Ask the Dietitian: What is the healthiest food?

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Over a recent dinner with new acquaintances, the topic turned to my career in nutrition. “So tell me,” someone asked, “what is the healthiest food?”

Ugh. I hate this question. There is a perception outside of the field that Dietitians take a reductionist view of nutrition, and that they know some secret, ideal nutrient combination for health and longevity. While individual nutrients can be very important in specific disease states, such as carbohydrates in diabetics, or Vitamin K in blood clots, that is not the gist of the field. I am a Dietitian. I work with diets. My preferred tools are not supplements or protein powders- just good old fashioned fruits and vegetables.

I tried my best to explain that it can be dangerous to place emphasis on a particular food, rather than the diet as a whole. While certain foods such as, kale or pomegranate, are high in trendy antioxidants, we need a wide range of nutrients from a wide range of foods. No single “superfood” will make up for the sins of an unbalanced diet. Eating acai berries every morning does not compensate for frequent indulgences in greasy, nutrient poor foods. Actions don’t cancel each other out. Rather, they build up over time.

I went on to explain that nutrition science is very young, and that plants have so many important components that we don’t even know about. I tried my best to paraphrase Michael Pollan’s explanation of this (from In Defense of Food)… That we thought we had it figured out when we discovered the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. And then we thought we had it figured out again when we discovered vitamins and minerals. And now we are discovering antioxidants and phytochemicals. There is so much about plants that we haven’t discovered yet, that it is silly to put a specific food on a pedestal for being a rich source of the nutrient of the month. We need variety.

While this probably wasn’t the answer that my companions were looking for, hopefully they came away with a better understanding of good nutrition. I won’t speculate on what the healthiest food is, but I can help speculate on the healthiest diet.

The healthiest diet is rich in minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and carefully raised animal products. The healthiest diet is low in processed junk foods and deep fried concoctions. The healthiest diet allows for indulgent and seemingly non-nutritious foods, but understands that indulgences are not an everyday treat, and are meant to be enjoyed thoughtfully, rather than mindlessly scarfed down. The healthiest diet is balanced, varied, and moderate. And most important of all, the healthiest diet is nourishing, sustainable, and pleasurable.

Thoughts?

– Kelly

Taking Food out of the Context of the Diet

I work in University dining, so for National Nutrition Month (March, in case you missed it), I had an “Ask the Dietitian” table for students. Most questions had to do with the sustainability of the foods served or how to navigate the dining halls with a particular allergy. But one question really stuck with me. A boy (holding a greasy plate of pizza, might I add) asked “What are pineapples good for?”

These are the kinds of questions that really irk me as a Dietitian, because they miss the point of nutrition. Sure, pineapples are filled with antioxidants such as Vitamin C and caroteniods (which give them their beautiful yellow color). And sure, these antioxidants are great at preventing cancer and allowing us to live healthy lives. But in order to get the cancer fighting benefits of fruits and vegetables (such as pineapple), you have to eat a diet rich in these foods. Eating a few pineapple slices now and then isn’t going to save you from cancer if you eat a diet rich in greasy, processed foods.

To quote one of my favorite nutrition professionals, Marion Nestle, “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science… is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”

Indeed, many food system activists such as Michael Pollan and Julie Guthman have critiqued the reductionist tendencies of nutrition science. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As a Dietitian, I find it very important to help clients place their food choices in the context of their overall diet, and I hope that other nutrition professionals do the same.

In my opinion, trying to figure out which fruits and vegetables are the healthiest is a waste of time. Here is a secret: they are all healthy! Instead, let’s focus on how to get more servings of fruits and vegetables. Let’s focus on how to make produce the star of our plates. And let’s work on getting a variety of healthy foods, rather than supplementing our diets with one or two “superfoods”.

– Kelly