What Is "Healthy Food"?

Healthy Food or Not? - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Healthy Food or Not? - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

I’ve been struggling to learn how to eat healthy for years, but I went about it the wrong way. Instead of doing the research and learning for myself, I kept hunting for a health care professional who could tell me what to do. I wanted a magic pill or a simple plan that would make it easy and quick. But there isn’t one.

Most health professionals don’t know how to eat healthily. Doctors aren’t taught nutrition in medical school. In the last few years, science has begun to indicate that what we eat is much more important to our health than we thought. Most doctors believe it, and they are trying to educate themselves, but that takes time.

Many of the doctors I’ve used over the years assumed that I ate at McDonald’s three and four times a week. When I tried to tell them that wasn’t the case, they didn’t believe me. I got advice like, “leave red meat out of your diet, get the small order of fries instead of the large, eat more fruits and vegetables.” Not very helpful is it? It certainly didn’t help me - so, I decided to figure it out for myself.

“About 60 percent of the solid weight of your brain is fat. Fat is not the enemy. Good fats are essential to your health. In a study from the Mayo Clinic, people who ate a fat-based diet had a 42 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, while people who ate a carbohydrate-based diet (think rice, potatoes, and pasta) were four times more likely to develop the disease. People who ate a protein-based diet had a 21 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

“When the American Heart Association launched a campaign to reduce saturated fats in the standard American diet, what the public heard was that they should cut out as much fat as possible. Unfortunately, this led to people also restricting essential fatty acids (which are called essential for a reason) from their diets – not just saturated fat, but all fat. Fat was demonized as the cause of heart disease and many other health problems.” (Daniel G. Amen & Tana Amene, 2016)

The American public had a valid reason for assuming that. The government published their food pyramid and put fat in the tiny section at the top of the pyramid with sweets. Who wouldn’t assume they were bad.

“You may think that the food pyramid that was in vogue when you were a kid is a good guide to a decent dinner for your family. But the food pyramid was never based on solid science; it was more of a marketing campaign.” (Lustig, 2013)

 “The food advertisers saw a plump opportunity and jumped on it. The fat-free craze was born! Americans began a free-for-all; gorging on highly processed, fat-free carbohydrates – fat-free cookies and cakes, bagels, crackers, and more. And why not? Carbohydrates wouldn’t make us fat, the experts said – only fat could make us fat! Of course, no one actually bothered to check all this out before presenting it as fact, and it backfired in a big way. During the war against fat, Americans indulged in fat-free, chemical-laden, processed food. And, while the fat-free witch hunt continued, they consumed more carbohydrates, sugar, and calories than ever before. This triggered an obesity epidemic that is still going strong. Since the early 1980’s, obesity rates in the United States rose from 12 percent to an astonishing 36 percent in 2015. There was also an increase in sudden cardiac arrest (heart attacks), diabetes, hypertension, cancer, depression, and dementia among people who were unknowingly starving their bodies of essential fatty acids in an attempt to eradicate fat from their diets. Without healthy fat, our bodies can’t effectively use vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. Fats also play an important part in the health of brain function, cellular communication, production of important hormones, skin, hair, body temperature, and weight management.” (Daniel G. Amen & Tana Amene, 2016)

So, healthy fats are important for us to include in our diets, but what are healthy fats?

 “Your brain needs specific types of essential omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA) to function well.” (Daniel G. Amen & Tana Amene, 2016)

“Omega-3s come from algae. Wild fish eat algae. We eat the wild fish. Yes, wild fish is more expensive than farmed fish, but many species of farmed fish eat corn. You might as well eat a steak. Another slightly cheaper source of omega-3s is flaxseed. You can also buy eggs from chickens that eat feed rich in omega-3s.” (Lustig, 2013)

Eating healthy is not simple. I thought I was getting all the good healthy fats when I ate Atlantic Salmon, and I was saving money by buying the farmed fish instead of the wild. But I was wrong – I didn’t know all the details.

Another essential fatty acid is Omega-6. Omega-6 is readily available in the American diet – in fact, we eat too much of it.

