The litany of foods to avoid can seem never ending: sugar, salt, fat, carbs, dairy, nuts, gluten, and on and on. Are they all really so bad for us? The truth is, they're not—not for all of us, anyway.
Each of our bodies is a unique organism. Maybe you have no food allergies and a super-fast metabolism that keeps you from putting on excess weight. Maybe you have a sensitivity to gluten. Maybe you're vegan for ethical reasons. Maybe you're vegan because your stomach gets upset when you eat red meat. That's okay.
Whether you're Paleo, vegan, or somewhere in between, there are three nutrients you can't escape. Sugar, salt and fat are found in just about any diet, and for good reason. Our bodies need some of each to survive. But it's important to get the right kind in your diet—and of course not too much.
Figuring out the right amount we need, however, is a trickier question. To make sure you're getting proper nutrition, you'll need to know a little bit more about what your body needs, and what foods have those nutrients.
Let's break it down: What's the deal with salt, sugar and fat, and why do we need them?
First, let's note the distinction between all sugars and refined sugar. Speaking generally, sugars refer to simple carbohydrates found in fruit, juice, cane sugar, and even root vegetables. Sugars also refers to the table sugar you might add to your coffee or find in processed foods like candy bars or breakfast cereals. While our bodies do need some sugars in the form of carbohydrates, they don't necessarily need the refined sugar we are used to seeing.
Natural sugars, called fructose or glucose, come in foods that have other nutritional benefits. For example, while an apple has plenty of fructose, it also has fiber and plenty of vitamins. All these added nutrients help us feel full and satisfied for longer. They also give us energy and fuel the body. Processed, added sugars, on the other hand, have no other nutrients. Our bodies break added sugars down into carbohydrates to use for energy, but that's about it.
Eating too much refined sugar can cause a spike in blood sugar, weight gain and actually makes us crave more sugar. The easiest way to stop this vicious cycle? Stick to natural sugars as much as possible.
Unfortunately, limiting your intake of added sugars is a little more difficult than it seems. Nutrition labels list how much sugar is in each serving, but don't differentiate between added and natural sugars. To figure out what kind of sugars you're eating, check the ingredient list.
Added sugars also aren't always labeled as sugar. The list of names sugar hides under include dextrose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, and many others.
Your body needs salt—or more accurately, sodium—for your kidneys, in your nerves and muscles, and to control your blood pressure and blood volume. But what happens when you consume excess amounts of salt?
The kidneys filter your blood, cleaning out excess water. Sodium and potassium help the kidneys pull the right amount of water out of the blood, keeping your blood pressure normal.
When you eat salty foods, the amount of sodium in your kidneys increases, and hampers your kidneys' ability to filter out enough water. The more salt you eat, the greater your sodium level, and the higher your blood pressure will rise. Over time, high blood pressure can lead to a host of health issues, including kidney disease and kidney failure. High blood pressure also strains the arteries carrying your blood, which can damage your heart and brain.
The American Heart Association recommends you consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. The average American, on average, eats about 3,400 milligrams per day.
So how can you make sure you're not getting too much sodium? First, read nutrition labels. Processed foods, like prepared dishes and frozen meals, often have especially high levels of sodium. Other salty culprits include salad dressings, condiments, and canned goods. Cooking with whole, fresh foods is a fail-safe way to cut down on your salt. If your cooking still doesn't taste salty enough, try adding a splash of lemon or lime juice—you won't even miss the salt.
Fats get a bad rap—so much so, that our culture uses the word "fat" as a derogatory term for being overweight. Fats are technically called lipids—in liquid form, we call a fat a lipid, and in solid form, we call it a fat.
Your body doesn't only get energy from sugars—it also gets tons of energy from fats. Fats provide twice the energy of either carbohydrates or proteins. Fats also help the body store the calories it isn't using at the moment, control inflammation, and help with blood clotting and the development of your brain. The health of your skin and hair is also dependent on fats.
So far, so good, right? Fats seem like an essential part of our bodies' functions. That's true—it's when we eat too many fats or the wrong kinds of fats that things start to go downhill.
There are three main types of fats: saturated, unsaturated, and trans. While saturated fats actually raise the LDL (or bad) cholesterol in the body, unsaturated fats raise the HDL (or good) cholesterol.
The effect of trans fats may be the worst, however. Trans fats both raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol—a terrible double whammy. These fats are most often found in fried foods, processed foods, and any products that include hardened vegetable oils.
UPDATED July 6, 2015 11:22 a.m.
However, recent scientific reviews have experts backing down from their negative stance on saturated fats. A 2014 study found that people who ate diets high in saturated fats had no higher risk of developing heart disease than those who ate a diet high in unsaturated fats. Nutritionists and doctors urge patients to focus on the overall health of their diet instead of focusing on an individual macronutrient.
To make sure you're eating the right amounts of the right kinds of fats, focus on eating natural sources of fat. Avocados, for example, are high in unsaturated fats that are great for your body. Lean sources of protein, like chicken, fish, and dairy products, also contain beneficial fats. Most experts recommend avoiding fried foods, processed foods containing hydrogenated oils and trans fats, and limiting excessive amounts of fatty dairy products and your use of cooking oils. Keep an eye on your nutrition labels as well—they break out how much of the total fat content comes from saturated fats.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont