“Just tell me what to eat”

Edible? Yes. Real food? No.

A few weeks ago we had some visitors who left a bag of Sour Brite Crawlers behind. Apparently these little worms are edible. But food? Not in my world. What was this doing in my house? I considered tossing it in the trash, but first I had to get a photo. All the bright colors are so pretty. Not like anything you’d find in the natural world, but it got me thinking about food choices.

For years, nutrition professionals operated on the assumption that a lesson in nutrition science would motivate people to pick healthier food and avoid the Sour Brite Crawlers of the world. For example, a lesson on the dynamics of vitamin A function will result in consumption of more kale. A detailed discussion of the intricacies of digestion and energy metabolism would lead to increased consumption of high fiber whole grains.

Just Tell Me What To Eat

It turns out the general public isn’t all that interested in learning nutrition science. People just want to know what to eat. This makes perfect sense. Other professionals — doctors, lawyers, plumbers, auto mechanics… — don’t feel it’s necessary to impart their professional expertise to you before making recommendations or fixing problems. You don’t feel like you need a medical degree before listening to your doctor. You don’t need a plumber’s license to hire a plumber. Focusing on “Just tell me what to eat” is more consumer-friendly.

The nutrition community’s simplified answer is “Eat Whole Foods, ” which to me is a bit problematic. It could be misinterpreted as “Buy your groceries at Whole Foods.” The intended meaning is to focus on foods as close to their natural state as possible, mostly or entirely unprocessed. But again, this could be misinterpreted:

  • Does it mean don’t eat bread; just eat cooked whole grains?
  • Does it mean don’t eat frozen vegetables, just fresh (and raw) vegetables?
  • Does it mean avoiding sliced deli ham or roasted nuts or frozen french fries?
  • Avoid ketchup, frozen orange juice and salad dressing?
  • Avoid tofu and pasta?
  • Does it mean only foods you make from scratch?

No, no, no, no and no.

My preference is Eat Real Food. What does that mean? It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” definitions. Bread, salad dressing, tofu, yogurt, canned soup, frozen spinach and bran flakes can reasonably be thought of as “real” food. Brightly colored gummy worms or bright orange cheese-flavored puffs not so much.


What not to eat

Step One on the journey to a healthier diet is ditching highly processed foods, the stuff that never existed in nature, that’s entirely manufactured. The ingredients may officially be edible; they may not be overtly toxic or dangerous. But the product is so highly processed you can’t recognize where it came from? Bright orange cheese-flavored puffs? Pop Tarts? Gummy worms? Fruit Loops? Pretty much any soft drink? Where in the natural world did those things start? More to the point, what happens when it hits your digestive system? Are the bright colors absorbed? What do your gut microbes think about those ingredients?

I don’t mean to sound like a Food Prude. Most people end up eating highly processed or less-than-wonderful food at times. Taste, convenience and cost are the main drivers of food choice, not health. But these days, you have to draw the line somewhere. Grocery stores are not going to do that for you. Even Whole Foods is not going to do that for you (plenty of junk food there, although with a saintly organic halo). “Eat Whole Foods” doesn’t mean you have to live on raw vegetables and wheat berries. It shouldn’t make you feel guilty about buying a loaf of Italian bread or canned spaghetti sauce. Hopefully, “Eat Whole Foods” will make you a bit more choosy about what you put into your grocery cart and onto your plate.

Copyright: All content © 2021 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.