Food for Thought
It’s 2016. Why are we still not sure what to eat?
Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition expert at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, says part of the problem is our insatiable appetite for the latest research.
“There are many individual studies that come to different conclusions,” she says. “You don’t see a lot of stepping back and looking at the whole picture, or why there’s discordance among studies.”
A food that’s lauded in one study is often lambasted in the next, making it nearly impossible for even the savviest consumer to make sense of the most up-to-date nutritional information. (Lichtenstein suggests consulting sources such as the federal dietary guidelines.) To get a look at the bigger picture—contradictions and all—we asked Lichtenstein to help us sift through the literature on some of the year’s food fads.
The Good: Contrary to decades of popular dietary wisdom, a March study from Tufts, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that consuming full-fat dairy may lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Additionally, Tufts researchers found no strong link between butter and heart disease.
The Bad: On the other hand, 2016 research from Tufts and Harvard indicates that saturated fats such as butter may shorten your lifespan and put you at risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Lichtenstein’s Take: “The bulk of the data clearly suggests replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat.” In other words: Swap butter for olive oil.
The Good: Trendy plant waters—Coconut! Maple! Watermelon!—have been touted as the next big thing in the beverage industry. Makers of coconut water, for example, market it as a vitamin-packed way to rehydrate, and nutritionists have recognized it as a potassium powerhouse.
The Bad: Many experts believe plant waters aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that coconut water is no better for post-workout hydration than regular H2O.
Lichtenstein’s Take: Keep your water and your fruit separate. “Why in the world would you squeeze the fruit out and lose the fiber and the texture?” she asks. The same goes for green juice.
The Good: Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, may help prevent fatal heart disease and could even add years to your life, according to 2016 studies by Tufts and Harvard.
The Bad: Studies have shown that salmon may contain harmful pollutants and chemicals, some of which, in high amounts, can contribute to diseases such as diabetes and cancer. That risk is typically higher in farm-raised salmon than in wild.
Lichtenstein’s Take: For everyone but pregnant women and young children, “the benefits of eating omega-3 fatty acids [in fish] far outweigh the potential risks in terms of contaminants.”
The Good: In March, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Harvard published a study that found some heart-health benefits associated with imbibing. A Harvard study from January also linked red wine to a lower incidence of erectile dysfunction.
The Bad: That same BIDMC/Harvard study also found heart-health risks associated with drinking. Moreover, a Boston University paper published in March says people who barely drink live the longest.
Lichtenstein’s Take: “We would never recommend someone start drinking, but if they’re already drinking in moderation, there doesn’t seem to be any adverse effects, and it may be beneficial.”
The Good: Some animal and lab research suggests the trendy yellow-hued spice is an anti-inflammatory agent and powerful antioxidant, both of which may help fend off diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
The Bad: While animal research has supported turmeric’s disease-fighting powers, studies have not conclusively shown the same benefits in humans. It may also interact poorly with some pharmaceuticals.
Lichtenstein’s Take: “It’s touted as a quick fix—all you have to do is take turmeric and you don’t have to worry about the hot fudge sundae. If you sprinkle turmeric over the hot fudge sundae, it’s not going to make the hot fudge sundae any better for you.”
The Good: Eating whole grains may help you live longer—and cut your risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease—according to a Harvard paper from June.
The Bad: Harvard research published just two months later suggested that replacing carbohydrates with unsaturated fats may improve longevity.
Lichtenstein’s Take: “Whole grains are a very important source of dietary fiber. It would be unfortunate if people are scared of them. [But] it’s worth checking if it’s made from 100 percent whole wheat or one of these multigrain breads that’s mostly refined grain.”