It shouldn't be this complicated for humans to figure out how to feed themselves.
If you're seeking clear, simple advice on how to cook and eat well, then Mark Bittman is your man. The long-time New York Times food columnist and prolific cookbook author (How to Cook Everything and Vegan Before 6, among others) has developed a respected reputation for telling things as they are, cutting through the food-fad confusion, and urging people to get into their kitchens to prepare healthy food with minimal skill.
His latest article, published on Grub Hub, is no exception. Together with Dr. David Katz, Bittman attempts to answer every diet-related question you may have, from what the healthiest diet is and how much protein we need, to whether carbs are evil, superfoods are real, and ketogenic or paleo diets are worth the hassle. The article, titled "The Last Conversation You'll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right," is written in conversation form, casual and humorous at times. While long, it makes some excellent points that I want to share here.
The core message is that nutrients matter less than the general pattern of your diet. Obviously, the pattern of your diet dictates the nutrients you're getting -- which do matter -- but the point Bittman and Katz are making is that fretting about precise quantities and percentages of protein, sugars, fat, fiber, etc. is unnecessary if you're putting good, real food into your body:
"If you get the foods right, the nutrients sort themselves out. But if you focus on nutrients rather than foods, you quickly learn that there is more than one way to eat badly, and we Americans seem all too eager to try them all."
To my delight, Bittman and Katz tackled the topic of juice cleanses, and the idea that drinking juice somehow flushes mysterious toxins out of your body. They smash that myth:
"The body detoxifies itself daily; that’s a primary job of the liver and the kidneys, and they are really good at it. (The intestines, spleen, and immune system are in on it, too.) So, you want to take good care of your liver and kidneys, gut, and immune system. That’s a far better 'cleanse' than any juice. How do you take good care of all your detoxifying organ systems? By taking good care of yourself, of course. That means eating well, not smoking, exercising, sleeping enough, managing your stress, and so on."
As for carbohydrates, which you may have been convinced in recent years are the embodiment of evil, Bittman and Katz call this "the silliest of all the silly, pop-culture propaganda about diet and health. All plant foods are carbohydrate sources." Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and whole grains are all carbohydrates, and a diet without any of these would be a poor one indeed:
"Highly processed grains and added sugar are bad, not because they are carbohydrate, but because they’ve been robbed of nutrients, they raise insulin levels, and they’re often high in added fats, sodium, and weird ingredients. Carbs are not evil; junk food is evil."
There is so much valuable information in this lengthy article that I can only touch on a few key topics (read the whole thing here); but one valuable takeaway is that food isn't just bad for you because of what it contains -- it is also bad because of what you aren't eating. If you are filling your body with refined carbs, processed meats, and soda, then chances are you're eating fewer beans, fewer veggies, less fiber, and too much salt and sugar.
What people need to focus on is their overall dietary pattern. Get this on the right track by following an overarching theme: "an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and plain water for thirst.. with or without seafood; with or without dairy; with or without eggs; with or without some meat; high or low in total fat," and you'll be well on your way to optimal health.