Flashback Friday: What Are the Healthiest Foods?

Flashback Friday: What Are the Healthiest Foods?
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Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which foods best supply shortfall nutrients while avoiding disease-promoting components?

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The latest dietary guidelines have a chapter on food components to reduce. But, when they say things like reduce intake of solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids), what does that mean in terms of which foods to reduce?

Similarly, there’s a chapter on nutrients we should increase our intake of, so-called shortfall nutrients. But, when they say we need more magnesium, for example, what does that mean in terms of actual food? Let’s look at 20 different types of foods to see, based on the federal guideline criteria, which foods are the healthiest, and which foods are the least healthy.

To illustrate, I’ll use traffic light labeling, like the UK signpost system which assigns colors, like green meaning go, yellow or amber meaning caution, and red meaning stop and think before you put it in your mouth. Added sugars is easy; anyone could have guessed sweets and soda, but there’s often surprising levels even in savory snack foods, like Ritz crackers, which I’m using as my snack example. The top five offenders are basically soda, doughnuts, Kool-Aid, ice cream, and candy.

Next is caloric density, calories per serving, where oils join dessert and processed snack foods as the worst, though one cannot consider eggs, fish, nuts and seeds, poultry, other meat, or soda to be low-calorie foods. The top five sources of calories in the American diet are basically desserts, bread, chicken, soda, and pizza.

Can you guess where cholesterol is found? Desserts, dairy, eggs, fish, chicken, and other meat. #1 by far is eggs, but then chicken contributes more cholesterol to the American diet than beef, then cheese, and pork.

Here are the foods high in saturated fat: coming from dairy, dairy, doughnuts, dairy, chicken.

Salt levels: highest in lunch meat and snack foods.  But, Americans get most of their sodium from bread, chicken, and pizza.

About half of our food groups here have trans fats, either naturally or artificially added or created. Cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, and doughnuts number one, then animal products, margarine, French fries, chips, and microwave popcorn.

Now, to the nutrients. Green is a high source, pale green is a medium source, and white is a poor source for calcium, fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K.

Ok, now let’s put it all together.

Now, this is nutrients per typically 100 grams, about three and a half ounces, but that’s not how our body keeps track of what we eat. The body’s food currency is in calories, not grams. Our body monitors how much energy we eat, not how much weight we eat. We only have about 2000 calories in the bank to spend every day; so, to maximize our nutrient purchase, we want to eat the most nutrient-dense foods. So, I just changed this from nutrients per weight to nutrients per calories.

The foods are just listed here in alphabetical order. To look for trends, we can now rank them based on these scores from best to worst.

So, the foods to emphasize in one’s diet are unprocessed, unrefined, plant-derived foods, which in general lack the disease-promoting components, and, as the Dietary Guidelines Committee put it, these foods contain not only the essential vitamins and minerals, but also hundreds of naturally-occurring phytonutrients that may protect against cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other chronic health conditions. So, this chart actually extends far off to the right, hundreds of additional bright green columns capturing all the phytonutrients found in whole plant foods, but largely missing from processed and animal derived foods. There would just be hundreds more white columns here in the middle with the few green tiles way off at the end. And, the lack of disease-preventing compounds may be compounded by the presence of disease-promoting compounds.

So, that’s why people eating more plant-based tend to end up eating a more nutrient-dense dietary pattern, closer to the current federal dietary recommendations. And, the more plant-based we get, apparently, the better.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

The latest dietary guidelines have a chapter on food components to reduce. But, when they say things like reduce intake of solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids), what does that mean in terms of which foods to reduce?

Similarly, there’s a chapter on nutrients we should increase our intake of, so-called shortfall nutrients. But, when they say we need more magnesium, for example, what does that mean in terms of actual food? Let’s look at 20 different types of foods to see, based on the federal guideline criteria, which foods are the healthiest, and which foods are the least healthy.

To illustrate, I’ll use traffic light labeling, like the UK signpost system which assigns colors, like green meaning go, yellow or amber meaning caution, and red meaning stop and think before you put it in your mouth. Added sugars is easy; anyone could have guessed sweets and soda, but there’s often surprising levels even in savory snack foods, like Ritz crackers, which I’m using as my snack example. The top five offenders are basically soda, doughnuts, Kool-Aid, ice cream, and candy.

Next is caloric density, calories per serving, where oils join dessert and processed snack foods as the worst, though one cannot consider eggs, fish, nuts and seeds, poultry, other meat, or soda to be low-calorie foods. The top five sources of calories in the American diet are basically desserts, bread, chicken, soda, and pizza.

Can you guess where cholesterol is found? Desserts, dairy, eggs, fish, chicken, and other meat. #1 by far is eggs, but then chicken contributes more cholesterol to the American diet than beef, then cheese, and pork.

Here are the foods high in saturated fat: coming from dairy, dairy, doughnuts, dairy, chicken.

Salt levels: highest in lunch meat and snack foods.  But, Americans get most of their sodium from bread, chicken, and pizza.

About half of our food groups here have trans fats, either naturally or artificially added or created. Cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, and doughnuts number one, then animal products, margarine, French fries, chips, and microwave popcorn.

Now, to the nutrients. Green is a high source, pale green is a medium source, and white is a poor source for calcium, fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K.

Ok, now let’s put it all together.

Now, this is nutrients per typically 100 grams, about three and a half ounces, but that’s not how our body keeps track of what we eat. The body’s food currency is in calories, not grams. Our body monitors how much energy we eat, not how much weight we eat. We only have about 2000 calories in the bank to spend every day; so, to maximize our nutrient purchase, we want to eat the most nutrient-dense foods. So, I just changed this from nutrients per weight to nutrients per calories.

The foods are just listed here in alphabetical order. To look for trends, we can now rank them based on these scores from best to worst.

So, the foods to emphasize in one’s diet are unprocessed, unrefined, plant-derived foods, which in general lack the disease-promoting components, and, as the Dietary Guidelines Committee put it, these foods contain not only the essential vitamins and minerals, but also hundreds of naturally-occurring phytonutrients that may protect against cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other chronic health conditions. So, this chart actually extends far off to the right, hundreds of additional bright green columns capturing all the phytonutrients found in whole plant foods, but largely missing from processed and animal derived foods. There would just be hundreds more white columns here in the middle with the few green tiles way off at the end. And, the lack of disease-preventing compounds may be compounded by the presence of disease-promoting compounds.

So, that’s why people eating more plant-based tend to end up eating a more nutrient-dense dietary pattern, closer to the current federal dietary recommendations. And, the more plant-based we get, apparently, the better.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to USDA, Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Anna Pelzer/Unsplash.

Doctor's Note

I feel like this should have been one of the first NutritionFacts.org videos. Sorry it’s taken me so long to just step back and offer some of the basics! I’ve always pictured my role more as providing the latest science, but you can’t understand all the new discoveries without a good foundation. Let me know if you think I should do more of these Nutrition 101 videos or leave that to others and continue to focus on the shiny and new.

How low should one try to push their intake of some of the food components to avoid? See Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of ZeroHow Much Added Sugar Is Too Much?, and, for sodium, High Blood Pressure May Be a Choice. Surprised that trans fats weren’t limited to partially hydrogenated junk? Check out Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy.

Here are some other videos on making practical grocery store-type decisions: Dining by Traffic Light: Green Is for Go, Red Is for Stop and Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist.

I’ve got a bunch of recipes in my How Not to Die Cookbook, of course (all proceeds I get from all my books go to charity).

Charts:
Foods to emphasize
Food to de-emphasize
Foods ranked
Foods ranked (colorblind friendly)

And check out my newer video What Are the Best Foods?  

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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