Last week, a report was released showing that the safest amount of alcohol to drink is none. The study concluded that even one drink a day raises the risk of both death and disability. The analysis is based on data from 195 countries between 1990 and 2016. It is the largest study of its kind to look at population-wide alcohol consumption trends.
Not surprisingly, the study prompted shockwaves in the health world, given the popular belief that moderate consumption of alcohol is health-promoting (all those antioxidants, right?). It turns out that long-living populations such as those found in the Blue Zones, who consume lots of red wine, are likely healthy despite the wine they drink. We mustn’t forget, too, that health is not only about what you consume, but also how you consume it. For the centenarians in these communities, drinking goes hand in hand with conviviality and sociability, and having strong social ties is one of the best things you can do for your health.
This revelation probably has you wondering: what else is touted as healthy-promoting, but is instead harmful? And vice versa–are there foods considered unhealthy that are actually good for you?
Foods You Thought Were Healthy But Aren’t
1. Coconut oil
Just a few weeks ago, a lecture given in Germany by a Karin Michels, a professor at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) went viral when she referred to coconut oil as “pure poison”. The comment flew in the face of widespread beliefs about the mighty coconut as a “superfood”. In fact, coconuts contain more saturated fat than butter and meat, and pose a greater risk to heart health than lard.
Indeed, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended against the use of coconut oil last year. Frank Sacks, lead author of the advisory and also a professor at HSPH, was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying: “The coconut industry — or some other industry — is promoting coconut oil…People are gullible and will listen to advertising, especially when it comes to foods.”
2. Olive oil
Perhaps even more surprisingly, olive oil isn’t healthy either. This summer featured the retraction of a blockbuster nutritional study that formed the basis of the popular “Mediterranean Diet”. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine pulled the original paper from the record when it was discovered that it was full of flawed statistics. The journal has since published a new version of PREDIMED, based on a reanalysis of the data that accounted for the missteps, but many remain skeptical.
One of the biggest impacts of the original study is the widespread notion that olive oil is healthy. In fact, recent evidence suggests that these populations are healthy despite their high consumption of oil, and instead because of their consumption of vegetables, legumes, and fruits.
The Pritikin Longevity Center summarizes the common myths about olive oil, but the bottom line is that it is yet another processed food. Instead of eating an olive in its whole, unprocessed state, full of fiber and nutrients, olive oil is simply the fat extracted, without any of these essential components. Not only do you consume much more calories than needed, but without the added nutrition.
3. Protein powder
One of the biggest myths in the fitness world is the idea that we need a lot of protein to build muscles. In reality, protein deficiency is virtually unheard of in populations that get enough calories, and indeed the ideal amount of protein required by the human body is only about 5–10% of total calories per day (most people eat in the excess of 30% on the Standard American Diet). Consuming protein powder almost guarantees excess consumption of protein.
Moreover, most protein powders are whey-based, containing the dairy-derived protein casein. As landmark research by T. Colin Campbell in The China Study shows, cancer risk is increased with protein consumption, especially when that protein is animal-based. As well, an analysis by the Consumers Union recently showed that most protein powders, including vegan ones, contain unsafe levels of toxic compounds such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. You’d do better to eat whole, unprocessed plant foods for your caloric and protein needs.
Juicing is one of the most popular health crazes in the last few years. While fruit has sometimes been vilified as contributing to the obesity crisis given its sugar content, in fact this is more true for juice than for whole fruits. Whole fruits–a whole apple for example–contains fibre and other nutritional components that slow down the absorption of glucose. If you juice an apple, however, you extract the sugar and leave these components in the pulp.
As a result, when you drink juice, you spike up your insulin levels. In fact, one study of diabetics showed that having a piece of fruit with every meal can actually lower, not raise blood sugar response if not eaten in large amounts. So skip the juice and eat the fruit whole.
5. Grass-fed beef and butter
Grass-fed animal products have become more popular in recent years, promoted by diets such as Bulletproof Coffee and the Ketogenic diet craze. Most of the benefits, however, are over-hyped. First of all, cattle who eat grass often also still eat grains earlier in their lifespan, since there are no regulations about labelling.
