When it comes to the complex territory of eating habits, a single big decision – to become a healthier or leaner person, for example – has a way of fracturing into a thousand smaller, more intricate questions, such as “What am I going to have for lunch today?” and, “Does fat-free cherry cheesecake qualify as healthy?”
These turn out to be important quandaries. As Mark Hyman, MD, reminds us in his new book, UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss (Scribner, 2006): “Food is a drug. Food is medicine. Hippocrates taught us this centuries ago. Whether it is good or bad medicine depends on how you use it.” In this eye-opening and informative Q & A, Hyman inspires us to shop and eat more sensibly by demystifying the sometimes confusing food options we face daily.
EL| Many people make a resolution to start eating healthier this time of year, but they’re not sure where to start. In general, what does “healthy eating” really entail?
MH| Healthy eating is about respecting how our bodies are designed. There are some foods our bodies naturally thrive on, and others that tend to make us sick and fat. At core, we’re all designed to eat real food. By that, I mean foods without labels that haven’t been highly processed, that aren’t foreign to our DNA – essentially, whole foods that derive as directly as possible from the natural world.
The foods most of us thrive on include unprocessed fruits and vegetables; beans and legumes; nuts and seeds; and lean, free-range, wild or pasture-raised animal proteins, including eggs and wild fish like sardines and salmon. These are the foods our bodies are designed to optimally function on and that support both good health and proper body composition.
Foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains help us naturally balance our blood sugar and take in large amounts of healthy fiber. In direct contrast to junk foods, they help keep our appetites under control, and they regulate our metabolism. That said, moderation, variety and balance are all key components of any healthy diet –including a whole-foods diet.
It’s important to note that grains – even whole grains – are a relatively recent addition to the human diet. In our Western diets, grains are almost always ground into flour, combined with other processed ingredients or otherwise altered in some way. Wheat, oats, rye and other grains are tolerated better by some than by others and can be healthy for many in moderation. But many American diets rely too heavily on grains – and also on dairy, in my view – and this contributes to both our weight and health problems, including inflammation-based diseases.
On the other hand, some foods, like broccoli, garlic and onions, have powerful compounds that naturally help our livers detoxify and maintain a healthy environment. Foods like turmeric, ginger and other spices, as well as omega-3 fats, help to reduce inflammation. Most of us would do well to include more of these foods in our daily meals – and in our ongoing grocery-shopping lists.
EL| What if I’m trying to lose weight?
MH| Everything above still goes. I call myself the “Accidental Weight-Loss Doctor” because I never really set out to help people lose weight. I was much more interested in how the body works and in treating underlying causes of disease. So it initially surprised me that as I treated overweight people, even though our goal was not weight loss, they lost significant amounts of weight. I realized that the same things that make us sick make us fat. And by dealing with those underlying causes of disease and illness, we tend to lose unwanted weight automat- ically. It really comes down to this: If you want a junk metabolism, eat junk foods. If you want a healthy metabolism, eat healthy foods. Period.
EL|What are the most common mistakes people make when trying to shop healthily at the grocery store?
MH| They scour the packaged food aisles looking for supposedly healthy options and they wind up with way too much junk in their carts. People would do far better avoiding the store’s central aisles altogether. That’s where all the processed- food temptations hang out. Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is a much better strategy. The perimeter is where all the perishable food is – things like fruits and vegetables, fish and chicken, and dairy, which, even though it is not my favorite, is certainly betterthan junk food. Basically, the vast majority of whole foods are located at the perimeter, so do what you can to stay out of the aisles.
EL| What do you think of product or package claims like “low fat,” “low carb,” etc.?
MH| For the most part, I think such product claims are designed to mislead people and give them a false sense of security. They’re attention-getting, but they rarely tell the whole story. For example, a can of soda might have “no fat” on it, but that doesn’t make it good. You can take a food that says “low carb,” but it could be full of trans fats and other processed chemicals that work against you.
EL| How do we decode food labels and translate product ingredients and nutritional information?
MH| Essentially, you have to be smart about it. Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat contains some good advice on becoming a more educated consumer, as does my book UltraMetabolism. But my basic rule of thumb is this: If you have to buy something with a label, make sure you know what all the ingredients are and that you’re comfortable putting them in your body. Avoid food with more than five ingredients, try not to buy foods that come in boxes, and be wary of any package decorated with cartoons.
