General Rules for Better Nutrition

By: Aaron E. Carroll Over the past few months, I’ve written a number of times on how nutrition recommendations are seldom supported by science. I’ve argued that what many people are telling you may be inaccurate. In response, many of you have asked me what nutrition recommendations should say. It’s much easier, unfortunately, to tell you what not to do. But here at The Upshot, we don’t avoid the hard questions. So I’m going to put myself on the line. Below are the general rules I live by. They’re the ones I share with patients, with friends and with family. They’re the ones I support as a pediatrician and a health services researcher. But I acknowledge up front that they may apply only to healthy people without metabolic disorders (me, for instance, as far as I know). These suggestions are also not supported by the scientific weight of rigorous randomized controlled trials, because little in nutrition is. I’ve inserted links to back them up with the available evidence. They are not “laws” and should not be treated as such. No specific nutrients will be demonized, and none will be held up as miracles. But these recommendations make sense to me, and they’ve helped me immensely. Full disclosure: I did not invent most of these. I’ve developed them from reading the work of others, including what may be the most impressive “official” nutritional guidelines, those of Brazil, as well as from earlier suggestions from readers, as in this great NYT interactive graphic. It captures readers’ responses to food rules by Michael Pollan. He is, of course, the promulgator of the well-known advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” 1. Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods. These include fruits and vegetables. But they also include meat, fish, poultry and eggs that haven’t been processed. In other words, when buying food at the market, focus on things that have not been been cooked, prepared or altered in any way. Brown rice over white rice. Whole grains over refined grains. You’re far better off eating two apples than drinking the same 27 grams of sugar in an eight-ounce glass of apple juice. 1b. Eat lightly processed foods less often. You’re not going to make everything yourself. Pasta, for instance, is going to be bought already prepared. You’re not going to grind your own flour or extract your own oil. These are meant to be eaten along with unprocessed foods, but try to eat less of them. 1c. Eat heavily processed foods even less often. There’s little high-quality evidence that even the most processed foods are dangerous. But keep your consumption of them to a minimum, because they can make it too easy to stuff in calories. Such foods include bread, chips, cookies and cereals. In epidemiologic studies, heavily processed meats are often associated with worse health outcomes, but that evidence should be taken with a grain of salt (not literally), as I’ve written about before. 2. Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, which should be prepared according to Rule 1. Eating at home allows you to avoid processed ingredients more easily. It allows you full control over what you eat, and allows you to choose the flavors you prefer. You’re much less likely to stuff yourself silly if you eat home-cooked food. I’m not saying this is easy. Behavioral change takes repetition and practice. It also, unfortunately, takes time. 3. Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation. Things like salt and fat aren’t the enemy. They are often necessary in the preparation of tasty, satisfying food. The key here is moderation. Use what you need. Seasoning is often what makes vegetables taste good. Don’t be afraid of them, but don’t go crazy with them either. 4. When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules. Ideally, you shoul

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