- Mario Tama/Getty Images
Healthy eating can feel like a tricky game. Some diet gurus insist that carbs are bad, while others suggest that low-fat foods can help people slim down.
The truth is more complicated, though, and nutrition experts are starting to insist that there’s just no eating plan that’s right for every body.
Still, there are some foods that scientists have found – after years of studying people who eat them around the world – to be associated with negative health outcomes.
Here are eight of the worst offenders, which science has suggested up our odds of developing cancer, gaining weight, contracting diabetes, and ultimately perishing earlier than we should.
Meats from the grill and other burnt foods.
- Luke Jones/Flickr
The risk: Cancer.
Burnt items – whether that be something charred over coals, browned in a toaster, or even a lit cigarette – aren’t great for human health in big doses.
When meats like chicken, pork, beef, or fish are cooked or fried at high temperatures, they form compounds called heterocyclic amines, (HCAs), as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds can prompt DNA changes that may increase a person’s cancer risk.
But the way that these compounds work in tandem with others inside our bodies is complex and still not fully understood. (One study from Kansas State University found that marinating meats in spices like rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage may cut down the HCAs in a piece of meat by 87%.)
Another potentially risky compound that forms when food gets browned is acrylamide – it’s one of the toxic chemicals smokers inhale. When foods like bread, coffee, or french fries are roasted, fried, or baked at high temperatures, they produce acrylamide. But there’s no good evidence that a little browning is harmful. In fact, California recently reversed its cancer warning for coffee, saying that “after reviewing more than a thousand studies, we concluded that coffee consumption does not pose a significant cancer risk.”
Red meat (even when it’s not grilled).
The risks: Cancer and heart disease.
Tucking into a juicy steak or burger can be a treat, but you can have too much of a good thing.
Beef, ham, lamb and other red meat contain a protein called haem that can damage the intestinal lining, increasing the risk of colon cancer.
There’s also no fiber in meat, so it’s important to supplement any meaty meals with fresh, nutrient-rich veggies. One recent study found that people who consumed more red meat had an increased risk of death over time, though that could simply be because people who eat a lot of meat generally eat less fresh produce, and therefore miss out on the health-boosting benefits of vegetables.
In addition, many red meats are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, too much of which can clog the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack or a stroke. But lean, unprocessed meat can contain nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin D, potassium, and B-vitamins, as well as protein. The American Heart Association recommends choosing high-quality red meats and sticking to reasonable portion sizes.
- Denis Doyle/Getty Images
The risks: Diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Many foods naturally contain sugar, including fruit, grains, and dairy. Refined sugar is sometimes added to food often to improve its taste and lengthen shelf life.
Sugar can harm your health in several ways, in addition to simply causing you to consume more calories than you otherwise might. Too much of it increases triglycerides, a type of fat produced by the liver when it breaks down fructose. Triglycerides in the bloodstream can build up inside the walls of your arteries, contributing to heart disease.
Sugar is also linked to cancer, since it can damage cells. Once cancer is present, sugar can also speed the growth of tumors because cancer uses sugar as fuel.
An added problem is that sugary foods often contain “empty” calories that come without other nutrients, unlike the calories in vegetables, nuts, and fish.
Juice and other sweet drinks.
- Wikimedia Commons/ Michelle Reaves
The risks: Early death, diabetes, cancer, and heart issues.
For years, we’ve known that soda is bad for our health. Juice may not be that much better, even the fresh, 100% natural kind.
A recent study published in the journal JAMA analyzed years of health records from more than 13,400 black and white US adults. The scientists found that each additional 12-ounce serving of juice that adults drank per day was associated with a 24% higher risk of death.
That doesn’t mean juice kills people, but a mounting body of evidence suggests that fruit juice can be nearly as dangerous for our health as other sugary beverages.
Part of the problem is that when we drink sugar, fructose gushes into our liver, unabated by other nutrients like fiber that slow digestion and help us feel full and satiated. Over time, all those sweet drinks can lead to sour consequences.
A 34-year study of more than 118,000 men and women across the US released earlier this year found that people who sip more sugar-sweetened beverages are more likely to die from all sorts of illnesses, especially heart problems and cancers. That study suggested that diet soda and sugar substitutes may not be much better if consumed in large doses.
