Keeping Your Eye on the Big Picture of Nutrition

woman eating salad healthy vegetablesWe talk a lot about eating on the show. In the more than 1,000 shows we’ve put together, I’ve covered everything from diets to nutrients to health fads and more. While I always try to connect those messages to the bigger picture, I know that it’s easy to get lost in the details and forget that there’s more to nutrition than what vitamin or mineral happens to be good for you this week. In the spirit of helping to make a forest out of all the trees, I wanted to spend a little bit of time this week talking about the big picture on nutrition and how to make sense of all the information that’s out there.

Whole Foods Are (Almost) Always Best

In going to the supermarket, I’ve noticed that just about every package picks out some aspect of the food they’re trying to sell. Whether it’s that they’ve added more protein or enhanced the vitamin mix, it can be tough to figure out what’s worth spending your money on and what’s not. But I’ve got a clue for you that can help cut through all of the hype on the wrapper of the next big thing: whole foods are almost always best. By whole foods I mean foods that haven’t been processed to a significant degree and don’t contain countless additives to give them a more appealing flavor, color, texture or shelf life. I’m talking about fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources like fish and nuts, and whole grains like quinoa.

If you stick with these types of whole foods whenever you’re in doubt, you can’t go wrong. There are a lot of people out there who will put just about anything on the package to get you to buy it. But at the end of the day, your body does best with whole foods, not processed ones. Now I say these foods are almost always best because there can be too much of a good thing. But if you keep your diet varied, you won’t run into any problems.

Don’t Get Stuck on Vitamins

I mention a lot of vitamins on the show and for good reason. Vitamins and minerals found in our food are essential to the proper functioning of our bodies. Without them, we can get sick and even die. The thing is, we’re still working out just how vitamins affect health when they’re given in isolation to people who already have enough to be healthy. Most of what we know about the benefits of vitamins we’ve learned through the foods they come in, like fruits and vegetables. Supplements are a more recent phenomenon and, while we know they help in cases of clear deficiency, we’re still working out their benefits to healthy people.

So it can be confusing to see a study almost every week talking about some vitamin or mineral being associated with less disease or more disease. But if you add up all the research we have to date, you wind up pretty close to where we started, which is that it’s important to have all the essential vitamins and minerals in your diet on a regular basis. If you eat a varied diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, you should get everything you need plus a little extra. If you’re concerned you might not be getting enough, check with a doctor before going crazy taking a bunch of supplements.

As a final note, you should never replace good food with vitamins. I have some patients who think it’s okay to eat junk food because they take a daily multivitamin. There is no replacement for the vitamins found in good, whole foods.

Unhealthy Foods Are Still Unhealthy

I’ve noticed a recent marketing trend that preys on people looking to better their health. Food companies have started pointing out things like the amount of fiber, vitamins or “natural” flavors, while downplaying the amount of sugar, saturated fat and additives their products contain. I’ve seen brownie bars hyped as healthy just because they contain a little protein and soft drinks clamoring for attention just because they contain vitamin C. Don’t be fooled. These companies are just trying to take advantage of your healthy intentions to sell a product they know is unhealthy. Use your better judgment. A high fiber cookie is still a cookie and the fiber doesn’t make it better for you. If a food looks like it should be unhealthy, it probably is, no matter what the health claims the package might carry.

Focus on Variety and Moderation

Even if you’re already on board with healthy eating, it can be hard to figure out how much of which foods to eat. I’ve had patients ask me everything from how often they should eat beets to how many oranges it’s okay to down in one sitting. If you focus on variety, you’ll find that most of these worries disappear. Having a variety of different health ingredients in your meals from day to day will hit all the major nutritional groups without requiring close attention to whether you’re getting too much or too little of any one food. If you hit everything often enough, it all kind of averages out.

This also helps you achieve moderation. Remember, anything, including fruits and vegetables, can be a problem if you go overboard. Carrots are packed full of fiber and nutrients, but if you have too many you can turn your skin orange. Don’t go crazy cramming a single food into your diet just because one study showed it was healthy. Instead, put it on your ingredients rotation in throw it into one or two meals a week.