We’re often warned of the health risks associated with drinking too much alcohol, eating fatty foods, or consuming too much salt—and as a physician, you’ve probably even doled out some of this advice yourself. But evidence suggests that moderate amounts of these so-called “unhealthy” foods can, and perhaps should, remain in one’s diet.
Indeed, moderation, rather than elimination, may be best for health when it comes to the following five foods and beverages.
For years, we’ve been told that we’re eating too much meat—and that it’s not good for our health. The newly revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, recommend that we limit our intake of red and processed meats, stating they are “in and of themselves, associated with detrimental health outcomes.”
According to experts at the Harvard Medical School Division of Nutrition, there is an accumulated body of research showing a clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and higher risks of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. “The evidence shows that people with a relatively low intake have lower health risks,” said Frank Hu, MD, chair of the Department of Nutrition, and professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School.
What remains up for debate is the amount of red meat consumption that is considered safe. “A general recommendation is that people should stick to no more than two to three servings per week,” said Dr. Hu.
To that point, some evidence suggests that moderate amounts of meat may offer health benefits. For example, we can learn lessons from historical mortality rates in Japan, according to a recent article in The Economist.
While Japan boasts a population that lives longer than many developed countries, it wasn’t always this way. In 1970, Japan’s age-adjusted mortality rates were average among comparably developed countries—and it also had the highest frequency of cerebrovascular deaths. By 1990, however, the country’s cerebrovascular mortality rate fell and its rates of longevity began to increase.
According to The Economist article, a key part of this change was a general increase in meat and dairy consumption. For 12 centuries, the consumption of meat was largely banned in Japan, for religious and health reasons. This changed in the period following World War II, when intake of animal products began to increase. According to an article published in Nature in 2020, one of the reasons for Japan’s high rates of cerebrovascular mortality was that people weren’t getting enough cholesterol, which is an important part of building strong blood vessel walls. This in turn increased the risk of blood vessel rupture and, therefore, the risk of intracerebral hemorrhage.
When Japan’s population began consuming more animal products, the additional saturated fatty acids, along with increased intake of calcium, strengthened blood vessel walls and led to lower blood pressure. Other factors were at play, including lower rates of smoking, but the Nature article concluded that this “Westernization” of the diet generally made postwar Japanese people healthier.
The general consensus on alcohol? It’s bad for us. Health experts at the CDC say excessive alcohol consumption can lead to the development of several chronic diseases and conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and many kinds of cancer. The CDC released updated guidance on alcohol in 2020, noting that excessive drinking resulted in the deaths of roughly 95,000 Americans a year from 2011–2015.
However, some benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are supported by research. According to a review published in 2019 in Molecules, drinking the occasional glass of red wine has been associated with lower risks of coronary heart disease.
This is thought to be due to the variety of polyphenolic compounds found in red wine, which include resveratrol, catechin, epicatechin, quercetin, and anthocyanin. These polyphenols have antioxidant properties, and evidence suggests that drinking red wine in moderation can improve lipid profiles, reduce insulin resistance, and decrease oxidative stress of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.
So, don't feel bad about pouring yourself a tipple every now and then. But be aware, even if you aren’t overdoing it, alcohol can have undesired effects on the body and the brain.
We often hear about the link between eating eggs and higher risks of heart disease, which researchers typically peg to their high levels of cholesterol. However, some health experts say there may be other explanations for these findings. For example, people tend to eat eggs along with other foods like bacon, sausage or ham, which can tip a meal toward very high levels of saturated fats. How you cook your eggs matters too: If you’re frying them in oil or butter, this may play a bigger role in contributing to heart disease than the eggs themselves.
Recent research supports this hypothesis. One review, published in BMJ in 2020, pooled data from three studies and examined the links between egg consumption and incident cardiovascular disease, including nonfatal myocardial infarction, fatal coronary heart disease, and stroke.
Looking at more than 14,800 participants in those studies over a follow-up period of 32 years, researchers found that those with a higher egg intake tended to have a higher body mass index, and consumed more red meats. However, after adjusting for other lifestyle and dietary factors, the researchers concluded that eating at least one egg per day was not associated with incident cardiovascular disease. The results were similar for coronary heart disease and stroke. Additionally, the researchers found that among Asian populations, egg consumption was associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease.
Other studies point to the benefits of eating eggs in moderation as well. Just try to go easy on the bacon.
Sugar has been considered a dietary enemy for a long time—and with good reason. Excessive consumption of sugar has been linked to a variety of adverse health outcomes, including increased risks of obesity and type 2 diabetes. According to a study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, the habitual consumption of sugar may also lead to impaired cognitive functions in elderly populations.
However, as is pointed out in that study, sugar (in the form of glucose) is also the primary energy source for our brains. Neurotransmitters, which serve as our brain’s chemical messengers, are not produced when we’re experiencing a glucose deficit.
As such, eliminating sugar from your diet entirely would be a mistake. Rather, we should be aiming to consume the right kinds and amounts of sugars, because keeping our brains functioning efficiently depends on maintaining and managing glucose levels in our diets.
According to health experts, that means focusing on whole foods that contain sugar, like fruits, grains and dairy. Your body digests these foods more slowly than those with refined sugars, and they provide your body with a steady supply of energy rather than a quick rush and subsequent crash. High intakes of these foods have also been linked to reduced risks of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
So avoid the added sugars, but don’t cut out sweet things entirely. And remember, there are plenty of sugar alternatives that may satisfy your sweet tooth.
Another ingredient that’s commonly considered a nutritional foe is salt. Again, this is not without evidence. Excess sodium levels can lead to increased blood pressure, which over time can result in heart attack or stroke.
However, as with sugar, the human body requires some sodium in order to conduct nerve impulses, for muscle function, and to maintain a proper balance of water and minerals. Table salt also contains iodine, a deficit of which can lead to the development of goiter and other conditions.
Sodium deficiency is known as hyponatremia and, while it’s rare in the United States, it can occur in older adults or those with health conditions that deplete the body of sodium. Symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, lethargy, seizures, and even coma.
Estimates suggest that we need about 500 mg of salt daily in order for our bodies to properly function. That said, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average person in the United States consumes roughly 3,393 mg per day, which is far too much. The guidelines recommend cutting this to roughly 2,300 mg/day for adults, with lower increments for children and toddlers.