Editor's note: This story was updated on June 27, 2018.
Fretting over the latest gastronomic "panic-du-jour" can turn what should be an enjoyable experience of eating food into a source of fear—and a deeper dive into the research suggests that many "demonized" foods aren't all that bad for us to begin with, Aaron Carroll writes for the New York Times.
According to Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, "we've become more and more susceptible to arguments that we must avoid certain foods completely," with one demonized food item replacing another as each food fad waxes and wanes. And medical professionals contribute to the pattern, Carroll writes, pointing out that "many of the doctors and nutritionists who recommend avoiding certain foods fail to properly explain the magnitude of their risks."
A look at some of the research
For instance, Carroll explains that while research indicates people with high blood pressure can endanger their cardiovascular health by ingesting too much salt, the average American only consumes about three grams of salt per day—"which is actually in the sweet spot for health." Moreover, consuming too little salt can be just as harmful as ingesting too much, Carroll writes, especially for people who don't have high blood pressure.
Similarly, while research suggests that eating large amounts of red meat can increase the relative risk of developing cancer, the absolute risk remains fairly low. In fact, Carroll points that out that if he ate an "extra serving of bacon a day, every day, [his] lifetime risk of colon cancer would go up less than one-half of 1%."
Gluten is another unnecessarily demonized food, Carroll writes. He points out that at least 20% of Americans routinely select gluten-free foods—even though less than 1% of the United States has a wheat allergy, less than 1% of the United States has celiac disease, and "most people who self-diagnose" themselves with gluten sensitivity don't meet the criteria.
And when people who don't need to avoid gluten opt for a gluten-free diet, they could be endangering their health, Carroll adds. According to Carroll, research indicates that a gluten-free diet could lead to a deficiency in certain nutrients, such as folate, iron, and vitamin B. Moreover, certain gluten-free foods—such as gluten-free bagels—have more calories, more fat, more sugar, and less fiber than the regular alternative, Carroll writes.
We've been here before—but there's a better way, Carroll writes
The "hullabaloo over gluten" echoes a similar panic over monosodium glutamate (MSG) that began about 50 years ago, Carroll writes. According to Carroll, MSG is a relatively harmless combination of one sodium atom and glutamic acid, an amino acid critical to the mechanisms our cells use to generate energy.
But he argues MSG was unfairly demonized after a 1968 letter submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine—in which a writer claimed to have felt numbness, weakness, and palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant—launched a few limited studies, generated news coverage, spurred nutritionists and public figures to condemn the substance, and ultimately resulted in food companies' voluntarily dropping the ingredient.
Even now, despite studies from all over the world showing that "the case against MSG just doesn't hold up," many people incorrectly believe that MSG poses health risks, Carroll writes. According to Carroll, the panic over MSG—and the scientifically unfounded concern about genetically modified organisms—demonstrate just "how susceptible we are to misinterpreting scientific research and how slow we are to update our thinking when better research becomes available."
Ultimately, this trend of unnecessarily fearing certain foods without scientific basis is harmful, Carroll writes, adding, "Food should be a cause for pleasure, not panic .... If there's one thing you should cut from your diet, it's fear" (Carroll, New York Times, 11/4).
Understand the wellness spectrum
Programs aimed at promoting healthy habits among employees are likely to lead to improved employee engagement and productivity—but they're unlikely to reduce the total cost of care. To do that, you'll need to take a population health approach.