A long-time client recently shared that he’d told his doctor “Cheryl’s taught me that food isn’t evil. That takes all the pressure off.” He went on to joke, “I just need to keep the comfort food to a dull roar.” Those comments feel especially relevant this month (Nutrition Month), since the theme this year is “Take The Fight Out of Food.” Amen.
When you think of the fight in food, what comes to mind? For some, it’s guilt when they overeat or eat the “wrong” thing. See my post from December if that’s a problem for you.) Other dietitians have written about fighting with kids over picky eating, food fads and not knowing what to believe, and emotional eating.
The food fight I’ve seen a lot lately is the belief that foods are either “good” or “bad.” I’ve been doing some workplace wellness talks for Nutrition Month, and it’s brought back memories of teaching in cardiac rehab. People want to put foods in tidy categories: “Isn’t corn bad?” or “Carrots have too much sugar, don’t they?”
Truly, no food is “bad”. Overall eating patterns may be more or less supportive of your health, but one food won’t make or break you. If around 80% of your food choices fall on the health-promoting side of things, we can relax a bit about the other 20%. Unless it’s growing a layer of mold, let’s not call it “bad.”
That being said, I thought it would be fun to highlight some foods that have been unfairly disparaged, as my contribution to taking a bit of fight out of food.
- Carrots have a reputation for being high in sugar. But how much is there really? If you nibble your way through a half-cup of chopped carrots, you’ll get around three grams of sugar, compared to about one in other non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli or mushrooms. Sure, it’s three times as much, but the actual amount is less than a teaspoon, and no sugar guideline, from the World Health Organization to Canada’s Heart & Stroke Foundation to Diabetes Canada, recommends limiting naturally occurring sugars unless they’re in juice, syrup, or honey. A can of Coke has about 40g, just to put it in perspective. So if you like carrots, enjoy!
Bananas – same thing as carrots. They have more naturally occurring sugar (and carbs and calories) than other fruits, but not so much that you should “never eat” them like the Internet says. How much sugar? About 14g in a medium banana, of the 30g or so of carbohydrates. That’s a reasonable price to pay for a convenient, affordable, delicious snack with a fibre and potassium bonus. Think of it as nature’s energy bar. If you don’t want quite that many carbohydrates (say, for blood sugar control), you can always go for half and have a few nuts with it.
- Corn and potatoes – last one in the sugar/carbohydrate department. Yes, they have more than other vegetables — so much more that we lump them in with grain products like bread, pasta, and rice for meal planning.
But that doesn’t make them “bad.” They’ll give you fibre, B vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, and even a little protein. The trick is to keep your portion size to about a quarter of your plate, and that’s for all of the starches and grains in that meal.
- Processed peanut butter – if you read my January blog post, you know the deal here. Natural PB might be your best bet, but if you really prefer the smoothness of regular, it’s really not that much more sugar or saturated fat. We have bigger problems to worry about.
Coffee has a reputation as a guilty pleasure, but moderate coffee drinking appears to lower risk of premature death, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and other conditions. Just go easy on the sugar, fat-free creamer, and other extras. A caffé mocha whip is really a 450-calorie liquid dessert (that’s for a Venti made with 2% at Starbucks). You might make that an occasional treat, but not an everyday staple. A teaspoon of sugar, on the other hand, adds just 16 calories.
- Salt – I used to hand out the recipe for this delicious salmon rub in cardiac rehab. Every so often, someone would flag me down in horror: “Did you know this recipe has salt in it?!” The question, again, is how much? The 1/4 teaspoon of salt in that recipe adds about 600mg of sodium, or 150mg per serving. Hypertension Canada recommends keeping your sodium to 2000mg a day. While too much sodium overall in your diet can certainly be a problem, about 75% of our sodium comes from restaurant and processed foods. Over 3500mg in stir-fries at Earls concern me. A quarter teaspoon of salt in your homemade salmon rub, not so much. Cooking for yourself is one of the most important things you can do for you health. If a little salt helps you truly enjoy it, go for it.
- Salted nuts – nuts have been shown to lower cholesterol and are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and premature death. If you like unsalted nuts, fantastic. But if not, the pros still outweigh the cons on salted nuts. Check the label, but most won’t set you back more than 150mg or so for the commonly recommended 1/4 cup (30g) serving. Hopefully, you’re not eating so much processed and restaurant food that you don’t have room for that. As physician Yoni Freedhoff says, eat the healthiest food you truly enjoy. If unsalted nuts seem like torture, but you like salted nuts, go for it. Moderation, as with so many foods, is the trick.
- (Some) Frozen meals – If your workday lunch often consists of Subway or Soup at Hand, this one’s for you. Surprisingly, some frozen meals are healthier and actually taste pretty good. Start with brands like Blue Menu (at Superstore) and Luvo (at Superstore, Costco, and Safeway). (Blue Menu is more affordable, Luvo is downright gourmet.) Look for meals with whole grain, vegetables, 20 or more grams of protein, and less than 600mg of sodium.
- Soy contains estrogen-like compounds, so some understandably associate it with breast cancer. However, the American Cancer Society disagrees. American Institute for Cancer Research actually lists it as a food that fights cancer, although some (like Harvard Public Health) say the evidence for that is inconclusive. But no one evidence-based is recommending against it. It’s a good source of fibre, healthy fat, and protein. Just choose mostly minimally processed soy foods like edamame, tofu, and soy nuts, and skip the supplements.
Bread is the grandaddy of “bad” foods. Sure too much bread (and bread products like pastries, bagels, and muffins), especially if they’re made from refined (white) flour, isn’t a great plan. But the answer doesn’t have to be to ban it entirely. One or two slices as the quarter-plate starch/grain choice in your meal are fine. Choose mostly whole-grain bread (and watch out for white bread in disguise. See my Whole Grain Pop Quiz post to be sure.) Sprouted grains, like those from Silver Hills Bakery, even better. Don’t like whole-grain bread? Try Cobs. Maybe we’ll make you a convert. Either way, stop calling it “evil,” and you’ll take away its power. It’s just another food.
The Internet is teeming with articles that stand out by fear-mongering about one food or another. If we only ate what no one had ever criticized, we’d be eating nothing but organic wild blueberries, walnuts, and kale. If that works for you, great. If not, don’t sweat it. Let’s not make perfect the enemy of good.
As a dietitian, I spend half of my time strategizing with clients on how they can get more vegetables, beans, fish, and other health-promoting foods, and the other half talking them out of beating themselves up when they’ve eaten something “bad.” This Nutrition Month, how about we relax, enjoy, and finally make peace with food?
Note: This post, like all of my posts, is 100% not sponsored. If I recommend a brand, it’s because I like it and I think you might like it too.
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