We’ve all heard it before: Americans eat terribly. We should eat more plants. Such and such diet is great for you, until it isn’t. And there’s always those people happy to act like unless you’ve run eight miles before a protein-smoothie and superfood breakfast, you may as well be dunking your cookies in a tub of melted suet.
So a lot of us have resolved to eat better, or go on a diet, in 2018. But what does that really mean, practically? What’s “healthy?” Well, that’s trickier than you might think, but the good news is, you can have some Girl Scout cookies. Just not the whole box.
- First of all, most of the science is thinner than you might think: Aaron Carroll, director of the Center for Health Policy at Indiana University and author of The Bad Food Bible, has been looking at the research that says you shouldn’t eat anything fun and it turns out the problem isn’t one of nutrition, but of toxicology. As he explains to NPR:
We take studies that are done in animals, or we take studies that can really only show us associations, and then we extrapolate them to make it out to be that there’s causation, that we know these foods are making us unhealthy. … At the end of the day there’s just not as much evidence for demonizing these foods as people would have you believe.
The Bad Food Bible is particularly interesting here because it explores an ongoing theme in current nutrition science; namely, everything we’re treating as settled science is at best theoretical. For example, the idea that a high-fat diet causes heart disease has given way to a more nuanced picture where high salt and heavy sugar consumption also play a strong role. It’s not that salt and sugar are bad; it’s that we’re eating too much of them.
- Part of this is our ever-changing understanding of diet and food: As we’ve begun exploring human genetics in detail, unearthing long-suppressed research into what we eat, and begin gathering real data about diet and exercise, a lot of what we’re learning is that there is no diet that fits absolutely everybody. Some people need more protein in their diets, some should eat more salads, still others need more grains. It’s a complicated mix of your genetics, your medical situation, and who you are as a person. For example, depending on your palette, you may struggle with certain flavors like the bitterness in greens.
- Increasingly, it’s not about a strict diet, but about eating patterns: The pitfalls of diets are well-known. They’re too strict, they’re too expensive, they’re too hard to track. That’s why most doctors are focusing on “eating patterns,” instead. For example, a “plant-forward” eating pattern is pretty simple; you eat more plants than you do other stuff. It doesn’t really matter how you eat the plants, whether you’re roasting carrots or just having a salad, the point is, you eat more plants. Even if you put some ranch dressing on that salad, it’s still probably better for you than the bacon double cheeseburger. It’s much easier to change small habits over time than it is to massively shift your entire diet all at once, and the results build up. Notice that it’s OK, in an eating pattern, to have a burger or a few slices of pizza, just not every day.
- But another part is that it’s a lot easier to sell you something if you feel bad about yourself: It’s proven that the old gag about buying a dozen other things to disguise your embarrassing purchase is, in fact, a real phenomenon that applies to the food you eat. So consumers are caught between two psychological horns; our desire to live a longer, healthier life, and the short-term pleasure those cookies will bring you.
It looks, more and more, like you should have a cookie, just not the whole package. Moderation — not starvation — it turns out, might be the best way to meet your resolution.