Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know

by | Feb 23, 2009

winter vegetablesIn honor of the food issue this week at Synapse, I compiled a list of ten essential diet and nutrition facts you might not know:

  1. “Vitamins” are not the same as whole foods. Instant ramen and a multivitamin is not a healthy meal. There is no substitute for a diet of whole foods rich in vegetables, beans, grains and fish.
  2. A healthy diet can prevent or even reverse four out of the six leading causes of death in the US. Evidence indicates that diet is more important than genetics in the vast majority of heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes cases.
  3. The thinnest, healthiest people in the world eat “high carb” diets. But they definitely do not eat the processed, refined carbohydrates that flood Western culture. If you want to lose weight and live longer without disease, eat more vegetables and whole grains.
  4. You get plenty of calcium. Americans consume more calcium than most countries on earth, yet still sport some of the highest rates of osteoporosis. This debilitating disease is more likely caused by insufficient vitamin D, not enough exercise and/or too much protein. Also, excess calcium is linked to prostate cancer and milk to ovarian cancer. Calcium does not support weight loss either.
  5. “Fiber” is not the same as vegetables and grains. Fiber supplements do not offer the same benefits as fiber-filled foods, and do not help with weight loss or protect against disease.
  6. The best sources of protein are plants and fish. It is relatively easy to get complete protein (i.e., all the essential amino acids) from a diverse diet. Protein from red meat offers more risk than reward. (Yes, pork is red meat.)
  7. Fruits and vegetables protect your vision. Both cataracts and macular degeneration are strongly tied to diet.
  8. Fats from factories are dangerous. Processed oils and trans fats (not total dietary fat) are associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity. Replacing them with natural oils could save your life.
  9. Fats from plants and fish are essential. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and memory loss. In moderation they can also aid in weight loss, since they increase the satiety you feel after a meal.
  10. You can lose weight on any short-term diet, but you will probably gain back more than you ultimately lose. This is often true even if you stay on the diet. Focusing on long-term health is the best strategy for sustained weight loss, but it requires patience.

What are other common myths about diet and nutrition?

UPDATE: For more information on the health value of oils from fish, please read my answer in the comments section.
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23 Responses to “Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know”

  1. Travis Saunders, MSc says:

    As always, a very well-written post. When you say that oils in fish are essential – are you suggesting that it is essential that a healthy diet include fish, or that oils are an essential part of the diet, and both fish and plants are good sources of these oils?

  2. Make Money Online says:

    Fantastic facts there., I did not even know 1 out of the 10. Really insightful. I guess i need to change my diet alot. BTW you are posting some great stuff. Keep up the good work.

  3. Darya Pino says:

    @Travis That is a great question, but I only have a partial answer. Obviously this question is particularly important to vegetarians, and to make a long story short you probably do not have to eat fish, but I am more confident giving diet advice that does include fish.What I meant from my statement is “both fish and plants are good sources of these oils”, but I was referring to mono and polyunsaturated fats. Specifically, fish are the best source of polyunsaturated fat.The most important polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 fatty acids. There are several different kinds of these fats, and the most important kinds (EPA and DHA) are only found in fish.The other kind ALA is found in many kinds of plants (e.g. walnuts and flax), and technically your body can convert these oils to EPA and DHA. However, this conversion happens at a very low efficiency, and it is not clear you can get enough conversion to, say, fend off heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe you can, but it is not clear to me and I do not want to recommend a deficient diet. Vegetarians are generally suggested to combat this issue with supplements (same with vitamin B12), but all too frequently I have seen supplements be revealed as a poor substitute for whole foods. To be honest, although I recommend (and take myself) vitamin D supplements, I make sure not to go too long without eating sardines or going in the sun.None of the other promising supplements (e.g. vitamin C and E) have panned out to be good ways to combat disease, and I don’t know why being a vegetarian would give you an exception to this rule.Granted, vegetarians tend to be healthier than most people, so maybe they don’t need all those vitamins as much.For me though, I try to eat oily fish 2-4 times per week, specifically for the oil and the vitamin D. I take 1000IU vitamin D supplement, but do not take a fish oil supplement.I wish the answer were more clear for all of us, but this is where the science is at this point.

  4. Michelle says:

    About the calcium, I’ve read that caffeine leeches calcium out of your system. True? I’ve also read, like you wrote, that excess protein does the same.