Processed food (yes, that may include cheesy quesadillas).
The risks: Overeating, cancer, and diabetes.
A processed food can refer to any item that’s not part of an edible plant, animal, fungus, or algae.
Scientists studying people who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods – like factory-made chicken nuggets, granola bars packed in plastic wrappers, and carbonated soft drinks – are discovering that people who rely on these foods regularly have higher rates of some deadly diseases.
What’s more, those people also tend to pop more food in their mouths on a regular basis than they would on a fresher diet. A groundbreaking 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health found that people who were fed ultra-processed meals for just two weeks ate 500 more calories each day and gained more weight than they did when offered the same amount of nutrients from less processed food.
“There really is a causal relationship between ultra-processed foods and how many calories people choose to eat,” lead researcher Kevin Hall told Business Insider in May.
Other researchers have connected packaged and ready-made foods with more cancer cases of all kinds and more early deaths.
Processed breakfast cereal and other refined grains.
- Melia Robinson/Business Insider
The risks: Weight gain.
Refined grains are found in items like white breads, pasta, rice, breakfast cereals, and baked goods like muffins. Although these foods may seem like deliciously simple meal choices, they are often sugary and processed.
And importantly, none of them are whole grains. Instead, they’ve been stripped of their outer shells: the germ and the bran that provide fiber, vitamins, protein, and fat.
Instead of starting the day with sugary cereal, many dietitians and nutrition experts suggest having a cup of plain Greek yogurt topped with nuts and berries. That will give your body healthy fat, protein, and fiber to keep you full.
Alcohol, be it beer, wine, or liquor.
The risks: Cancer and weight gain.
One problem with drinking is that the ethyl alcohol in boozy beverages irritates tissues, making them more susceptible to damage from carcinogens.
Heavy drinkers are more likely to experience long-term health issues – a 2018 study found that drinking higher quantities of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of developing all kinds of cancers.
Since most alcoholic drinks are also high in sugar, that can compound the detrimental effects and lead to weight gain over time.
Like most things, however, drinking in moderation is associated with minimal health risks (and maybe even a few benefits), so don’t sweat it if you enjoy a beer or glass of wine on occasion.
- Australian designer Sally Campbell in the garden of her home under a Datura tree. Datura is a toxic, hallucinogenic plant, and it can be deadly.
- Marco del Grande/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
The risks: Intense discomfort, hallucinations, and death.
It almost goes without saying, but there are a few things that border on edible that you should never, ever eat. That includes mold growing on leftovers in your fridge and poisonous mushrooms like the death cap and autumn skullcap (and, of course, your coworker’s lunch in the office fridge).
But in general, most foods are fine to eat occasionally, particularly if you stay aware of health risks and build your diet around fresh produce, healthy fats, and unrefined whole grains.
- Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Here are three of the biggest lies about nutrition I was fed as a kid:
Low-fat foods are always better for you than high-fat options. Drinking more milk makes your bones stronger. And you’re only properly hydrated once your pee comes out clear.
Nope, nope, and nope.
I didn’t know this at the time, but some of the “facts” about healthy eating that I absorbed as a youngster were clever marketing tactics dressed up as expert guidance about what to eat. Other pieces of advice have since been debunked by scientific research.
Here are a few dozen nutrition myths many of us were told as tots that simply aren’t true.
MYTH: Low-fat products are better for your waistline than high-fat versions of the same foods.
- Reuters/Ho New
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating less fat can actually make your body fatter.
“Fat consumption does not cause weight gain,” doctor Aaron Carroll wrote in his book “The Bad Food Bible.” “To the contrary, it might actually help us shed a few pounds.”
This is because people who skimp on fat (something our bodies need to function properly) are more likely to fill up on sugar and refined carbohydrates instead, and that can lead to measurable weight gain over time. Studies of people around the globe show this to be true time and again.
Fat molecules help our body’s cells stay healthy, and they aid us in absorbing nutrients in the other foods we eat. So if you prefer whole milk to skim, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that.
