Not long ago, we all believed we should avoid eating too many eggs. They raised cholesterol, we thought, which could increase the risk of artery narrowing and cardiovascular disease.
However, new studies came out showing that consuming eggs was unlikely to change our cholesterol numbers. So, back to eggs, we went.
We were also warned away from coffee for decades. It was bad for us, they said and could stunt growth, increase the risk of heart disease and cause other health issues.
Then, however, new studies came out showing that coffee was full of healthful and protective antioxidants and had the potential to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes and might even protect against heart failure.
The latest health trends come in the form of diet crazes: gluten-free, paleo, Atkins, ketogenic and the list goes on. Many people are convinced that only by following these specific diets can they truly expect to enjoy health, vitality and long life.
These conflicting messages about diet can leave us confused and even frustrated. We may start to wonder: At the end of the day, does it matter what we eat?
Let’s start with the basics: there is a definite difference between eating a poor diet filled with fast food and high-sugar sweets and snacks and eating a healthy diet filled with wholesome, nutritious foods.
Put bad or contaminated gasoline in your vehicle, and you can expect to have problems. The same is true with your body. It runs on the fuel you consume, and that fuel consists of the foods and beverages you choose.
If you regularly consume junk food, you can expect to eventually suffer from health issues, whereas consuming whole foods gives your body and mind the tools they need to function properly.
Harvard Health explains that, at the very basic level, everyone needs a mix of the following nutrients for optimal health:
By getting all these nutrients regularly from healthy sources, you’re more likely to have the energy you need to stay active throughout the day.
Healthy Eating Gives You the Nutrients You Need
Because your body relies on the nutrients it gets from food, it matters that you get enough of those nutrients. Having a deficiency in one or more can increase your risk of many diseases and weaken parts of your immune system.
There are still some parts of the world where humans are at risk for severe nutrient deficiencies, but in the United States and Canada, it’s more common to consume too much of some and not enough of others. Often, we don’t get enough of the following nutrients.
Not Enough Iron
Iron is necessary for transporting oxygen to cells, and it comes in two types:
- Heme iron: Found in animal foods, with red meat containing high amounts; absorbed by the body easily
- Non-heme iron: Found in animal and plant foods; not absorbed as easily by the body.
Some people are at risk for iron deficiency, particularly menstruating women because of monthly blood loss, pregnant women and vegetarians.
Not Enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D is necessary for many bodily functions and is known to help protect against certain types of cancer. The body makes the vitamin when the skin is exposed to the sun without sunscreen or other protectants. We can get some from dairy foods, but not enough to meet our daily requirements.
Studies show that about 50 percent of the population worldwide is deficient in this vitamin, perhaps because of increased use of sunscreen and reduce outdoor activities.
Not Enough Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is necessary for brain and nerve function as well as for healthy blood. We get it from animal foods mostly, so those who don’t eat animal foods are at risk for deficiency.
Not Enough Calcium
Calcium is especially important for the formation of bones and teeth as well as for maintaining bone integrity as we age. It’s necessary for the proper functioning of the heart, muscles, and nerves and comes from fish, dairy products and dark green vegetables.
A deficiency in calcium can increase the risk of bone thinning and osteoporosis, particularly as people age. The best source of the mineral is food — studies have shown conflicting results when people consume supplements.
Not Enough Magnesium
The body needs magnesium for strong bones and teeth, to perform most common enzyme reactions and maintain a healthy heart. Studies show that low intakes of magnesium can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis. About half of Americans aren’t getting enough. We get magnesium from whole grains, nuts, and dark green, leafy veggies.
Eating Junk and Ultraprocessed Foods Destroys Your Health
In addition to eating those foods that will give you enough of the nutrients you need ― and not too much of those you don’t ― it’s also important to avoid those foods that will damage your body in some way.
Junk Food Diets Encourage Weight Gain
In a recent 2019 study, researchers found that people consuming cheap, ultraprocessed foods like white bread, bacon and hash browns ingested more calories and gained more weight than they did when eating wholesome meals.
In their experiments, scientists fed participants ultraprocessed foods for two weeks, then gave them unprocessed foods like fish and fresh vegetables for another two weeks. Both types of meals had the same number of calories and the same levels of sugar and fat, but when offered the ultraprocessed foods, people ate more quickly and took in an average of 500 more calories per day than when eating unprocessed foods.
The takeaway: if you eat healthy foods, you’ll probably eat less overall and have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight.