  5. Travis Saunders, MSc says:

    Wow, you weren’t kidding about a detailed response! I find the issue of fish to be very tricky – I love fish, but I worry about the mercury levels in my favourite fish (Atlantic salmon), farming practices, and the sustainability of eating “fresh” fish from either ocean while living in the middle of the continent (if I still lived on the coast I would eat fish on a much more regular basis). You have a great point about vitamin D – as I may have mentioned before, here in southern Canada we only get enough sunlight to create our own vitamin D for about half the year, and that may put us at increased risk of MS. Perhaps cod liver oil should make a comeback in our society…Are vegetarians at increased risk for Alzheimers? I can’t imagine that heart disease is much of a concern for most healthy vegetarians. I would expect that a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes is one of the key health reasons for switching to a plant based diet.

  6. Matt Shook says:

    Excellent list! You’ve taken all the key factors of what I consider to be a healthy diet, and compiled them into an easy to digest ten-point list. This will be useful for recommending to others who want to change their diet but don’t know where to start…One myth is that red wine and chocolate are “good” for you. I consume both, but I think they’re only truly “good” for you in small doses…moderation shouldn’t be overlooked.Another thought is that not all vitamins/supplements are created equal. Some multi-vitamins are worthless…and even between individual supplements the quality can vary greatly. There are also some supplements that require another to be taken simultaneously for better absorption. Proper absorption is huge…just cause you take the supplement it doesn’t mean you body automatically absorbs the goodness. Of course, it’s better to get that goodness from whole fruits, vegetables, and other foods anyways.A+ on this article, keep up the great job.

  7. Mike says:

    Great article idea; I couldn’t even get past #1 though without needing to comment:”“Vitamins” are not the same as whole foods. Instant ramen and a multivitamin is not a healthy meal. There is no substitute for a diet of whole foods rich in vegetables, beans, grains and fish.”I have an intuitive feeling that this is true, but I just wish I could understand why it isn’t; the fiber part I get, but ya know, why do we need to eat beans? Why can’t we just extract all the healthy stuff out of spinach, put it in a pill, and be done with it?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Your #5 was a little confusing about the fiber; at first it almost reads like you can’t get enough/proper fiber from vegetables and grains. Don’t fiber supplements actually cause colon cancer?

  9. Darya Pino says:

    @MichelleAt very, very high doses caffeine can have a deleterious effect on calcium excretion. But normal amounts of caffeine (<2-3 cups of coffee) have no effect on bone density or fracture risk.Protein can certainly leech calcium from bones. For normal intakes of protein this is not a big problem, however with the popularity of low carb, high protein diets this is a serious concern. Also, animal protein is significantly worse than plant protein for bones, so you herbivores out there have nothing to worry about.Animal protein consumption is more correlated with osteoporosis than is calcium intake.—–@TravisFish is very tricky, I completely agree. For you (adult male), mercury is not something you need to worry about too much. It is certainly unsafe for the developing brain, and can be toxic to an adult brain in very high doses. But the amount in, say, tuna fish eaten a couple times a week is unlikely to do you much harm.Farming practices and sustainability are a whole different can of worms. If you like salmon, wild Alaskan is caught sustainably, and is an excellent choice. These things are a concern to me as well, so I choose wild Alaskan salmon or sardines and anchovies the most often. Remember too that you don't need to eat a lot of fish to get the benefits. The small amount of fish in sushi can go a long way.Cod liver oil can be dangerous because of the high vitamin A content, which can be toxic.I do not know if vegetarians are at a greater risk of Alzheimer's, I'm not sure it has been looked at. But certainly people that eat the most fish compared to red meat are healthier. As you point out, vegetarians are protected against heart disease and diabetes, so the need to lower cholesterol with omega-3 oils is probably not a factor. But if I were vegetarian, I would certainly try to find a way to get DHA and EPA. I am fond of my brain ;)—–@MattGreat points!—–@Mike You have hit on a very interesting point. There are a lot of theories out there about why supplements are never as good as whole foods, but they are all unproven. Most people scientists assume that there is a synergistic effect that makes a whole food more than the sum of its parts. Maybe all the nutrients work together in a delicate balance, and require other foods as well. I imagine this will be the subject of much future research.Right now we don't have an answer to "why", but the great news is we don't need to know why to enjoy the benefits of whole foods. Who wants to take foul tasting supplements when you could eat a delicious summer tomato instead?—–@AnonSorry for the confusion. My point is that supplements are ineffective, but fruits and vegetables are good. I have also heard that fiber supplements cause colon cancer, but have not actually seen the research. I sort of doubt it is true.