MYTH: You should “refuel” with electrolytes after a workout.
Sorry, Gatorade-lovers, but electrolytes and performance drinks don’t do anything special for your body.
“Athletes who lose the most body mass during marathons, ultramarathons, and Ironman triathlons are usually the most successful, which suggests that fluid losses are not as tightly linked to performance as sports drink makers claim,” science journalist Christie Aschwanden writes in her 2019 book, “Good to go: What the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery.”
Aschwanden explains that your brain is perfectly capable of regulating electrolytes like salt in the body on its own.
“You need enough fluid and electrolytes in your blood for your cells to function properly, and this balance is tightly regulated by a feedback loop,” she said.
MYTH: Your pee should be clear, and you should drink eight glasses of water per day.
- Shutterstock/D. Hammonds
If your pee is clear, you’ll probably need to find a toilet soon, because you’re over-hydrated.
The truth is, the body has a “thirst center” in the brain that helps regulate how much fluid we need, and it’s impressively tuned (though it tends to become less effective as we move into old age). So the most important way to stay hydrated is to listen to your thirst and drink when you feel like it.
Don’t ignore itchings for water or confuse them with hunger, and you’ll generally be fine. And don’t worry too much about the color of your urine, either. A light yellow or straw-like color can indicate you’re well hydrated, but darker urine isn’t necessarily a reason to panic.
“Dark pee might mean that you’re running low on fluid, but it could also mean that your kidneys are keeping your plasma osmolality in check by conserving water,” Aschwanden said.
MYTH: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
- Tella Chen/flickr
Some cereal companies have made a lot of cash off that catchy phrase.
“Many – if not most – studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal,” nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog in 2015. “Independently-funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food.”
Nestle keeps her own breakfast advice short and sweet: “If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don’t worry about it.”
In fact, studies have shown that people who work out in the morning on an empty stomach can burn up to 20% more body fat during their workouts.
Of course, studies still pop up suggesting that skipping breakfast is linked with early death. But personal trainer Max Lowery recently told Insider that such research may not consider every factor.
“People who are more health-conscious overall tend to eat breakfast because they are following health guidelines,” Lowery pointed out, “whereas people who skip breakfast are usually unhealthier overall because they are ignoring guidelines”
Still, nutritionists often suggest eating something in the first two to three waking hours of the day to avoid getting cranky and hangry.
MYTH: Cereal is a great breakfast food.
- Melia Robinson/Business Insider
Most cereals are ultra-processed. That means they’re infused with preservatives, packaged in plastic bags, and sprinkled with sugar.
Scientists are beginning to zero in on the dangers of processed foods like this: People who rely on these types of convenience foods tend to eat more (about 500 extra calories a day) and gain more weight than people who stick to unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains, and other edible plants.
Instead of starting the day with cereal, many dietitians and nutrition experts suggest having a cup of plain Greek yogurt topped with nuts and berries. That will give your body healthy fats, protein, and fiber to keep you full.
MYTH: 100% real fruit juice is a healthy choice.
Scientists recently looked at the health records of more than 13,400 US adults, and concluded that each additional 12-ounce serving of juice people drank per day was associated with a 24% higher risk of death.
Nutrition experts who study sugary drinks were not surprised by this result, because the way our bodies process the sugar in fruit juice is almost identical to the way we take in sugar from a can of soda. Juice just doesn’t satisfy our bellies like a piece of fibrous fruit does.
“It’s basically sugar and water, and no protein or fat to counteract that metabolism,” Jean Welsh, a nutrition professor at Emory University, previously told Business Insider.
In the same vein, smoothies – which are often loaded with sugar and may not contain all the fiber available in whole fruits – are not a health food, either.
MYTH: Snacking is healthy.
- Shutterstock/David Orcea
Snacking can be a healthful habit, since it keeps people from overeating at meals. But research shows that inserting snacks into your daily routine isn’t necessarily better for your health than eating three square meals a day.
Besides, many readily available snack foods aren’t very good for us, since they are often ultra-processed and high in sugar, so are linked with weight gain and more cancer cases.