“Although omega-6 fatty acids are necessary, they can be harmful when you eat them in excess, so they’re good and bad. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in most vegetable oils (soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn, and canola), as well as in many fried foods, cereals, and whole-grain breads. One of the benefits is that omega-6 fatty acids contribute to muscle health. However, eating too much of these fats is a problem because they cancel out the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is too high. The optimal ratio is less than 4 to 1 (omega-6 to omega-3). Most people who eat the standard American diet, which contains high levels of omega-6 rich vegetable oils, have an appalling ratio of up to 20 to 1 or higher. Translated into health terms, this is an inflammatory process at work in your body, putting you at risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other health problems.” (Daniel G. Amen & Tana Amene, 2016)

Excess Omega-6s cause inflammation. Are you familiar with what inflammation can do to us? Unfortunately, I am.

“Did you know that inflammation is the common link between such debilitating conditions as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, and arthritis?

“Did you know that inflammation is thought to be the culprit behind the visible signs of aging? …

“Inflammation is your body’s response to stress – whether from your diet, lifestyle or environment. Think of what happens when you catch a cold. You may experience inflammation in the form of a fever as your body heats up to eradicate the effects of the invading virus.

"This kind of inflammation is good, but the modern epidemic of chronic, low-grade inflammation destroys the balance in your body. When your body’s systems experience a constant inflammatory response, you become more susceptible to aging and disease.” (Inflammation: The Real Cause of All Disease and How to Reduce and Prevent It)

When I was in my late 50’s, I had some tests done. They said I had the blood vessels of a 77-year-old due to inflammation. I asked my doctor what caused the inflammation. She said it was probably a reaction to food. I asked her how I could fix it. She said she didn’t know.

That’s when I started trying to learn what ‘eating healthy’ really meant. You see it’s different for each of us. My body reacts negatively to grapes, squash, and peppers as well as Omega-6s. Yours might not. 

Healthy Oils and Fats - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Healthy Oils and Fats - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

So, if vegetable oils like safflower and canola oil are bad, which ones are good? Olive oil is good, but I’ve always been told not to cook with it because of its low smoke point. What does that mean?

“With all these fat sources, getting the best quality you can is, I’m sure you can guess by now, important. The more refined an oil is, typically the lower the vitamin and antioxidant content but also the higher the smoke point (because naturally occurring free fatty acids are removed from the oil in the refinement process). The smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which the fat begins to break down to glycerol and free fatty acids, which produces a bluish smoke. Heating an oil or fat to its smoke point damages the fat, and consuming this burned fat causes oxidative stress in the body. It is important to be mindful of the smoke point of different fats for different types of cooking. As a general rule, fats should be heated to a maximum of about 5°F to 20°F below their smoke point. The following list shows the smoke point of the fats mentioned in this section.

  • Avocado oil, refined 520°F

  • Avocado oil, virgin 375°F

  • Coconut oil, extra-virgin 350°F

  • Coconut oil, refined 450°F

  • Lard 370°F

  • Olive oil, extra-virgin 250°F - 320°F

  • Olive oil, virgin 375°F

  • Walnut oil, semirefined 400°F

  • Walnut oil, virgin 320°F” (Sarah Ballantyne, 2013)

Obviously, if we’re making salad dressing, it doesn’t matter what the smoke point is, but what if we’re sautéing vegetables?

“Water simmers at 185°F but turns into steam at 212°F. So the best way I know of to tell if the pan is hot enough to add your fat is to sprinkle a few drops of water onto the hot pan. If the water evaporates immediately, you know the pan must be at least 212° F and a good starting point to add the fat.