  10. Nate @ Money Young says:

    Darya, Nice article. I finished reading a book about the power of nutrients in whole foods. Nature built them in such a way that they are MEANT to interact with the other nutrients from the same foods. Which is why whole foods are so vital.-Nate

  11. Karin says:

    Thanks for the list Darya! Its always good to have reminders about this stuff, drive home the points about eating fresh/local/organic. I like how you break down the principles to easily understood concepts, like #8,#9. One i didn’t know was #2, that most of the top killers in the US can be prevented by diet; great article!

  12. Meg Wolff says:

    Your veggie photo are absolutely fantastic, lively and fresh! Enjoying your posts!

  13. Darya Pino says:

    @NateThat is certainly a compelling theory. It will be interesting to see what science uncovers.—–@KarinYou hit the nail on the head! The amazing thing about all the science is it points us toward a single, delicious, relatively simple way of eating that is compatible with nature. What more could we ask for, really?—–@MegI really appreciate the compliment on my photos! I worked hard to improve them over the past 2 months and it is wonderful to have my readers notice =D

  14. I think with president obama talking about preventitive
    medicines that people are really relooking at diets and
    nutritions as part of that principle.

    We may be reaching that point where americans start to live
    healthier lives.

  15. Cassie says:

    I still can’t believe we’ve come to a point where it’s necessary to educate the public that real foods are better than refined garbage and supplements. I’m a Registered Dietitian, and sometimes the amount of ridiculous misinformation that the media/modern medicine/modern quackery spreads is just boggling. KUDOS to you for saying everything I want to say.

    I’ve seen research about the selenium content in fish being protective against potential mercury. (Also, another great reason to eat nuts, right?) — what are your thoughts on this?

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks Cassie. I haven’t seen the selenium data myself, but generally I am not terribly worried about mercury. I don’t eat much tuna or swordfish, but still mercury seems like a minor contaminant for mature adults considering all the other stuff we are exposed to daily. That being said, if I were pregnant I don’t think I would count on selenium to protect a developing child from mercury poisoning. So basically I think that it may be a small factor, but probably not a large enough one to change my behavior in any way. Others may feel differently.

  16. Karen says:

    For vegetarians looking for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, avocado is a great substitute to fish! It’s mostly monounsaturated fat, with lots of vitamins and minerals (Vitamin K, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Pantothenic Acid, Potassium, etc etc). I’m surprised no one mentioned avocado before when discussing the fish/vegetarian problem!

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks Karen, but while you’re correct that avocado is monounsaturated fat, it does not contain abundant omega-3 polyunsaturated fat like fish does. It is much closer in composition to olive oil. Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids from plants are largely ALA, not the beneficial EPA and DHA found in fish. While the body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, the conversion efficiency is very low. This may explain why fish eaters tend to be healthier than vegetarians. http://summertomato.com/fish-eaters-and-vegetarians-have-less-cancer/

  17. Karen says:

    I thought they had EPA and DHA too. Sorry about that!
    Thanks for the information! : )

  18. Woozle says:

    Ah, so much nonsense. What evidence (i.e. controlled studies) indicate that diet is more important than genetics? We barely understand the genetic component of heart disease as it is. The healthiest populations in the world would be, quite obviously, those that live the longest. The longest living men in the world live in Iceland, with Sweden trailing not far below. Perhaps I should go on that ultra-healthy Scandinavian butter, sugar and lutefisk diet.

    Diets – specifically, diet composition – appears to have virtually no impact on life expectancy in the affluent world. The fried-junk and Kraft-dinner eating overweight Canadian males have higher life expectancies than olive oil and vegetable-downing Italians at the age of 60. Dairy-fat loving Swiss and Swiss live longer than Greeks and Spaniards. The differences in longevity in the affluent world are relatively minor, anyway, despite fairly significant differences in diet. Another reminder that access to a good doctor and clean water are far, far, FAR more important than what you eat.

    Obesity – especially morbid obesity – does appear to be connected to shortened life spans, but otherwise, eating fast food daily while maintaining reasonable weight would be about as healthy as eating brown rice with steamed vegetables. Scream and holler with indignation all you like. Total mortality and life expectancy statistics speak for themselves. Butter-and-sugar people live longer than olive oil-and-tomato people.

    Red meat is health food, and so is saturated fat.
    A “vitamin” is just a molecule, identical in pills and vegetables.
    Medicinal, health benefits of most “naturopathic” plants appear to be non-existent in placebo controlled, double-blind studies. Quite likely the same is true of the much touted “phytonutrients” in fruits and vegetables.