“When you eat real, wholesome, healthy foods, you feel full sooner,” Ocean Robbins, grandson of ice cream magnate Irvine Robins (a Baskin-Robbins co-founder) recently told Business Insider. “Your body feels nourished. You actually have the nutrients you need and in time you can have less cravings.”
MYTH: Fasting is bad for your health.
- Clancy Morgan/Business Insider
Taking an occasional break from eating is becoming a popular Silicon Valley trend, and there’s a surprising amount of evidence supporting it.
Intermittent fasting can help people ward off diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity. The practice can also boost the production of a protein that strengthens connections in the brain and can serve as an antidepressant. Scientists even think fasting can lengthen our lifespans by keeping cells healthy and youthful longer.
In general, it’s good to give your gut a break for at least 12 hours a day, biologist and circadian rhythm researcher Satchidananda Panda told the New York Times in 2015.
Just don’t overdo it.
MYTH: You’re probably not getting enough protein.
- Irene Jiang / Business Insider
Just because something has lots of protein doesn’t make it healthy.
“Most Americans get more than enough protein from their diet,” public-health experts at the University of California, Berkeley wrote recently in Berkeley Wellness. (Adults over 65 are a notable exception to that rule, though.)
A long-term study of over 131,300 people in the US found that the more animal protein people ate, the more likely they were to die of a heart attack, suggesting that it may be best to favor plant proteins like those from nuts and beans, rather than relying on meat.
MYTH: The food pyramid should be your go-to guide.
Let’s get one thing straight: This is a picture of a food triangle on the side of a pyramid.
The “pyramid” above was released by the USDA in 1992, and it suggests there is one ideal strategy for healthy eating that everyone can follow. That strategy, it suggested, was to load up on breads and pastas, eat ample servings of fruits and vegetables (three to five per day), and round out one’s diet with some dairy and protein from sources like meats, nuts, and beans.
But researchers are discovering in study after study that what works for one person may not be right for everyone else. Different bodies respond differently to ingested fats and carbohydrates, so a stable energy source for one person could lead another’s blood sugar to skyrocket then crash.
Nutrition experts generally agree, however, that everyone can benefit from eating more unprocessed foods, like leafy greens, seafood, nuts, and brown rice, while cutting out the processed white bread and crackers found on the bottom of this triangle.
MYTH: Carob chips are healthier than chocolate.
- A chocolatier in the Ivory Coast explains how cocoa is processed into chocolate.
- Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images
Health-conscious dessert-lovers for years bought carob chips instead of chocolate. Carob is made from the dried fruit of Mediterranean carob trees (whereas chocolate comes from cacao). But they might have been better off sticking to chocolate.
“No offense to carob, but it doesn’t taste as good as chocolate,” Robbins said. “It turns out that chocolate’s actually better for you – it’s good for your heart and it’s good for your brain.”
That doesn’t mean you should eat candy bars. But a bit of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher) here and there could help improve blood flow and protect the heart.
Scientists have found no real link between chocolate consumption and acne breakouts, either.
MYTH: Yogurt is always a healthy choice.
- Getty Images/Joe Raedle
Most prepackaged yogurts in the dairy case are packed with sugar.
If you like yogurt, find a plain one; you can always sprinkle nuts, seeds, berries, or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg on top for flavor.
MYTH: Margarine is better for you than butter, and all oil is bad.
- Business Insider Video
Margarine was a darling toast-topper during the low-fat craze of the 1990s. Made from plant oils like palm oil, canola oil, and soybeans, it was marketed as a “healthier” alternative to animal fats.
But margarine used to include trans fat. Harvard researchers estimate that during the heyday of artificial trans fats in the 1990s, their presence in our food supply led to roughly 50,000 preventable deaths every year in the US. The FDA rolled out a near-universal ban on artificial trans fats in 2018, and most margarines today are trans-fat free.
But butter alternatives are highly processed, and vegetable oils that are lab-heated to prevent spoilage, like those in margarine, can be serious drivers of disease. Often, a key ingredient in margarine is palm oil, which is not nearly as good for our hearts as monounsaturated fats that are in a liquid state at room temperature, like olive oil. Monounsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels and keep our immune systems humming with Vitamin E, making them a healthier choice.