EL| Are there any good foods in the canned, boxed, bagged or frozen-food aisles?
MH| Absolutely, they’re just few and far between. Things like frozen blueberries or canned black beans can still be good for you, as long as they don’t contain a bunch of unhealthy and unnecessary ingredients. My conservative philosophy is, “If it has a label, don’t eat it.” That said, I realize that’s not always realistic for all of us all of the time. We like to have convenience foods to help us deal with our time crunches, and I don’t have a problem with that. But I do recommend that people read the labels. Choose packaged foods made with real-food ingredients over those with factory-created components.
EL| Is there any difference between a frozen bag of peas and fresh peas in terms of nutritional value?
MH| If they’re organic peas you pick from your garden, yeah, probably. Otherwise, frozen peas and frozen vegetables oftentimes are better than those that have been stored and shipped and packaged. The best thing is to eat foods from your farmers’ market; foods that are locally grown are fresher and have more nutrients. But frozen produce also has plenty to offer.
EL| What changes would you make in the grocery store regarding labeling?
MH| My preference would be to change grocery stores. For example, there are health-food sections in most grocery stores today. But this brings up a disturbing question: What does that make the rest of the food in there – the disease-food section? Regarding labeling, I think there should be clear labeling on nonfood items – those foods that are altered chemically and changed from their normal, biological function – about the toxic effects of certain ingredients, like trans fats. The government’s regulatory control of labeling is often shaped by industry interests and lobbying and does not reflect nutritional science. But when we’re eating perishable, whole-food items, there’s really no ingredient labeling to worry about.
EL|What ingredients have no business being in our carts, and how can we avoid them?
MH| The two biggest problems are trans-fatty acids, or hydrogenated fats, and high-fructose corn syrup. Trans-fatty acids are known to be toxic to the body. They damage your metabolism, they increase inflammation, they increase rates of diabetes, they cause cancer, they increase your cholesterol, and they really have no nutritional role in the food supply. Anything that contains them should really not be eaten by any human being or any other living thing.
There’s more of a debate surrounding high-fructose corn syrup and whether it’s any worse for us than other forms of sugar. I think the real concern is that its inclusion in a product is generally an indicator of poor-quality food. It’s a clue that what you’re about to put in your mouth or in your shopping cart is probably a junk or processed food and not good for you. In terms of its metabolic and biochemical effects, it’s much sweeter than plain sugar, and the fructose part of it doesn’t get regulated by the same control mechanisms as regular sugar, so it actually increases your appetite more. It increases the presence of unhealthy blood fats and promotes a fatty liver, and I think it plays a big role in why we’re seeing an epidemic of liver problems in this country.
If you want to avoid these ingredients, read the label: If it lists “hydrogenated” anything or “high-fructose corn syrup” in the ingredients, put it back.
EL| What would we find in your grocery cart on an average shopping day?
MH| I typically buy a lot of greens – I like kale, collards, mustard greens, bok choy, arugula and lettuce. I buy avocados, tomatoes, a lot of nuts like almonds, pecans and cashews, and lots of fruit – I’ll often have frozen organic blueberries that I put in my smoothies. I also buy lean, organic chicken breasts and wild salmon. I prefer organic, free-range and wild foods, overall.
EL| Why don’t more of us shop and eat smarter?
MH| It’s not an accident that we eat the food that we do. A hundred years ago, almost all our meals were eaten at home; now, one in two meals is eaten outside the home, and one in five breakfasts is a McDonald’s breakfast. We live in a toxic food environment, and we’re inundated with advertising for junk food – I mean, when was the last time you saw an ad for broccoli or garlic or ginger? The other problem is access: Everywhere we turn, we can find something bad to eat, whether it’s at the convenience store, the gas station, fast-food restaurants, or even regular restaurants that give us cheap, oversized portions and huge breadbaskets that promote overeating. However, I think people are becoming more aware of the hazards of eating this way, and they are seeking alternatives. As more of us demand high-quality, healthy foods, they will become more accessible.
EL| Any other tips on how we can better navigate the grocery store to achieve optimal health?
MH| Just be a smart consumer and look for things that are going to help your body thrive. When you pick something up, ask yourself the question: “Is this something my greatgrandmother would have eaten?” If the answer is “no,” you should probably put it back.
Mark Hyman, MD, is editor in chief ofAlternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. For a free sneak preview of his book UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss, check out www.ultrametabolism.com.