As well, while grass-fed beef and butter may have slightly more antioxidants, vitamins, and omega-3’s than their corn-fed counterparts, the fact still remains that plants offer all of these nutrients without the health and ethical risks. Butter is still butter, and beef is still beef. Moreover, given the larger amount of land and water needed to raise grass-fed cattle, grass-fed products have serious repercussions for the environment as well.
Whether fish is part of a healthy diet or not is probably the biggest myth in the nutritional world, as even reputable sources of nutritional advice, such as the HSPH, still promotes fish. Much of the confusion comes from the fact that fish contain more nutrients compared to other types of meat. However, fish is still low in antioxidants and phytonutrients, lack fiber, and contain cholesterol and saturated animal fat.
As well, given the state of our oceans today, fish contain a huge amount of toxic pollutants, including mercury, PCBs, arsenic, dieldrin, and diaxins. Once again, you’d be better served to obtain your omega-3’s from plant sources such as walnuts and chia seeds, since even seaweed — the original source of omega 3’s for the fish who eat it — today contain unsafe levels of these same pollutants as well.
Foods That You Thought Were Unhealthy But Are Actually Good for You
Here are five foods that you think are unhealthy, but are actually good for you. These bad reputations are undeserved, and we are here to set the score.
1. White potatoes
Ever since the Atkins Diet, the humble potato has taken a beating in the health world. Like other carbs, it has been vilified as the culprit in the American obesity, diabetes, and heart disease epidemics. Yet, white potatoes, like other starchy foods such as sweet potatoes, rice, and corn, contain dietary fiber, more potassium than bananas, and importantly, a low amount of fat.
Recent evidence shows that much of the link between potatoes and obesity is owed to the fact that chips and fries, the dominant ways in which potatoes as consumed, are covered in vegetable oil. In fact, the more whole unprocessed starch foods you eat, the fuller you will be, and your body will convert the glucose in carbohydrates into energy. So steer clear of added oils, and instead bake (without oil) or steam your spuds for a delicious, nutritious meal.
Better, yet, combine white potatoes with their cousin, the mighty sweet potato, which adds even more nutritional punch. Just be sure to add other vegetables too for nutritional variety. Also buy organic potatoes whenever you can, since spuds are often the most pesticide-laden products you can buy.
Despite books such as Wheat Belly wheat is likely beneficial for most people, boosting immune function and improving your triglyceride levels. While it’s true that processing wheat into white bread robs it of its nutrients (and leads to potential prostate cancer risk and decreased cognitive function) and spikes insulin levels, true unrefined whole grains are associated with lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
With regard to gluten, the protein found in wheat, only a few people have true sensitivity and should avoid wheat. These include those with Celiac disease and others who have a gluten sensitivity. Before assuming you do, however, be sure to rule out other causes such as dairy, oils, and reactions to other additives in commercial bread rather than gluten itself.
Buy breads made from real yeast starters and containing as few ingredients as possible, ideally two: flour and water, and also ideally organic given the pesticides used to grow wheat today.
Soy has gotten a bad rap in the last few years over fears that it contains estrogens that are particularly harmful to men. Much of the conflicting advice about soy is due to how it is studied, with variations in type of study, type of population (e.g. ethnicity, hormone levels), and type of soy. Once again, it is best to buy organic to avoid GMO soy just in case (the jury is still out on GMOs).
As the Harvard Chan School of Public Health concludes: “Results of recent population studies suggest that soy has either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions. Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week, and is likely to provide health benefits — especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat.”
Some of those in the Paleo and Ketogenic community are concerned about consuming beans due to their phytate content. This is in contrast to evidence from the longest-living populations around the world in the Blue Zones, who all consume large amounts and variations of pulses.
Phytate, or phytic acid, is a naturally occurring compound in food such as beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, and while in the past there were concerns that these compounds may reduce the absorption of minerals, in fact recent evidence finds that this is only the case with diets otherwise poor in nutrition.
In fact, legumes lower cholesterol and promote health in conditions ranging from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Not only that, but they also provide a healthy source of plant protein.
So cut back on the unhealthy foods listed above, and instead load up on these health-promoting plant foods that have been wrongfully vilified in the nutrition world.
Nutritional advice is confusing as it is, but especially so when it keeps changing on what appears to be a whim. However, no matter your thoughts about healthy eating, the best rule of thumb is to eat as many whole, unprocessed plant foods as possible, and to exercise caution with the latest nutrition trend.