MYTH: Ditch cholesterol-heavy egg yolks and only eat the whites.
- Shanti May / Shutterstock
For most people, there’s no evidence that the cholesterol in eggs translates to higher blood cholesterol.
There is a lot of cholesterol in a chicken egg yolk: more than 180 milligrams, over half our daily recommended dose. But that doesn’t mean we should be wary of a yellow morning omelette.
“Actually, there’s never been a single study that showed higher egg consumption is related to higher risk of heart disease,” Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willett told The Cut in 2015.
MYTH: You should eat as few carbs as possible.
- France fans enjoy the atmosphere prior to the 2014 World Cup match between Ecuador and France on June 25, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
- Julian Finney/Getty Images
Not all carbohydrates are bad.
Quinoa, bananas, apples, beans, and carrots are all relatively high-carb foods, and studies repeatedly show that people who eat a wide variety of these foods, in addition to whole grains, tend to have trimmer waistlines and lower blood-pressure levels.
It’s true, however, that once grains are stripped of their protein-hefty bran and germ, they’re not great at providing key nutrients or satiating us for hours after we eat. That’s why it’s still a good idea to avoid refined carbs, which are used to make items like cookies and white bread.
MYTH: Counting calories is a good weight-loss strategy.
- Shutterstock/Alan Bailey
A calorie is a calorie, right? Wrong.
Nutritionists increasingly urge people to evaluate foods holistically, rather than based on individual nutrients or calorie counts.
Take avocados, for example. A cup has 234 calories and 14 grams of monounsaturated fat, along with smaller doses of polyunsaturated (2.7 g) and saturated fat (3.1 g). But an avocado also provides good doses of fiber, protein, and potassium,which can help maintain healthy blood-pressure levels. No one would suggest you’d get the same health benefits or stay as full after eating 234 calories’ worth of potato chips (that’d be about 25 chips).
Recent studies have shown that plants are the best choice for our health, and consuming more processed foods – even with the exact same amount of calories on offer – can lead to weight gain.
MYTH: Orange juice will help you get over a cold.
- A vendor sells orange juice during the holy month of Ramadan at a market area in Amman, Jordan on May 8, 2019.
- REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
Orange juice is high in Vitamin C, which helps keep our immune systems strong.
But that doesn’t mean that a glass of OJ will fight a cold you already have, or even that it will make your cold go away more quickly. Instead, try sucking on a zinc lozenge – some studies suggest that taking zinc can lead some people’s colds to end quicker.
MYTH: Getting nutrients from vitamins is the same as eating them in foods, so a multivitamin a day keeps the doctor away.
Scientists have tested the effects of multivitamins again and again, but they just haven’t found good evidence of any real benefits for our health.
“Show me a single study ever done saying people who took a multivitamin pill … did better. There’s no study,” Ajay Goel, a biophysicist who researches cancer, recently told Business Insider.
The US Preventative Services Task Force does not recommend that people take vitamins or supplements as a preventive measure for heart disease or cancer, the leading causes of death in the US. In fact, there’s evidence that supplements can do more harm than good.
“Extra vitamin A supplements can lead to dangerous, toxic levels if taken too frequently,” Dr. Clifford Lo, associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health said in a blog post.
Try getting important vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables.
MYTH: Salt is bad for you.
There isn’t any compelling evidence that salt on its own raises blood pressure or contributes to more heart attacks or death.
It may be the case that people who eat a lot of salt are at risk of developing health problems for a host of other reasons, mostly because their diets and lifestyles are less healthy overall. For example, salt is a great preservative, which means there is a lot of it in processed food, which we know is not good for us.
MYTH: Eating carrots helps you see better.
This piece of false information may have originated in WWII, according to Snopes, when Britain pretended that its bomber pilots had freakishly good, carrot-fueled eyesight instead of admitting to using radar to track Nazis.
Carrots are good for eye health, but they cannot help you see better than you already do. Carrots are rich in chemicals called carotenoids, as are spinach, kale, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. Our bodies convert these chemicals from plants into nutrients like vitamin A, which is essential for developing healthy embryos, keeping tissues healthy, and ensuring the immune system functions properly. People who have diets rich in the carotenoid beta carotene, for example, have lower instances of cervical cancer and slight reductions in breast cancer risk.
