Consider this to make healthy food choices

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published January 3, 2019

Key Takeaways

No foods are truly “bad” or “unhealthy.” In fact, some seemingly healthy foods may be unhealthy depending on eating patterns and behaviors, and vice versa. When guiding patients about nutrition or contemplating your next meal, it may be more helpful to understand the benefits and drawbacks of certain foods instead of viewing foods through the prism of “good” and “bad,” say experts.

“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods,” said Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “All foods can fit into a healthful diet. But it’s all about balance. Portion size is especially key. Sometimes, the amount of calories, sugar or salt in a food catches us by surprise—or sneaks up on us. For example, low-fat peanut butter has extra sugar in it. But sometimes thinking that a food is healthy gives a false sense that portion size doesn’t matter, and we can eat all we want. For instance, someone might eat a large serving of low-fat cookies even though the calories still added up.”

All foods have positives and negatives, according to Maples. For example, most people know the benefits of drinking milk, but more important than consuming “healthy” foods is the way in which they are consumed. Although many people would recognize skim milk as “healthy,” alternatively, they may immediately dismiss chocolate milk as “unhealthy.”

“[Chocolate milk] has extra sugar in it—and Americans of all ages get too much sugar,” said Maples. “But chocolate milk is a good choice for most. In total, 9 of 10 women, or girls, don’t get the recommended calcium. [Males] do better but still, 7 of 10 men, or boys, fall short, too. In fact, milk is the number one source of 3 of 4 nutrients that American kids, teens, and adults are most likely to miss out on: potassium, calcium, and vitamin D (but not fiber).”

“As a registered dietitian nutritionist, [I know that] ‘spending’ extra sugar and total calories on chocolate milk is a great move for non-milk drinkers. Likewise, yogurt can have a lot of added sugar …but it can still be a good choice—a tradeoff—to entice kids to consume more of this calcium-rich food. A good balance is to pick a lower sugar yogurt. [Remember] it’s only good nutrition if it’s actually eaten. Recognize that nutrition is not black or white.”

Another consideration when weighing food choices is portion size.

“Portion size can turn a food into ‘too much’—either too many calories, too much sugar, too much salt, and so forth,” said Maples. One good example is fruit juice. Many believe it unhealthy due to the amounts of added sugar. However, in some cases, a controlled portion is a better alternative to not eating fruit at all. “Fruit juice is a healthy food. Most kids—and adults—like fruit but don’t actually reach for it. Juice can help bridge the gap, offering key nutrients, like vitamin C and potassium.”

In addition, eating whole fruit is better than eating food products, according to Maples. “The chewing helps satisfy and slow down how fast calories are consumed.” Until recently, Maples pointed out, most parents [gave] their children fruit juice ad libitum because it was believed to be “healthy.” But excess juice interferes with a child’s appetite for nutritious and balanced meals, and it leads to tooth decay.

“Portion size is critical. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest limiting juice consumption to one-half to three-fourths of a cup per day.”

When counseling patients on which foods to eat, Maples recommended that physicians remember the importance of maintaining a balance among the five food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy.

“While protein and energy bars can certainly be worked into a healthy diet, for example, be aware that they can be loaded with sugar, too. One option is to choose an energy bar made with mostly fruits and nuts, so it’s lower sugar. But another option is to choose regular food, like half a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat…or a mix of raisins and almonds.”

On a final note, Maples suggested a few resources that can help patients establish more permanent healthy eating patterns:

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