he Food and Drug Administration has decided it is going to update its definition of what constitutes “healthy” food. Under the current definition — set in the 1990s when fat was a four-letter word — companies can’t market avocados, walnuts, or salmon as healthy because they contain more than three grams of fat per serving. It doesn’t matter that the fat consists mainly of nourishing monounsaturated fatty acids. Sugary breakfast cereals and Pop-Tarts do squeak into the healthy category, however.
Frankly, the word “healthy” has been bandied about so much it’s become bankrupt. Applying it to food doesn’t even make sense. That’s because it’s not food that’s healthy: It’s us, as long as we eat food that is nutritious or nourishing. Those are two terms I’d like to restore to our lexicon.
The FDA’s efforts to redefine food won’t help us eat better as long as the focus remains on individual nutrients, like fat or sodium. That approach is based on the largely unexamined hypothesis that isolated nutrients are exactly what we need for good health. But we purchase, prepare, and eat food, not nutrients. I believe this accounts for the growing interest in “whole foods,” unlike products labeled as high-fiber, low-salt, or low-fat.
The goal of creating a definition that allows manufacturers of processed edibles to print the term “healthy” on product containers is also suspect. As author and gardener Michael Pollan has written, it’s easier “to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness.”
Food companies, whose reasonable goals are to sell more units and increase profit margins, should not be entrusted with the responsibility of teaching consumers which foods are nutritious. Here’s a better name for the nutritional advice on their packaging: advertising. If we continue to vote with our wallets for more nutritious food, food companies will get the message quickly enough.
Eating inside the box
Imagine real food as a big box labeled on the side with great big letters that say “Nutritious Food.” Inside the box are real, whole, intact foods like carrots, avocados, chickpeas, olives, oranges, peanut butter, salmon, eggs, turkey, greens, and oatmeal. Outside are stripped grains — white flour, white rice, corn starch, and syrup — and other commodity-based items like Hot Pockets, Pringles, Thin Mints, Twizzlers, Frooty Pebbles, and soda. The value of a commodity is derived not from quality but, rather, quantity. Generally speaking, you can’t have both at the same time, so you have to pick one or the other.
Truly nourishing yourself means choosing from among the food items inside the box. It doesn’t mean you must eat everything in the box. I have known people who get headaches from broccoli; have a violent allergy to shellfish or horseradish; cannot tolerate the lactose in milk or gluten in wheat; or choose not to eat beef, pork, or honey for personal reasons. If you don’t like kale, don’t eat it.
But steer clear of what’s outside that box. These so-called foods, identifiable by any number of methods, don’t nourish; they entertain. That doesn’t mean you can never eat them, but go easy. I like going to the movies, but I don’t live at the movie theater.
The solution to our epidemic of chronic disease starts with helping everyone understand the difference between real food and manufactured calories. The FDA’s efforts to redefine processed foods as “healthy” will do little to accomplish this.
Roxanne B. Sukol, MD, is a preventive medicine specialist and medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Enterprise.