Bad Diets Worse Than Smoking
In another recent global study, researchers found that about 11 million deaths per year around the world are linked to poor diet and that diet was a larger determinant of ill health than either tobacco or high blood pressure. Countries that had a diet higher in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy oils had the lowest number of diet-related deaths.
Junk Food Diets Cause Psychological Stress
Bad diets don’t only affect your body—they affect your brain, too. Recent research has linked poor and unhealthy diets to moderate or severe psychological stress. In studies, those who ate poorly were less mentally healthy than those who ate healthy diets.
Increased consumption of sugar and sugar-filled foods and beverages has also been linked with bipolar disorder. Increased consumption of fried and high-sugar foods has been associated with depression.
Ultraprocessed Foods Make Up Much of the Standard American Diet
Poor diets that are full of ultraprocessed foods have been linked with a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. According to one particular study, nearly 60 percent of the standard American diet comes from ultraprocessed foods.
These foods are high in flavor chemicals, color and dyes, sweeteners and hydrogenated oils as well as additives and preservatives. Meanwhile, the study found that Americans get less than one percent of their daily calories from vegetables.
In summary, eating more wholesome, nutritious foods and cutting back on ultraprocessed, high-fat and high-sugar foods is important for optimal health and for increasing our resistance to disease.
However, when it comes to which diet is best, it’s a personal matter. While it may seem that coconut oil, green smoothies and eliminating sugar are necessary to delay aging and encourage long life, research has found that various adjustments in our diets matter little over the long-term.
It does matter whether or not you eat wholesome foods and get enough nutrients, but it matters less whether you drink green tea instead of coffee or whether you decide never to touch a steak again.
In the end, there isn’t a “best diet.” When researchers followed more than 1,000 people for two weeks, they found that no two people’s bodies responded the same way to common foods. Even identical twins had different reactions to common foods like muffins, bread, and bananas.
Researchers wrote in the journal The Lancet, “On the personal level, we now know there is no diet or dietary intervention that is right for everyone or even for an individual throughout their lifespan.”
Another study of more than 447,000 people around the world found that no matter where you live or what your daily diet is like, banning entire food groups could increase your risk of premature death. The keto diet, for example, which involves strictly limiting carbohydrates, had potential harmful long-term health consequences. Participants in the study who consumed a moderate amount of carbs were likely to live longer lives than either low-carb or high-carb dieters.
Other low-carb diets like paleo, Atkins, and Whole30 were also found to have the potential to harm, say nothing of the difficulty of following them for longer than a few weeks.
Another study examining the eating habits of over 471,000 people for 22 years found that those whose diets had lower nutritional quality were more likely to develop some of the most common and deadliest forms of cancer. This study showed once again that what matters is simply eating healthy foods.
Aubrey, A. (2019, April 3). Bad Diets Are Responsible For More Deaths Than Smoking, Global Study Finds. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/04/03/709507504/bad-diets-are-responsible-for-more-deaths-than-smoking-global-study-finds
Brueck, H. (2019, June 11). More evidence that no best diet exists: A study of 1,100 people shows how everyone responds differently to common foods. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-the-best-diet-no-such-thing-2019-6
Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., … Zhou, M. (2019). Ultraprocessed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism, 30(1), 226. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.020
Harvard Health Publishing. (2016, October 28). Which foods don’t belong in a healthy diet? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/which-foods-dont-belong-in-a-healthy-diet
Nair, R., & Maseeh, A. (2012). Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin. J Pharmacol Pharmacother, 3(2), 118-126. doi:10.4103/0976-500X.95506
Nature. (2019, May 16). First strict test shows why a junk-food diet packs on weight. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01523-w
Nutrition Insight. (2019, February 25). You are what you eat? Junk food diet linked to psychological distress, California study shows. Retrieved from https://www.nutritioninsight.com/news/you-are-what-you-eat-junk-food-diet-linked-to-psychological-distress-california-study-shows.html
Park, A. (2016, March 9). You Won’t Believe How Much Processed Food You Eat. Retrieved from https://time.com/4252515/calories-processed-food/
Pawlak, R., Parrott, S. J., Raj, S., Cullum-Dugan, D., & Lucus, D. (2013). How prevalent is vitamin B12deficiency among vegetarians? Nutrition Reviews, 71(2), 110-117. doi:10.1111/nure.12001
Rosanoff, A., Weaver, C. M., & Rude, R. K. (2012). Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated? Nutrition Reviews, 70(3), 153-164. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00465.x