Why “Natural” Doesn’t Always Mean “Healthy”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

A line known by lovers everywhere – a rose is a rose by any name. But does the same thing apply to food? Is a food named “natural” the same as a food named “organic” or the same as a food with neither label? What is in a name, anyway? 

Naturally Confusing

We’ve done a previous blog post covering these labels. The “Certified Organic” label is regulated by the FDA; to qualify for “Organic,” a food must be produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. The “Natural” label, on the other hand, has no standard definition from the FDA. It is loosely defined as being food that does not contain any added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The only exception to this is for natural meat, poultry, and egg products. These products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients; however, there are no standards for farm practices of the animals in question, which can be something worth considering.

How About Healthy?

There are no strict definitions to determine whether a given food is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” the answers are usually dependent on the person asking the question. There are broader definitions wrapped up in this question; however, if the food you’re eating improves your well-being and gives you the nutritional benefits that your body needs, then it’s healthy for you.

But many people, even nutritionally savvy people, can fall victim to a phenomenon known as the “health halo”. People tend to underestimate the number of calories of a given meal if one or more of the components of the meal is labeled with a health buzzword such as “Natural”. This halo effect can affect our choices in what and how much we eat. Believing that one’s meal is healthier can lead people to eat bigger helpings or add less “healthy” things (such as a soda or a dessert) to each meal, which can lead people to consume more calories, artificial sugars, and fat than they otherwise would have.

Natural Disasters?

So how can you hide from the health halo and see if a “natural” food has hidden devil horns? The same way you’d treat any other food – check the nutrition label and ingredients list. Fresh foods will always be best, regardless of label, but checking the labels on “Natural” foods will tell you if there are secret pitfalls that lay in wait behind the label. “Natural” foods may not contain artificial or synthetic substances, but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy if they contain high amounts of fat and/or sugar. 

In that case, that which we call a soda, by any other name is just as sweet.

Back to School

 

Going back to school at the end of summer marks a time of change from play to work - from summer to fall. This change comes with new routines to fit a new schedule. This fall when getting kids back to the books, try a few small, manageable tricks to keep everyone healthy and productive this school year.

 

Food

Eat breakfast. It’s easy to skip breakfast when our mornings start earlier, we press the snooze button too long, and we have an overall hectic start to the day. However, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In order to have enough energy and focus, we must fuel our bodies and our minds. Try making and packing breakfast the night before or even consider taking something healthy on the go, such as oatmeal with fruit.

Pack healthy lunches. It may be convenient to pack a prepackaged meal in the morning, but eating minimally processed foods is a hallmark of good nutrition. Limit unrecognizable ingredients and added sugars…even juice! Try to pack food in a variety of colors to ensure a good mix of vitamins and a healthy dose of fruits and vegetables. Foods that are white in color tend to be higher on the glycemic index, have less nutrients, and won’t keep you full for long. Try making your own bento box style lunch with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins. 

Activity

Add activity to your day. There are easy ways to incorporate light or fun physical activity into your existing schedule. Getting moving improves focus and will help with adjusting to an earlier bedtime. A few ideas to try include walking to school, walking the dog, doing afternoon yardwork, playing outside (playing catch, shooting hoops, etc.), or even a neighborhood post-dinner bike ride.

Limit screen time. It may be tempting to avoid homework or get away from the demands of the day by watching a few hours of television. However, this habit can take away from productive time spent accomplishing school tasks, doing something outside or with friends, getting prepared for the next day, or even limiting sleep time. Instead, limit the amount of screen time per day to ensure that you get time to catch up on shows, but it doesn’t interfere with other things.

Sleep

Establish a sleep routine. Going back to school in the fall often means shifting your sleep habits to go to bed and wake up earlier. Make this adjustment gradually in the days leading up to the first day of school by going to bed 30 minutes earlier each night. Be sure to establish a constant sleep and wake time and stay on that schedule, even through the weekends and holidays.

Create a homework routine. It’s hard to get back into doing work, but it’s easier if you dedicate a specific time and place to get it done each day. Create a special area free of distraction for homework and try to complete it at the same time every day. Also, by keeping a routine and planning ahead there is less likelihood of late night project finishing.

 

Going back to school is never easy, but these few tips will make the transition smooth and (relatively) painless.

News Roundup: Nutrition and Preventative Health

This week’s news roundup is a collection of health articles focusing on nutrition and preventative health.

Pro tennis players’ good habits are prolonging their careers. The average athlete can learn from them. The Washington Post. “Now the gym is so much more than just performance. It’s maintenance, preventative stuff, corrective stuff, just health stuff.”.

Brain Food: How Eating Well Impacts Your Brain. Huffington Post. “We all know the impact eating well has on our bodies, but what about our minds? Eating well means more than just feeding your stomach, but feeding your head too.”

Gym-going seniors are benefiting from more than exercise. The Washington Post. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have linked strong social relationships to a longer life span. The problem is that social connections, the ties that bind us to our community, slowly weaken as we age…That’s why many find the health club a good place to strengthen social bonds.”

When Sports Injuries Lead to Arthritis in Joints. The New York Times. “In the rush to get back in the game, whether as part of a team or elite sport or simply a cherished recreational activity like jogging or tennis, it is tempting to short-circuit the rehabilitation needed to allow the joint to heal fully. But adequate recovery, including rehab measures aimed at strengthening structures that support the injured joint, is critical to maximize its stability, reduce the risk of reinjury and head off irreparable joint damage.”

