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Balanced Diets and Fad Foods

Last week, we discussed the obesity epidemic (here). This week we are looking into dietary recommendations made by various organizations to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. Guidelines for a healthy diet have changed over the years as research and lifestyles have evolved. Most of us learned about nutrition guidelines in high school health class, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that 5, 10, or even 15 years later we all might need a refresher or even an update on what recommendations have changed.

To review, it might be helpful to take a moment to reflect on your own eating habits and calculate your BMI (here) so that you have a baseline to reference to when you are looking at the suggestions below. It may surprise you to see how well you are (or are not!) meeting the guidelines in your daily life.

The USDA sponsors a website called “Choose My Plate” that outlines the government’s diet recommendations, including portion sizes, weight management, and education on making healthy food choices. The site outlines the 6 recognized food groups: fruit, vegetables, dairy, protein, grains and oils. A well rounded diet includes foods from all of the categories, but current recommendations no longer give a flat-out portion size. Instead, the recommended portion of each category is determined by your sex and age. For instance, women aged 31-50 years should eat 5 ounces of protein foods a day, whereas men of the same age are recommended to consume 6 ounces. For people who consume little or no meat, the website also has information on alternative ways to meet the protein recommendations, such as consuming beans, peas, nuts, or soy products. The website also has a component called the “Supertracker,” which is designed to help you track your diet and exercise, allowing for a comprehensive analysis of your healthy habits.

Due to the number of changes that have occurred to the dietary recommendations over the years, a number of fad diets have sprung up. Often times these diets are not based entirely on fact or they eliminate a food category entirely, which can lead to bodily harm or yo-yo weight gain and loss. A fad diet is defined as “a diet that promises quick weight loss through an unhealthy and unbalanced diet, often without exercise.” It is important to note that diets that taught quick results for little effort are often deficient in some way and can lead to harm, including anemia, organ damage, vitamin deficiency, or contribute to long term health problems.

While eating a food more frequently does not officially constitute a weight loss diet, or often even a significant change to your current nutritional status, super foods have recently become the latest trend in health and nutrition. These foods often are claimed to have amazing health benefits that were previously unknown or underappreciated, and the support of incorporating these foods into your diet is often founded on some miracle claim. UK’s NHS states that many people who cling to the “powers” of super foods mistakenly believe they can ‘undo’ the damage caused by unhealthy foods by eating a super food. Examples of super foods over the recent years have included blueberries, avocado, pomegranate, green tea, and even chocolate.

One of the recent foods that falls into this category is coconut oil. There have been many health claims linked to the food, probably because of it’s plant base, but it is important to know the nutritional facts about this food. In regards to fats and oils used in cooking, coconut oil is actually middle of the road, health wise. The latest concern with coconut oil is that studies indicate that it raises LDL cholesterol levels. As a reminder, this type is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol that contributes to heart disease. Unsaturated fats from plant oils are the best type of cooking fat because the fat chains are “kinked” or “bent” because they contain less hydrogen atoms. These fats contain essential fats which are used in cells, tissues, and organ systems, and they also can contain other elements, such as Omega-3 or Omega-6 fatty acids that can prevent heart disease. Coconut oil has more saturated “straight chain” fatty acids than other plant based counterparts, making is a less healthy alternative to things such as olive oil, coconut oil or sunflower oil. (Although it is still a healthier alternative than using lard or butter, which are very high in saturated fats, like all other animal based fats). Thus, although coconut oil is better than some options, it is far from being the miracle alternative some people claim it to be. There are healthier alternatives and long term consequences to consider before converting 100% of your cooking oils or butter replacements with coconut oil products.

Evaluate your own diet and food choices to see how well you align with the current recommendations. The start of a new school year is often a great time of the year for families and students to make small changes to eating habits. Additionally, if you decide to lose weight or make a major overhaul of your food intake, please consult a physician or a dietitian for guidance. They will evaluate your current health and give you personalized recommendations about how to safely lose weight!

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