I frequently see clients and people on the internet who are afraid to eat 'unhealthy' foods such as preservatives, soy, gluten, oil, artificial sweeteners or sugar. It makes me very sad. Of course good to eat healthy, but these people have become much too fearful. Many of these foods are not unhealthy at all if eaten in moderation. In this article I will tell you how you can eat simply, tasty and healthfully, without fear. For each topic you can click the links to science based information if you want to know more about it.
Healthful eating can seem complicated, but the basics are simple.
1. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts have proven health benefits. A large portion of your diet should consist of these minimally processed foods.
2. For calcium it is important to use fortified plant milk, tofu and/or dark green leafy greens on a daily basis.
3. If you eat little or no animal products, it is important to take a B12 supplement. In most countries it's prudent to supplement iodine. You can also take vitamin D and algae oil for omega 3. If you eat a varied diet you do not need a multivitamin, but a multi can be a convenient way to get B12, iodine and vitamine D in one pill. Check whether your multi contains the recommended amounts.
4. Don't eat too much or too little. If you eat more calories than your body needs, you will gain weight. If you eat less than you need, you will lose weight.
5. You don't need to eat organic and unless you have some kind of sensitivity or intolerance you also don't need to eat additive-free, sugar-free, gluten free or other forms of 'free'. These things don't have proven health benefits for most people.
Don't let them get to you
Unfortunately there is lot of fearmongering about food, both on the internet and in books. Most of us have read scary things about soy, gluten, 'ingredients you cannot pronounce', chemical additives, MSG, GMOs, microwaves, conventional agriculture and toxins. Often this information comes from diet gurus or manufacturers who want to sell you their product. Some of it comes from innocent by people who got scared themselves and are now passing the fearmongering on to you.
Yes, some people are allergic or intolerant to ingredients such as soy and gluten, but for most of us these products are fine to eat. We don't say nuts are unhealthy because some people have nut allergies, do we? Soy is a legume and has been proven to have many of the same health benefits as other legumes like lentils and chickpeas. Avoiding gluten means you miss out on a lot of nutritious whole grains. And don't forget about seitan, which is basically pure gluten and makes a great healthy source of protein for many people.
As for additives (E-numbers in the EU). If an ingredient has an E-number, this means that it has been tested for safety by the European food authority. In the US, companies have to prove to the FDA that their additives are safe. Most additives occur naturally in our diet. Booklets and apps with information about which additives you should absolutely avoid are - you guessed it - unnecessary fearmongering. Often, scientific research is irresponsibly distorted here, so don't be fooled. The same goes for GMO crops, they are very likely safe.
Small amounts are not important
We tend to put a lot of time, money and energy into perfecting small aspects of our diets, such as bread without preservatives, bouillon without flavor enhancers, drinks with a 'good' sweetener, and vegetables without pesticides. However, fussing over such tiny amounts of these substances provides no real health benefit. The stress you get from paying attention to all these small details often outweighs any potential healthful effect that you cold achieve.
What about sugar and oil?
Too much sugar and oil are not good for you, with the emphasis on 'too much'. Eating completely sugar-free or oil-free is very difficult and not necessary for most people. The World Health Organization recommends limiting so-called free sugars from soft drinks, fruit juice, granulated sugar, coconut blossom sugar, agave syrup and other popular sweeteners to 5-10% of the daily energy requirement. That's about 25 to 50 grams of free sugar. Sugars from whole fruit and other unprocessed foods do not count.
So you don't have to eat sugar-free, but be mindful about using sugary foods and eat them occasionally as a treat. The same applies to white flours such as wheat flour and products made from it. It is better to choose whole grain as much as possible, but the occasional white flour item will not hurt you.
When it comes to fat, it is especially important not to eat too much saturated fat. Saturated fat is found in animal products, coconut oil, palm oil, hard margarine, chocolate (cocoa butter) and cookies. Unsaturated fats such as those in nuts, seeds, avocado, mayonnaise and even liquid oils such as olive and rapeseed oil are important for health. Fat is very calorie dense compared to carbs and protein. This can be useful if you need to gain weight, but for most of us fatty foods are best used in moderation
Who can you trust?
It can be difficult to tell which sources are reliable and which are not. It helps to keep a few things in mind. First of all, ask yourself if the information comes from a trusted organization or expert (dietician, doctor, etc.) Also check if there are references to scientific research and whether the statements are not too extreme. If you can check all these boxes, it's probably a reliable source.
I generally follow the evidence based health advice plant-based dietitians such as Ginny Messina and Jack Norris. They give solid advice and do not use scare tactics. I also regularly look for information on the websites of large governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization, European Food Safety Authority and the US department of Agriculture. These organizations can be a bit hesitant their recommendations to vegans, but otherwise share very good information. I maintain a skeptical attitude to information shared by vegan doctors, because they can often be found making quite extreme statements based on only one or two scientific studies.
I hope this article helps you to let go of some food related stress. Allow yourself to eat delicious food, balancing health and enjoyment without worrying. Food can simply be tasty. Get something you like, sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and savor every bite. Mindful eating and enjoying something 'unhealthy' now and then is very good for your state of mind!
A Dutch translation of this article can be found here.