I don’t often like to think of any foods as being strictly off limits in my diet. If I want to enjoy a bowl of ice cream on a hot summer day, then I want to feel like I can do that. And if I want to have a few cookies around the holidays, then by all means, I’m going to let myself. With that said, it’s safe to assume that most, if not all of us, are looking to live long and healthy lives — which means we need to be paying attention to the foods we put into our bodies.
We all know it’s ideal to consume whole unprocessed food as much as possible, but which exact foods may be harming our health? I turned to the experts to help determine the foods we should try to avoid most of the time in order to give us the best chance at a long and healthy life.
Across the board, each of the experts I spoke to named processed meats as one of the top foods to avoid. Processed meats are often cured, smoked, and pumped full of sodium or other preservatives as a way to extend shelf life. The most common forms of processed meats we know and likely also love include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami, and cold cut lunch meats.
Jennifer Clemente, a board certified and clinically trained nutritionist told me, “Over consumption [of these foods] changes the composition of the gut micro biome leading to imbalances that can shift the body towards chronic inflammatory conditions.” She went on to add that the World Health Organization has currently classified these kinds of processed meats as carcinogenic. I don’t know about you, but as much as I love bacon, Meatless Monday is sounding like a pretty good alternative right about now.
While we may know it’s important to limit our sugar intake, many seem to think turning to artificially sweetened varieties of their favorite foods or beverages are a healthier option. Not so fast!
Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractic physician who is double board certified in clinical nutrition and rehabilitation told me, “Artificial sweeteners have been implicated in diabetes, neurological decline, liver problems, etc.” He went on to add that these chemicals trick the body into believing it is consuming calories and when it realizes it hasn’t, it triggers sugar cravings that lead to additional health issues.
“Artificial sweeteners are shown to trigger dysbiosis or imbalance of the protective bacterial levels of the gut micro biome,” Clemente added. “Studies show levels of helpful strains like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are decreased while less helpful strains Bacteroides are increased. These types of shifts can contribute to imbalances in the body linked to many of today’s chronic health conditions such as inflammation, obesity, cancer and even autism.”
I have not only been severely lactose intolerant the majority of my life, but I also used to sing in a choir, so dairy has almost always been something I either severely limited or completely avoided in my diet. Turns out, it’s something we all need to be more mindful of consuming.
“Dairy products contain saturated fat, sugars, hormones, and antibiotic residues that are not good for your health,” said Schreiber. “It is a digestive system irritant, contributes to heart disease, diabetes, acne, and weight gain.” Schreiber went on to add that due to the production of insulin-like growth factor, it has been implicated as a cancer promoter.
While this is one perspective, it’s important to keep in mind that the science around dairy’s nutritional harm and/or benefit is unclear. David Katz, M.D., director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut, told Self that the science is “murky at best.” Lisa Sasson, R.D., a clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University, was interviewed in the same Self article, and said that she could find just as many studies that claim dairy can help prevent cancer.
Some may feel it’s better to be safe than sorry, while others aren’t willing to give up their beloved cheese if the science isn’t yet clear. If you’re unsure, it’s always safest to just do what feels right for you.
Whether you call it soda, pop, or coke, the important takeaway here is that consuming these types of sugary beverages are not conducive to living a long and healthy life. Dr. Candice Seti, a licensed clinical psychologist, certified personal trainer, and certified nutrition coach, also known as The Weight Loss Therapist, told me, “Drinking soda is basically like drinking simple sugar combined with chemicals. Because of the simple sugars, it causes a rapid insulin response (with a blood sugar spike) followed by the obvious crash soon after.”
She went on to add that if this cycle is happening regularly, it will often lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. Seti also pointed out the link between drinking soda and dementia, gout, increased cancer and heart disease risk, and obesity.
Obviously water is always going to be the best beverage to stay hydrated and quench your thirst, but if you’re drinking soda for the bubbles or flavor, Seti suggests replacing it with seltzer. And if you’re drinking soda for the caffeine, coffee or tea would make great substitutes.
As delicious as french fries, onion rings, and corn dogs may be, it’s safe to say we all know these foods are not the poster children of a healthy diet. Becky Kerkenbush, a registered clinical dietitian at the Watertown Regional Medical Center told me, “Fried foods are high in unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats).”
While saturated fat is commonly found in many animal sources, including fatty beef, lamb, pork, and butter, it is also found in many plant-based oils, which are used in the process of frying foods, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil.
Instead of hitting up your favorite drive-thru the next time a hankering for your favorite fried food hits, Kerkenbush suggests baking your own french fries and chicken nuggets right at home.