, protein or fat. Confusion reigned as I tried to explain why a percentage of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) actually means. Too often claims on the front of the food packages hinge on the flimsiest of data, and end up encouraging people to buy products dressed up as healthful, but just as likely contribute to a poor diet overall.
FEEDING OURSELVES WELL
Feeding ourselves is the most complicated behavior we humans endeavor. The time, energy and skill to do it well overwhelms most, especially since we pretend the shopping, cooking and eating is supposed to just happen. The plethora of prepared foods at grocery stores coupled with an increasing number of food prep and food delivery companies, in addition to all the taking out and eating out tells me all I need to know.
When it comes to food labeling, we need to stop pretending that any one food is healthful. Likewise, no one food ruins your whole diet. Rather than preoccupation with any one food or nutrient, we need to help consumers figure out an approach to food that works so that they enjoy good health. Therein lies the dilemma.
AN APPROACH TO FOOD THAT WORKS
There is no single right way to eat, however there are plenty of ideas out there telling you how to eat, including food rules that focus on counting calories, writing down what you eat, and all those other absolutes that usually backfire. I prefer to share guidelines that stick with the basics and help people develop adequate self regulation and resilience to eat well as a lifestyle. Here’s a few of my favorites:
- Try to eat when you are hungry and stop when you feel satisfied. Sometimes that will mean slowing down so you can determine how much is enough. Over hungry usually results in over eating.
- Eat a balance of protein rich foods with enough fruits and vegetables, modest starch (if at all) and adequate fat to feel satisfied over time. But remember that the balance that works for one person may not work for someone else.
- Choose mostly whole foods, meaning foods that are minimally processed and retain most of their natural goodness. Ideally the cook starts with fresh foods and prepares them with care. Too often large companies preparing food skimp on the ingredients and use cheap fillers or substitutes to maximize their profit margin.
- Enjoy every bite. Food’s rightful place embraces both social context and cultural roots.
- How we grow food matters. As you can, purchase food that is grown with minimal harm to humans and the environment. That translates to paying more for organic or sustainably grown plant foods and more grass fed, pastured and cage free animal products. We can pay the farmer now, or pay the doctor later.
Since data tells us people continue to spend more on sweets and processed foods, there is plenty more to do to help consumers, but I’m not sure having the FDA define what is “healthy” is going to help. What do you think would?