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Everywhere you look, it seems like there's a new story about how this food is good for you, this food is bad for you, you need to follow this diet, or you shouldn't eat that. But underlying all the faddishness are some basic truths about what we put into our bodies.
Gluten is bad.
Gluten-free is one of the popular buzzwords in food marketing these days. But is gluten such a terrible thing? First, we need to define a few terms. Let's start with gluten itself; gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in wheat and some other grains like rye and barley.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the presence of gluten in the intestinal tract triggers the body to attack its own intestinal tissue. This damage can be cumulative, and it's essential that people with this condition avoid gluten to avoid setting off this autoimmune attack.
Gluten or wheat allergy involves the same kind of reaction as you might expect with a peanut allergy or a bee sting allergy: Hives, swelling of the tongue and airway, and difficulty breathing. This can lead to anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal. It is not the same type of reaction as celiac disease, but it's just as necessary to stay away from gluten.
Then there is gluten intolerance, in which consuming gluten can produce uncomfortable, but not dangerous, intestinal symptoms like cramping, gas, and bloating. People with irritable bowel syndrome may be prone to gluten intolerance.
For the average person, though, gluten is not going to be a problem at all. And in case you think that a gluten-free label on a food means it's healthy, think again. Often gluten-free labels will be slapped on products that would never have had gluten-containing grains in them to begin with. Anytime you see the label "naturally gluten-free," chances are very strong that it's all about the marketing and the manufacturer has not changed the original product in any way.
Carbs are bad.
There is nothing inherently bad about carbohydrates. It does make a difference, though, what form those carbohydrates take. Highly refined carbs like different forms of sugar, white bread, and baked goods have been stripped of the range of nutrients they originally had, and they're converted to sugar very rapidly in the body. This can produce a cascade of responses that tends to promote inflammation.
Whole grains, on the other hand, contain good things like the germ of the grain, which has vitamins, healthy fats, and fibre, which slows down absorption in the intestines, preventing spikes in blood sugar. Basically, the less that's been done to a grain between the farm and your plate, the better for you it's likely to be. Think brown rice, wild rice, steel cut oats, quinoa, bulgur wheat, and products with 100 percent whole wheat flour rather than white flour.
Fat is bad.
First off, fat does not make you fat. Granted, fat contains nine calories per gram, as opposed to four calories per gram for sugar or protein, but that does not mean fat is inherently bad or that it's something you shouldn't be consuming. Typically, foods marketed as fat-free are loaded up with extra sugar to make up for the lack of fat, so they're really not accomplishing much.
The type of fat we consume makes a difference. Trans fats are made by a chemical process of hydrogenating vegetable oils to make them more shelf-stable and solid at room temperature, and they're known to be unhealthy for the heart. These have been banned for use in foods in the United States and Canada, although it could take a little more time for products containing trans fats to disappear from store shelves.
On the other hand, unsaturated fats like those contained in olive oil, fatty fish like salmon, avocados, and nuts are health-promoting and anti-inflammatory.
When it comes to butter, what the cow eats matters. Grass-fed cattle produce butter with more healthy CLAs (conjugated linolenic acids).
You need to cleanse/detox.
Your body comes with a built-in detoxing machine: Your liver. The kidneys also work to clear things out of you're body. Those two are quite capable on their own and don't need you trying to interfere.
What you can do is drink water regularly throughout the day. If water doesn't really appeal to you, put a jug of water in the fridge with some cut up fruit and/or herbs, and you've got yourself a tasty drink. By the way, with fruit juice, you're getting all the sugar of the fruit with none of the fibre, so you're much better off eating actual fruit.
Don't eat eggs, they have too much cholesterol.
Cholesterol consumed in your diet actually has very little impact on your blood cholesterol. How so? Well, most of the cholesterol in your blood is actually made by your liver. Cholesterol consumed in eggs does not correspond to elevated cholesterol in the blood. Eggs are also a good source of the nutrient choline, which is involved in a number of processes in the body including neurotransmitter production.
Don't add salt to your food.
Too much salt is a bad thing, making your blood pressure go up, right? Well, sort of. What's important to keep in mind is that for many people the amount of salt that you add directly to your food is minimal compared to the amount of salt you have no idea you're getting from processed food. If you're avoiding processed food, you're unlikely to have any problems with too much salt.
If it's vegetarian/vegan, it must be healthy.
If you combined a cup of margarine with a cup of sugar, would that be a healthy snack? Of course not, but it wouldn't have any animal products in it. Highly processed food has had most of the valuable nutrients stripped out of it, regardless of whether it contains animal products or not. There are a lot of processed soy products on the market that have none of the nutritional value that whole soy products do.
The Take-Home Message
What's most important to keep in mind is that a lot of what you read about nutrition is not necessarily accurate or complete. Fad diets that put certain food groups off limits are probably not particularly sustainable, and they may not be overly healthy either. The most common sense book I've read on this topic is Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. He advocates being mindful about eating, eating real food in moderate amounts, and sticking to mostly plant-based. Food should be something we take pleasure in, and something that nourishes our body, rather than making us sick. It's a message that's so simple, yet it tends to get so lost in contemporary diet culture.