One of the most important sections in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is Chapter 5, which describes how to put together all the foods we need to reach our nutritional goals. We are told to follow a “healthy eating pattern” that is not a rigid prescription, but a flexible plan that can accommodate our personal food preferences within the framework of our socio-cultural and ethnic eating traditions. That means all Americans do not have to eat the same foods to have healthy diets, but rather, that there are an infinite number of possible food combinations that allow each of us to meet our nutritional needs over time.
The Danger of Food Lists
Advances in food science have helped us understand the individual components that make up our food, while research in human nutrition has uncovered how much of each nutrient and other food components we need to support growth and prevent disease at different stages of life. This has led some people to believe they can reduce all that we know about our nutritional needs and food composition into top 10 lists of the best foods to eat and to avoid.
One problem with these lists is they can’t keep up with the continuing expansion of our knowledge about food and nutrition, and they certainly don’t leave room for personal food preferences. Another risk to over-simplifying dietary advice into “do’s and don’ts” lists is the unintended consequences of eliminating a food due to a single attribute, then losing all of its other benefits.
Good Nutrition Is the Sum of its Parts
For example, some of these lists have erroneously led people to believe they should eat more blueberries and less beef to improve their health. What they overlook is that many colorful, seasonal fruits are a rich source of essential vitamins and antioxidants, while lean beef is an excellent source of six nutrients, including protein, and a good source of four more. So those who do not like blueberries or cannot easily purchase them need not despair, just as those who enjoy lean beef and its versatility in menu planning can continue to feature it in their meals.
Simply put, food is not one size fits all. That is why the DGA encourage us to eat a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods from each food group and subgroup, in the appropriate amounts for our individual energy needs. What counts is how everything in your eating pattern adds up over time, not what’s on the latest good food/bad food list.
Robyn Flipse, MS, RD is a nutrition consultant