To keep eyes healthy as we age, researchers who study macular degeneration suggest eating a variety of plants rich in Vitamin C, E, zinc, omega-3’s, and other nutrients. In addition to carrots, that list includes fish, broccoli, nuts, and berries.
MYTH: Coffee is dangerous for your health.
For decades, researchers have been investigating whether coffee drinking is bad for our health. Overwhelmingly, the answer is no.
A wealth of scientific studies suggest that drinking coffee can help people live long lives. Perhaps the best evidence for this comes from two giant studies: one of more than 400,000 people in the US and another of more than 500,000 Europeans. Both studies found that regular coffee drinkers were less likely to die from any cause than people who don’t sip a daily cup of joe.
Other research has even suggested that drinking somewhere in the neighborhood of four cups of coffee per day may be the best dose for aging hearts.
But coffee is not the perfect drink.
“For some people it is unhelpful, because it makes them jittery, and they get addicted to it, and they get headaches if they don’t drink a lot of it,” Robbins said. “And I think our society is a little high-strung sometimes.”
MYTH: Diet soda is fine.
Zero calories! No problem then, right?
Diet soda can be a good way to wean yourself off of sugary beverages, but scientists still aren’t sure that it’s a harm-free choice. A recent 34-year study of more than 118,000 men and women across the US found that diet soda and sugar substitutes may not be much better for our bodies than sugary beverages when consumed in large doses.
“Diet soda may be used to help frequent consumers of sugary drinks cut back their consumption, but water is the best and healthiest choice,” Vasanti Malik, the study’s lead author and a research scientist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a release.
Malik found that women who drank four or more artificially sweetened beverages per day significantly upped their risk of death (the finding didn’t hold true for men, though). The researchers think the explanation for an observed link between diet drinks and death may just be that people who are already overweight drink more diet beverages. But more research is needed.
MYTH: You need to drink a lot of milk to prevent osteoporosis.
- Got Milk?
Got milk? This was a clever piece of advertising drummed up by the California Milk Processor Board in the 1990s to fight declining milk sales.
Milk-mustached celebrities suggested to us for years that there’s something special about the calcium in milk that helps our bones stay strong. But there’s really no evidence to suggest that milk has advantages over other calcium-rich foods like leafy greens and legumes.
We do need calcium to build strong bones, and there is a good dose of it available in dairy; but we also need Vitamins D and K for adequate bone health. Besides, heavy milk drinkers do not appear to be any less susceptible to bone fractures.
- Quesadillas made with canned beans, store-bought tortillas, deli meat, and shredded cheese are considered processed food.
Here’s an experiment: Sit alone in a hospital room for two weeks and eat nothing but ultra-processed foods like hot dogs, muffins, canned ravioli, and chicken salad.
You probably wouldn’t love the results.
But that’s exactly what 20 men and women did in a recent, rigorously controlled study from the National Institutes of Health. Those participants ended up gaining an average of 2 pounds in those two weeks on this ultra-processed diet. They also consumed about 500 additional calories every day, compared to a different two-week period in which the same people followed an unprocessed meal plan.
The scientists behind the study – which was published Thursday – found that this discrepancy arose because patients who were fed processed meals tended to overeat, even though researchers controlled for how much salt, fat, sugar, protein, fiber, and carbohydrates each meal contained (regardless of whether it consisted of processed versus unprocessed items).
“This is the first time that we can actually say that there’s a causal relationship between something that’s independent of the nutrients … that is driving these differences in calorie intake and weight gain,” lead researcher Kevin Hall told Business Insider.
His team isn’t yet sure why processed food makes us hungrier, but they have a few educated hypotheses. For one, they think the difference in calorie consumption might have something to do with the ways that fresh foods trigger hormones that regulate our appetite (ghrelin), and suppress hunger (PYY). Additionally, people tend to eat unprocessed foods more slowly, which gives our body more time to register that we’re full before we overeat.
