What Does 'Healthy Food' Actually Mean? Celeb Trainer Harley Pasternak Weighs In


Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He's also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.

The FDA is currently struggling to define what “healthy food” is. It reminds me of the old story about the six blind men describing an elephant. Each one touched a different part of the animal, whether a tusk, the trunk, an ear, a leg, its side, or the tail. Each man then confidently declared that an elephant was like a spear, a snake, a fan, a tree, a wall, or a rope, respectively. In this case, we seem to have a lot of people at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unable to provide an accurate definition of healthy food. To be kinder, let's just say that the agency is caught in a time warp.

According to Segen's Medical Dictionary, it is “Any food believed to be ‘good for you,' especially if high in fiber, natural vitamins, fructose, etc.” It goes on to say, “Healthy foods may reduce cholesterol, reduce atherosclerosis and risk of stroke, help control glucose, halt progression of osteoporosis, and reduce the risk of infections [and] cancer. Examples [include] apples, beans, carrots, cranberry juice, fish, garlic, ginger, nuts, oats, olive oil, soy foods, tea, [and] yogurt.

The FDA Is Behind the Times

This is only one definition — I would quibble with the cranberry juice, which might as well be liquid sugar, and yogurt should be of a low sugar, high protein variety — but it's far more accurate than the current definition of healthy by the government agency that is supposedly ensuring the health and safety of our food supply. Using the current FDA guidelines, salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish is deemed unhealthy. Ditto for the olive oil and nuts — eek, they contain fat — seemingly unaware that these are fats that lower your risk of heart disease and other health problems. And get this, per the FDA's definition — avocado — one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, is unhealthy! Meanwhile, the most recent dietary guidelines, issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), recommend the consumption of such healthy fats. The two government agencies should sit down together for a (healthy) business lunch to work out their differences.

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When the FDA came up with its definition of healthy foods about 20 years ago, it relied on five criteria, namely:

· All fat is bad for you

· Saturated fat is really bad for you

· Sodium (salt) is bad for you

· Cholesterol is bad for you

· Vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients are good for you, whether real or manufactured

Note that there is no mention of sugar! Nor fiber. And for that reason, foods such as sugary breakfast cereals full of refined grains and dried imitation berries, marshmallows, or other sweet nothings, passed muster, enticing kids to eat a “healthy” breakfast.

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Keeping Up with the Research

We now know, and in certain cases, have known for years that these premises are wrong, specifically:

· All fats do not behave the same way in your body, and certain fats, including the omega-3 fats in salmon and other fatty fish and the monounsaturated fats in nuts, virgin olive oil, and avocados, are integral to a healthy diet.

· Your levels of cholesterol are primarily dependent on your own body's production, rather than the result of eating animal fats. Moreover, some forms of cholesterol are heart healthy.

· While many processed foods are full of salt, and excessive salt intake is associated with hypertension and other conditions, salt is essential to health. It can be dangerous to have too low a sodium intake.

· There is a world of difference between foods fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals, and eating vegetables, fruit, and other whole foods full of vitamins and minerals in their natural form.

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Dragging Their Feet

The decision to redefine healthy didn't originate with the FDA. Despite years of pressure to do so from various groups, the agency only began the process after Kind Foods challenged the agency's ruling that the company could not refer to its fruit and nut bars as “tasty and healthy” because nuts are a source of fat. No matter that the bars contained only whole grains and other natural ingredients in addition to the nuts and dried fruit. Kind Foods fought back and used social media to help launch a citizen petition that the FDA take action on redefining healthy. Traditional media also picked up on the story and the FDA backed down, presumably recognizing the ridiculousness of its claim that Kind bars were unhealthy.

In a recently released statement, the FDA said, “Consumers want to make informed food choices and it is the FDA's responsibility to help them by ensuring labels provide accurate and reliable nutrition information. In light of evolving nutrition research … we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term “healthy.”

In my opinion, “now” should have been a decade ago and it shouldn't have taken a challenge from a food company to redefine a clearly inaccurate definition. In a later statement, the FDA acknowledged that foods that don't comply with the current definition of “healthy” aren't necessarily unhealthy.

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My Advice to the FDA

The agency says it will be soliciting public comment on the subject shortly, as part of the process of crafting a new definition of “healthy.” While we wait for the government wheels to slowly grind this out, here's what I would advise you — and the officials at the FDA:

Healthy foods include:

· Whole grains and other sources of fiber such as lentils and other legumes

· Whole fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits without added sugar or sauces

· Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as avocados, and virgin olive oil

· Fish, especially wild salmon and other fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids

· Lean sources of other animal protein (to minimize saturated fats)

· Seeds and nuts

Not-So-Healthy Foods Include:

· Breads, cereals, and other baked goods made with refined grain

· Fruit juice — it's liquid sugar

· Foods with a lot of added sugar

· Trans fats (partially hydrogenated fats)

· Genetically modified foods

· Artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and other chemicals

· Any ultra-processed food

Don't Hold Your Breath

I hope that the FDA gets the job done as soon as possible, but remember “public comment” means that food manufacturers will be weighing in, along with the public. That can slow the process and compromise the definition. It took the agency six years to come up with a definition for the term “gluten free” and it is currently crafting a definition of “natural.” Meanwhile, if you see either “healthy” or “natural” on a food package, take it with a large grain of salt.

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