“Once you get your pan hot and add the cooking fat to it, the next question is how hot do you want the fat to be before adding ingredients. Just because the pan is hot doesn’t mean the fat (butter or oil) is ready for cooking. …

“As mentioned above, we want to start when the fat in the pan is approximately around 320° F which in most cases is just below the smoking point for butter, lard, and the various cooking oils. You never want to actually reach the smoking point because at this point the fat is ruined and will add a bad taste to whatever you are cooking.” (Jones, 2012)

So, extra-virgin olive oil should not be used for sautéing. It’s embarrassing to admit to you that I had to look up how to sauté properly to figure that out. I didn’t know. Cooking has never been something I did for enjoyment. It was always something I was forced to spend time on when I’d rather be doing something else.

Nut Butters - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Nut Butters - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

When I need something quick to eat, I grab some almonds or put almond butter on a tortilla and keep on writing. I’ve even bought raw almonds and almond butter because I’ve been told that heating the nuts causes the fat to turn bad. But is that really true?

 “No, nuts do not lose their heart-healthy monounsaturated fat during the roasting process. However, roasting may alter and damage the polyunsaturated fats that nuts also contain and that are more vulnerable to oxidation. Oxidized fats account for rancidity, giving nuts, and other foods, an ‘off’ taste and a bad odor reminiscent of oil paint. Rancid oils are pro-inflammatory and carcinogenic. The more the surface of the nut is exposed to air, the more likely it will be to oxidize. Roasted, chopped, and ground nuts go rancid more quickly than whole raw ones.

“I buy mostly raw, unsalted nuts and store them in the refrigerator until I need them. I prefer to eat raw nuts, but I know some people who find roasted ones easier to digest. You can roast your own by stirring raw nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat or spreading them on a baking sheet placed in a 350-degree oven and tossing them occasionally until they are done to your liking. Use them up quickly.” (Andrew Weil, 2011)

Potato Chips? - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Potato Chips? - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

I love potato chips. When I found potato chips fried in avocado oil at the store, I was thrilled. Finally, healthy potato chips - life was getting better. But are they really healthy? No. It turns out that it isn’t the oil that makes potato chips unhealthy. It’s cooking the potatoes at a high heat, which produces acrylamide (a probable human carcinogen).

“People often ask, ‘Is sugar the cause of obesity?’ Common sense would argue that sugar is clearly related to excess weight. But I don’t believe in common sense, I believe in data. The data show that the two most ‘obesogenic’ (obesity-causing) foodstuffs in our diet are potato chips and french fries (carbohydrate and fat together). Sugar comes in a distant third. …” (Lustig, 2013)

Wow! I don’t love them that much. Learning to eat healthily is a complex process that doesn’t happen overnight. Not only am I going to have to learn what to eat, but also how to cook it. As I told you above, cooking has never been my favorite activity. I always wondered how my mother could stand to spend so many hours cooking for us. Then, yesterday, I read a quote in a book that helped me understand.

“From these expansive, joyful women, her Nana and her aunts, Cindy learned a casual style of cooking: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. …

“… They all attempted to outdo each other, trying to serve up ‘the freshest’ or ‘the best’ in the most loving way. It was about the food, but also about the atmosphere. The way they lived communicated this message: ‘I give you my time, because you are worth it.’ Cindy says, ‘We cooked and ate as a family, and we felt loved.’ ” (Lustig, 2013)

That’s the way it was in my home as well. We helped Mama cook, and we all ate together (without cell phones). Mama gave us her time because she thought we were worth it. I knew I was loved, but at that point in my life, I never realized what a tremendous gift I was being given. Thank you, Mama.   

Part of learning to live a healthy life is learning to believe that we are worth it. We are worth making an effort to figure out what is healthy and what isn’t. We are worth learning to cook in a way that tantalizes our taste buds while it makes our bodies stronger. I am worth it – so I’m going to learn how to live healthily.

As I go through this process, I’m going to share what I learn with you. This post was about fats, perhaps in the future, there will be one on protein, carbs or fiber. Who knows, maybe I’ll share recipes or cooking techniques - I have a lot to learn.

What are your thoughts on healthy eating? Leave a comment and share them with me. What topics do you think I should research? Healthy eating is not a simple subject, and we can’t change our lifelong habits overnight, but if we just take one step at a time, we can make a difference. Are you worth it?