Changing your perspective about weight loss may change the outcome, too. The Washington Post. “We want to support individuals in creating long-term behavior change and enjoying the experience. Typically, if people think they’re on a diet, it rarely sticks for the long term.”

Choosing the Right Carbs

Choose your Carbs Wisely!

It is hard to determine the role of carbohydrates in a healthy diet these days. This “Total Carbohydrates” fact sheet posted by fda.gov is a great tool in understanding its breakdown. To summarize:

  • Carbohydrates consist of sugars, sugar alcohols, starches, and dietary fiber. These different types are displayed on food labels under the total carbohydrate section. Sugars, sugar alcohols, and starches are either naturally in the food or added commercially.
  • Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients in food.
  • Carbs are 4 calories/gram.
  • After eating carbohydrates, your body will break them down into glucose, or energy for your body.
  • Fiber will help to slow the absorption rate of carbs and other nutrients, helping you to feel fuller longer.

What’s the Difference?

Whole grain carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the brain, and contain vitamins and fiber. Whole grain, aka “complex”, carbohydrates are those which include the entire kernel (including the outer shell). Many health benefits, such as lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes, are associated with eating whole grains.  This is because many of the valuable nutrients, such as fiber, iron, B vitamins, and minerals, are found in the outer shell of the grain.

On the other hand, simple grains, such as those found in white bread, are grains which have had the outer shell of the grain removed. Therefore, removing most of the beneficial nutrients too. Many simple carbohydrates are fortified. This means food manufacturers have added back in some of the vitamins and minerals…but, this is still not as healthy of an option because much of the fiber and nutrition is still lacking.

Bottom line: Try your best to limit simple carbohydrates, such as white rice, white bread, or white flour. Instead, opt for whole grain rice, whole grain breads and whole wheat flours.  Thanks to their fiber content, these whole grain products digest slowly, keeping blood sugar levels stable and helping you to feel more satisfied longer.

But what about fruits and vegetables?

Fruits and vegetables contain simple carbohydrates too. Some fruits and vegetables are higher in sugar (simple carbohydrates) and should be consumed in moderation (i.e. bananas, mangos, sweet potatoes, carrots). However, some fruits and vegetables have fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which help to slow down digestion and increase the nutritional profile of the food. These types of fruits and vegetables (i.e. cucumbers, asparagus, berries, avocados) act more like a complex carbohydrate which keeps blood sugar levels steady. These types of fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed more often.

Bottom line: All fruits and vegetables can and should be a part of a healthy diet. Although they are simple carbohydrates, they can be enjoyed in moderation. Fruits and vegetables with higher fiber content, such as berries and avocados, are a better choice than fruits and vegetables than containing mostly simple carbohydrates (i.e. bananas).    

More about Whole Grains 

Whole grains are a great way to get your carbohydrates and to increase the fiber in your diet.  The USDA MyPlate recommends that about one quarter of your plate consists of grains. Of that one quarter, half of those grains should be whole grains.  It is important to substitute whole grain products for simple carbohydrate products, rather than adding whole grain products in order to meet your goal.

  • Choose a whole grain hot cereal (oatmeal, wheat) or a cold breakfast cereal that provides at least 5 grams of fiber per serving
  • Add a high fiber cereal to yogurt
  • Substitute whole wheat flour for up to half of the white flour in any
    flour-based recipe
  • Experiment with whole wheat pasta and brown rice
  • Add any grain to your mixed meat dishes
  • Try adding oatmeal to meat loaf

 Know what to look for 

Knowing which grains are whole grains can be confusing, but the easiest way to identify a whole grain is by its ingredient list.  If it doesn’t say whole grain or whole wheat, it is not a whole grain food.

  • Whole grains - A grain that still has its outer covering (the bran), which contains the grain’s fiber and many of its vitamins and minerals.
  • Processed whole grains - A whole grain that has been cracked (as in cracked wheat bread) or crushed (as in whole wheat flour). They provide the same nutrients found in the original kernel of grain.
  • Refined grains/ simple carbohydrates - The nutrient rich outer covering is removed during milling such as in white flour.
  • Enriched/Fortified grains - Refined grains (simple carbohydrates) to which nutrients such as B vitamins and iron are added back.

 

News Roundup: Ditch the Diet Soda?

Discourse on diet soda has raged for years, with arguments both for and against artificial sweeteners. In 2014, the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association gave their stamp of approval to artificial sweeteners; however, this week’s news roundup looks at new evidence that diet sodas, and the artificial sweeteners therein, may not be as good for you as we once thought.

Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health. Canadian Medical Association Journal. “Evidence from RCTs does not clearly support the intended benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners for weight management, and observational data suggest that routine intake of nonnutritive sweeteners may be associated with increased BMI and cardiometabolic risk.”

Artificial sweeteners may actually cause you to gain weight. Healthline. “Sugar is receiving a lot of attention lately as a major cause of these conditions. It’s important to study ‘sugar substitutes’ in parallel, to understand their impact on the same conditions. If we don’t do this, consumers may (understandably) assume that artificial sweeteners are a healthy choice — but this may not be true. Reducing consumption of sugar and artificially sweetened products in general is likely a good strategy.”

Artificial sweeteners linked to weight gain, finds new research. Independent. “[C]aution is warranted until the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners are fully characterized.”

Diet drinks are associated with weight gain, new research suggests. Washington Post. “The causality could go in the other direction, too — people who are gaining weight for other reasons may seek out more artificially sweetened foods. Or, as other research has shown, people who go on diets (and who may be more likely to drink diet sodas) often lose weight but then gain more afterward.”