Sound Science: Stop Trying to “Health-ify” Everything

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Avocado buns, banana soft serve, cauliflower pizza crust. The ABCs, if you will, of healthy foods being transformed to satisfy our cravings for not so healthy foods. I mean, I have tried the “B’ and “C” of that list and found banana soft serve to be delish. Cauliflower pizza crust? Not so much. Kinda dry with a weird texture and completely lacking that awesome crunch that can really only come from a traditional pizza crust. But for those who cannot eat gluten due to medical reasons—or who just really love cauliflower—it’s a pretty good pizza crust alternative.

Of course, I wholeheartedly support looking for ways to increase more fruits, veggies, fiber, etc., which is extremely important. But it seems like there is an increasing trend to “up” the game of less healthy foods by swapping out their ingredients for healthier choices. What started off as a small trend in 2009, with banana soft serve taking over the internets, has now evolved into something much larger. Case in point: sweet potato toast and sandwich cakes now exist.

Not surprisingly, the push to “healthify” foods has garnered some healthy attention, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration working and accepting comments to redefine what “healthy” means on food labels. Recent data from the International Food and Information Council (IFIC) Foundation 2016 Food and Health Survey reveal that for one-third of consumers, a healthy food is defined, in part, by what it does not contain. Moreover, nearly 20 percent of Americans report that a healthy food is defined as foods that are good for you (18 percent) and contains certain foods/components (17 percent). The data parallels reality: People have defined noodles as containing something that isn’t healthy, and “zoodles” (aka zucchini noodles) are the healthy replacement.

But do these “healthy” hacks actually lead us down a road to better health? While I’d love to report that you can eat all the black bean brownies you want, just because they are made with some healthy ingredients doesn’t mean that the pillars of sound nutrition, such as portion control and moderation, fly out the window.

But the real question is, does consuming foods that we view as “healthier” improve health outcomes? My knee-jerk reaction was, “Of course!” I mean, it seems pretty simple. Eating more healthful foods could only lead to better health, right? Well, maybe.

There has been some interesting research that gets at this question. Provencher, et al. found that when people perceive a snack to be healthier they eat about 35 percent more of that snack compared to when it was seen as unhealthy. Moreover, additional research has shown that although people are able to evaluate the healthfulness of individual foods and beverages, they are unable to do so when evaluating entire meals.

Bringing this all back to the new “healthy” food trends, it is important to keep in mind the fundamentals of nutrition and work toward building a long-term healthy eating style that works for you and your lifestyle, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, lean protein, unsaturated fats, and whole and enriched refined grains.

Just because you are eating a bowl full of zoodles, it doesn’t give you the free pass to eat as much of it as you want, especially if it’s topped with a heavy sauce or other toppings. Instead, let’s keep some foods sacred, especially those that we should enjoy in moderation. If you want a delicious and juicy burger, go for it! Just skip the avocado bun.