Beyond its link to overeating, a diet heavy in processed food is also linked with all kinds of other health problems, according to previous research: People who consume it regularly are more likely to get cancer and die quicker than others.
Given that stark comparison, here’s how to determine what to seek out and what to avoid.
The difference between processed and unprocessed food
- This processed dinner of prepared mac and cheese, chicken tenders and canned green beans had to be supplemented with tons of diet lemonade fortified with fiber in order to match the nutrient levels in an unprocessed meal.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
Researchers classify “ultra-processed” foods as items that are generally factory-made and come laden with additives and preservatives like sweeteners and thickeners. Generally, these things are packaged in plastic or cans. You’re likely to see “high fructose corn syrup” on the ingredient list of an ultra-processed food item, or perhaps some interesterified oils (replacements for trans fats, which are now widely banned).
Unprocessed food, on the other hand, involves raw ingredients like fresh produce, unflavored yogurt, home-cooked meat, and whole grains.
But food items don’t have to be completely fresh to be considered unprocessed. In the NIH study, the researchers relied on the NOVA food-rating system, which designates foods as unprocessed if they are edible parts of plants (including nuts), animals, fungi, algae, or water. So it’s fine to freeze, boil, ferment, or refrigerate ingredients. But unlike their processed versions, unprocessed foods are not cured or pre-salted.
The study authors described and photographed the meals they fed their 20 participants – both during their processed-food weeks and the time spent on a fresher eating plan.
Here’s one of the processed breakfasts that the participants ate in the lab:
- This processed breakfast includes egg mix, turkey bacon, and American cheese on an English muffin with a side of tater tots and ketchup. The orange juice was supplemented with extra fiber.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
One of the processed lunch meals was a tasty-looking quesadilla made with deli turkey, cheddar and jack cheeses, and refried beans from a can. Personally, I found that one disheartening, since it sounds like something I might make at home. So did a chicken salad sandwich made with canned chicken, pickle relish, and mayonnaise – one of the ultra-processed dinners.
While on an unprocessed diet, on the other hand, the participants ate more produce and skipped sides like tater tots. Here’s what a day’s worth of unprocessed meals looked like in the lab:
Unprocessed breakfast: a yogurt parfait
- This unprocessed breakfast includes a Greek yogurt parfait with strawberries, bananas, walnuts, salt,olive oil, and apple slices with fresh squeezed lemon juice.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
Unprocessed lunch: spinach salad
- An unprocessed lunch on the menu was a spinach salad with chicken breast, apple slices, bulgur, sunflower seeds, and grapes. The salad was tossed with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard seed, black pepper, and salt.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
Unprocessed dinner: stir-fried beef tender roast
- For dinner one night, study participants ate stir-fried beef tender roast with broccoli, onions, sweet peppers, ginger, garlic, and olive oil, along with a side of basmati rice, some orange slices, pecan halves, and salt and pepper.
- Hall et al./Cell Metabolism
After two weeks of meals like these, participants managed to shed an average of 2 pounds.
- Oscar Carrascosa Martinez/Shutterstock
- Nutrition experts agree that eating healthy is an exercise in advance preparation.
- We spoke to two nutritionists from leading US hospitals – the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic – and both said they bring their own lunch to work most days.
- They also include healthy snacks in their daily routines, such as nuts, legumes, and seeds, which science increasingly suggests are some of the best protein sources.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” as the tired saying goes. Well, maybe, but there is such thing as a healthy lunch.
The key to good nutrition, most experts agree, is to prepare ahead of time.
We asked two registered dietitians and nutritionists from the nation’s leading hospitals – Jason Ewoldt from the Mayo Clinic and Julia Zumpano at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio- what they eat on a typical work day.
The similarities were striking: both experts opt for lots of nuts, legumes, plant-based proteins, and fresh veggies. Each of their lunches were also naturally colorful, veggie-filled, and full of good sources of protein (beans, cheese, chicken) as well as fiber.
“Eat more of these things that are naturally more filling and more nutritious,” Ewoldt said. “At the end of the day, chances are, you’re probably eating less.”
