If you’re someone who’s really watching what they eat, it can be a minefield trying to navigate healthy choices. Although we’re all aware that foods like vegetables are good for you, does that include green smoothies? And if grains are a part of a healthy diet, does that mean you can eat granola to your heart’s content? Unfortunately, the truth is a little more complicated. A recent study analyzed what foods the average American thinks are healthy as opposed to what nutritionists actually deem to be healthy. Some of the results proved that the population is relatively well-educated on what constitutes a healthy choice – and some results illustrated that even nutritionists can be divided on what they consider good for you.
Why is it so difficult for Americans to know what foods are actually healthy? The answer comes down to a complex combination of mixed messages, confusing marketing, and lingering public perception. Let’s examine where the disconnect lies, and what it means for someone who’s trying to stick to a better diet.
The public perception versus nutritionist opinion debate was initially started by the New York Times, in an interactive article that highlighted just how big of a divide exists between the two sides. Although many Americans would consider themselves to be wise on the subject of healthy eating – most people know that French fries and cookies aren’t good for you, for example – there’s still a lot of gray area and uncertainty.
The article contained numerous infographics to demonstrate what percentage of polled Americans believed a particular food item was healthy, as opposed to what professional nutritionists thought. Some of the most contentious splits of opinion were regarding granola bars (71% of the public versus 21% of nutritionists), coconut oil (72% versus 32%), and frozen yogurt (66% versus 32%). If you look at those top three, one thing they all have in common is a purported “health halo” – they’re marketed as being better choices. Judging by the consumer response, it’s easy to see that this pervasive sentiment is working. A further point is that supposed “healthier choices” like frozen yogurt and SlimFast shakes all contain added sugar, whether the consumer knows it or not. This is a big reason why nutritionists know that they aren’t actually healthier choices at all.
Another area where a nutritionist’s education may come in handy is identifying which foods – particularly ones that are considered “new” to the American diet – are smart picks. The choices included hummus (90% of nutritionists named it healthy versus 66% of the public), sushi (75% versus 49%), and tofu (85% versus 57%). These three foods aren’t commonly part of the American diet, which may account for the public being unsure of whether or not they’re good for you. Another contentious choice was wine, which nutritionists considered to be healthier than the public did, although the benefits of drinking wine – in terms of moderation, which kind, and so on – are still up for debate.
Lastly, the study looked at foods that both the public and nutritionists are unsure about, including steak, popcorn, whole milk, and cheddar cheese. Again, these foods have a common link – there have been multiple studies done in the last few years about how fat is actually good for us, including meat and full-fat dairy. However, at the same time, there’s still research coming out that refutes this information, or else recommends moderation or smaller portions. This confusion accounts for why neither side could come to a firm conclusion on whether or not these foods could definitely be considered healthy.
The Diet Difficulty
Where this really becomes complicated is when the average American is at the grocery store or restaurant and tries to make a healthy choice. If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to decipher nutritional information or stick to a diet, don’t fret – chances are you’re not to blame for this confusion. In fact, there’s some thought that the mixed messages are deliberate – or, as a Lifehacker article says, “Undermining public trust in science-based medicine and traditional authorities.” It points to the fact that some food companies are setting up what they refer to as “research institutes” which employ real doctors and dietitians to put that health halo on their products. This results in extremely objective findings that are then released to the public under the guise of actual, unbiased research.
The food industry is one that preys on the average person’s desire to be healthy, and it’s important to keep an open mind and not full heartedly subscribe to every finding. Better yet, do a bit of research yourself to see just where this information is coming from. It’s entirely possible that much of what you read about is actually a marketing ploy, or else has someone’s financial stake in it.
There’s also the fact that not every nutritional study gets released to the public, which can contribute to all of the contradictory studies that we read about. If red meat and butter are good for us one day, then maybe next week a study will come out that says they’re not. It’s important as well to think about what special interest lobbies and corporations fund these studies, and what messages they might be controlling to the media.
The other issue is government guidelines for food, how much we should eat, and what a balanced diet looks like. These guidelines have changed over the years, including the traditional food pyramid, and some packaging still goes by calculations and recommendations that haven’t been updated in decades. Again, even with changes to official guidelines, there’s also the chance that corporate lobbies have a hand in determining these standards, rather than dietitians. What results is that the average American is receiving nutritional advice – and being told which foods are considered healthy – that’s deeply flawed and coming from a place of marketing and spin, rather than science.
When you can’t trust a lot of public perception, then how do you eat healthily? Start by questioning any form of official recommendations for healthy food – see where the source is, and what biases they might have. Question marketing and think critically. Pay attention to what licensed nutritionists have to say, but above all, choose to educate yourself when it comes to healthy food – and always stick to natural, unprocessed nutrition. It may sound like a lot of work, but at the end of the day, you can be more confident in making your own healthy choices.