DEAR DOCTOR K:
Are there any foods that don’t belong in a healthy diet?
There sure are — and like me, you probably eat them now and then. You’ve heard me say it before: Unhealthy foods are not like poison, where you swallow and then die. They become unhealthy when you have them regularly. An occasional hot fudge sundae won’t kill you — if it did, I wouldn’t be here. But a hot fudge sundae every evening is a bad idea.
Harvard nutrition scientists have compiled the following list of foods you should keep to a minimum. Eating these foods regularly can set the stage for life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even some cancers:
- Added sugar. Whether it’s white granulated sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, corn sugar or honey, sugar contains almost no nutrients and is pure carbohydrate. When you eat a lot of sugar, you are filling up on empty calories. Also, sugar-rich foods often are chosen instead of healthy foods that contain important nutrients and fiber.
- Added sugar causes your blood sugar (and your mood and energy levels) to rise and fall like a roller coaster. That puts a strain on your pancreas and increases your risk of developing diabetes. Foods with lots of “invisible” sugar, like soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages, are major sources of added sugar.
- Dairy fat. There are “good” fats and “bad” fats. We need the good fats in our diet, but we should minimize the bad fats. Ice cream, whole milk and cheese are full of saturated fat and some naturally occurring trans fat. Both saturated fat and trans fat are bad fats. They can increase the risk of health problems, notably heart disease. So choose nonfat or lowfat milk and reduced-fat cheeses.
- Baked sweets. Cookies, snack cakes, doughnuts, pastries and other treats are hard to pass up. But commercially prepared versions are packed with processed carbohydrates, added sugar, unhealthy fats and often salt. Yes, I had pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. But I’ve gone “cold turkey” on pumpkin pie since then.
- White carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, cookies, cake or pancakes. If you enjoy these foods, opt for whole-grain versions. At least to my palate, there now are delicious whole-grain flours and pastas available.
- Processed and high-fat meats such as bacon, ham, hot dogs and many lunch meats are less healthy than protein from fish, skinless chicken, nuts, beans, soy and whole grains. Eat fresh red meat sparingly and select the leanest cuts.
- Salt. Try to limit your sodium intake to fewer than 2,300 mg (less than one teaspoon of salt) per day, or fewer than 1,500 mg if you are over age 50, have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. Your body needs a certain amount of sodium, but too much can increase blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
You can eat foods that are both good for you and delicious — and the occasional culinary sin won’t kill you. I’m living proof.