Science suggests that foods with fiber, fat, and protein keep us satiated longer and also give our bodies beneficial phyotchemicals, minerals, and essential amino acids and omega fatty acids that the body can’t make on its own.
Here’s what Ewoldt and Zumpano each ate for lunch one recent day at the office.
Both dietitians ate chickpeas – a staple of some Mediterranean diets
Zumpano said she brought a mixed green salad to work with two hard-boiled eggs and an ounce of goat cheese on top. She sprinkled in some roasted chickpeas, sunflower seeds, oil, and vinegar.
Ewlodt, meanwhile, said lunch is often his heartiest meal of the day, so his meal was a bit heavier than Zumpano’s. He ate a grilled chicken patty on a “thin bun,” along with a side of prepackaged guacamole.
“The star player in today’s day and age seems to be avocado,” he said.
Replete with healthy, filling, monounsaturated fat, avocados boast a solid dose of fiber and protein. They are also a great source of potassium, a natural antidote to salt that can help maintain healthy blood pressure levels.
Alongside his sandwich and avocado, Ewoldt said, he also dipped some vegetables into “a little hummus thing.”
You may have noticed one critical shared ingredient in these two lunches: the chickpea (also known as a garbanzo bean). Zumpano put some in her salad, while Ewoldt ate them in his hummus. Chickpeas are high in iron and fiber, and they’re a staple of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which studies find time and again to be the best eating plan if you want to up your chances of living a long, healthy life.
Mediterranean diets also tend to be heavy on vegetables – as were the two dietitians’ lunches.
Because of their chemical makeup, veggies and other plants are excellent cancer-fighters, helping keep the body disease-free. Phytochemicals – which give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, odors, and flavors – can help defend us against disease once they get to work inside our bodies. The chemicals can reduce inflammation, which has the potential to make cancer more likely. Phytochemicals act kind of like ingestible body guards, keeping the things we eat, drink, and breathe from becoming cancer-causers in the first place by preventing DNA damage.
Planning and habit-forming are crucial
Ewoldt said he tries to make it as easy as possible to prepare a lunch. He buys some of his sides pre-portioned and in bulk at Costco (like hummus and guacamole), and cuts his veggies ahead of time so that he doesn’t have to think about what to pack in the morning before he bolts out the door.
“Everything’s pre-portioned and ready to go,” he said, adding that the toughest hurdle many of his patients face when it comes to eating healthy is good planning.
“Once we can get a plan down, it makes it much more likely that they’re going to succeed and a much greater chance that they’re going to have a better health outcome,” he said.
University of Southern California psychology professor Wendy Wood agrees.
“People who have these healthy habits aren’t really thinking about the alternatives,” she said. “That’s the beauty of forming habits, the response just comes to mind. Usually, we act on it before we have a chance to think.”
Wood said she has seen this kind of nutrition choice play out in her own lab experiments. In one, her team trained people to systematically choose carrots as a snack, again and again. Eventually, many research subjects choose carrots over chocolate on their own, without thinking. Veggie-eating had become almost a reflex.
The dietitians snack on nuts, cheese, and bananas
Eating healthy during the day is not just about what you pack for lunch, though.
“There’s more research that shows if you have a small, healthy, filling snack, you’re still hungry for lunch, you’re just better able to manage choices and portion how much you’re eating,” Ewoldt said.
For breakfast, Ewoldt said he’ll often opt for Greek yogurt with berries. (That is a go-to morning meal for many other health experts, too.) If he gets a little hungry before lunchtime, Ewoldt said he may snack on a cheese stick or banana.
- A handful of nuts mid-morning is one of dietitian Julia Zumpano’s favorite snacks.
- Vasiliy Koval / Shutterstock
For her snacks, Zumpano said, she also opts for a couple ounces of nuts mid-morning – roughly a handful or two of raw almonds, walnuts, or some other nutty mix. After her cheesy lunch salad, Zumpano said she ate a banana with natural peanut butter in the afternoon.
By eating filling, high-protein, low-sugar snacks, Ewoldt added, you’re more likely to keep your healthy eating spree going through the rest of the day.
“Instead of coming home and you’re ravenous, you’re coming home and you can wait until dinner,” he said.