Clinicians' Corner / Helpful Hints / In the News

Eat This AND That: Rethinking “Top Food” Lists

Not a day goes by without a Top 10, Top 6, Top 3 list of dietary recommendations floating by my Twitter or Facebook feed. Whether it’s eating certain foods to boost immunity, improve mood or burn muscle, or avoiding a number of foods putting your health at risk, many news outlets have hopped on the ‘eat this, not that’ bandwagon.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Pixabay (artistlike)

Photo Credit: Creative Commons by Pixabay (artistlike)

No matter the article’s content, as a dietitian, I cannot help but cringe at the over-simplistic message: Eat this (and only this) to relieve INSERT HEALTH COMPLAINT HERE. This basically implies that if you don’t adhere to the list, you could be poisoning yourself and anyone you give these foods to! Here’s why I think we’d do well to ditch the lists:

Lists foster an unhealthy relationship with food.

We are searching for guidance and advice on the healthiest food choices, and these lists are created to simplify the latest scientific findings…or hunches. However, these lists can leave people feeling like they are doing something incredibly wrong if they aren’t following them.  As a result, rules and fears around food may form. Since food is meant to be eaten, not feared, feelings of guilt for what you’ve eaten or uncertainty about what you’re allowed to eat may result. If food lists have left you with highly limited version of what is acceptable and healthy, take the time to redefine healthy for yourself.

These lists are not always accurate, or reflective of reproducible scientific findings.

Nutrition is one of the most debated and controversial topics of the health world. As a professional in the field, I am either valued for my opinion or critiqued for the demise of America’s diet. There tends to be an outpouring of publicity following trends in hot nutritional topics. Though this may start out as reporting on a valid study, depending on the source the take-home message may get skewed and exaggerated. Before making any changes to your diet as a result of these lists, become an educated reader who carefully considers the source of the advice.

They support black-and-white thinking.

The overuse of the words never, always, and should in these lists is astounding.  Never eat red meat? Never enjoy a processed food? Really? Never? Sure, it can be helpful to learn about which foods are more nutritious and which have higher risk of causing health problems if overconsumed, but the idea that we ought never to enjoy another Hebrew National hotdog unless we “want cancer” is just absurd. These words promote a way of thinking that is overly rigid and can, for some people, give matters of food, eating and weight way too much power. For others simply searching for health advice, the recommendations are not applicable given the amounts of these foods they include in their day-to-day intake. To take back control over your consumption, strive to live in the gray.

Living by these lists is unrealistic.

Perhaps most important of all, unless you have the time at home to make these “must have” nutritious meals, it is near impossible to stick to these recommendations all the time. Even if it is possible, it can get expensive, and for a subset of people, it can backfire and lead to binge- or over-eating.  While eating organic and including foods that are healthy in your diet is a nice goal to have, it shouldn’t leave you feeling overly stressed out and calling yourself a failure if you can’t follow through all the time.  So when you come across a list like this try to set goals to make small changes to include things you want to be a priority; don’t bite off more than you can chew!

While these lists are meant to inform us, they tend to spread more rigidity and fear as opposed to balance and helpful knowledge.  If you cannot resist reading them, this dietitian cautions you to take what they say with a grain of salt. Just not too much salt – I hear it’s bad for your health (*wink, wink*).

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