    But by far the most important lesson is that food must be ENJOYABLE, fragrant, delicious, made with the best of ingredients and, hopefully, by the finest of cooking talent. It is unsurprising that America, the land of some of the crappiest food in the world, is also breeding grounds for all sorts of eating disorders, ideological food-related preening, and food neuroses.

    You, unfortunately, are one of the victims – and, with this blog – perpetrators of eating disorders. Trying to exclude entire delicious food groups – like red meat – from your diet due to idiotic vegan propaganda or misplaced fears – shows me quite plainly that you CANNOT be a foodie. Gourmandise and food neuroses are quite incompatible.

    Eat well, eat all the delicious things in the world with no fear, drop the delusion that you can possibly eat for health (apart from overeating), and enjoy yourself.

    • Karen says:

      1. There are other factors besides diet that effect health and life expectancy, like stress, so you’re right, your bad diet may make you live longer than others with equally bad diets because those people experience other things that decrease their life expectancy. This does not mean bad diet wasn’t contributing, only that it wasn’t helping to compensate for other stresses on your body.
      2. Eating chemicals is not the same as eating butter and sugar. Fast food is chemically treated meat squished into dinosaur shapes. Yes, this is proven.
      3. There are studies that indicate lifestyle is much more impacting than genetics on your longevity, though genetics is part of it. More importantly, lifestyle is something you can control.
      4. What college-level biology class or any class told you that your body accepts every sort of chemical/compound the same and it has no effect on the body? Have you ever actually taken classes on any of these things, or actually read any studies?

      Did it make you feel good to come in here and “enlighten” these people? Get a life.

  19. Hugh says:

    You are playing pretty fast and loose with the word “fact,” especially as someone who so prominently labels herself as a scientist. I know quite a few people, myself included, who would be fascinated to have access to the evidence supporting these “facts.” Perhaps you can put up references at some point for those of us who don’t like “facts” (or was it beliefs?) fed to us like children.

  20. Dragon Fly says:

    I am not sure what it tells about me but I enjoy reading the comments as much as the articles themselves. I particularly liked the response of “Woozle”. That’s someone who clearly is never going to don a pair of oven gloves before socking it to you.

    As a septuagenerian I continue to enjoy the sort of foods that my mother and her mother ate right to the end of their lives, each spanning almost a century. Words like “vegetarian and vegan” or “mono or poly-unsaturated” never appeared in their culinary lexicon, but they knew how to fry their morning bacon, eggs and slices of milk and egg yolk soaked bread, in generous lumps of lard whilst above the fireside range hung a blackened kettle ever-ready to fill fist-sized mugs with what would have been teeth-staining tea were it not for the cream of the milk. As children our bed-time treat comprised slices of hot buttered toast annointed with lashings of beef-fat known as dripping. To run out of sugar would have us scurrying to the neighbours even though I now reflect that perhaps our childhood addiction to that ubiquitous white substance might also rival that of some of today’s offerings.

    Personally I do not want to have to take my spectacles with me whenever I go to the local super market. Boxed ready meals with a laundry list of ingredients are not for me, neither are siilo-sized plastic bottles of diet drinks which weary, waddling, waist-bulging shoppers always seem to have in their shopping trolleys. But I do head for the cheese counter and here in the UK am fortunate enough to be able to buy unpasteurised French Normandy Camembert that when ripened smells like a postman’s socks. I also can purchase unpasteurised, full fat cheddar cheese with a tang that fights with your taste buds and always wins. Margarines and processed oils I avoid like the plague. Home made chutneys are always in my store cupboard for they lift the most mundane of fayre. Farmed fish has undoubtedly brought species such as salmon to the table of many of us and that is surely not to be decried, although my personal preference is for a sizzling sardine or a plump mackerel. I hasten to add that that preference, surprise, surprise, is predicated not by EPA or DHA but simply by TASTE.

    I am fortunate enough to have a near-by source of pasture fed chicken eggs and might eat as many as a dozen, each and every week. To pile horror upon horrors, I also love fat-laiden, free-range belly pork, none of which, incidentally, has seen my dress size increase from a life-time size 8 nor any diminution in my ability to enjoy long country walks with a posse of long-legged lurchers.

    The stress of modern life styles may well play an important part in the etiology of the diseases that seem to plague modern societies and we are all, for the most part, inescapably woven into the fabric of that society. Each era and ensuing generation adds to that weave but I do sincerely believe that some of the older versions are less threadbare than some of the newer ones.

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