Stealthy Healthy Eating

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the many processed foods that include added nutrients, primarily vitamins, minerals, and fiber, to make them healthier. While this seems like a good thing—helping people get enough essential nutrients, even if they eat a poor diet—there are drawbacks to using these foods instead of eating actual food that contains these nutrients.

What if there was a way to get the benefits of eating vegetables without having to eat any vegetables? This may be a dream for millions of American children and adults who don’t eat enough vegetables.

Thanks to creative food processing, the healthy components of vegetables can be added to many foods, including soda, candy bars, and other sweets. Books and websites contain recipes for adding pureed vegetables to brownies and other baked goods. There is even a new line of prepackaged pureed vegetables to use!

The recommended intake of vegetables ranges from one cup per day for young children to 3 cups for adults. A simpler guideline is to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. The goal should be to eat a variety of vegetables throughout the week.

There are plenty of good reasons for people to eat vegetables. Most vegetables are a low-calorie source of essential vitamins and minerals. The dietary fiber found in vegetables (and fruits and whole grains) plays a role in maintaining a healthy body weight, lowering cholesterol, and reducing the risk of some cancers.

Fiber is increasingly added to processed foods including granola bars and energy bars. It is possible to get up to half of your daily recommended intake of fiber by eating a single Fiber One bar. That is the equivalent of a cup or more of most vegetables! Considering that many of these snacks are essentially candy bars, they are a tasty way to get fiber.

Vitamins and minerals have long been available as supplements and added to certain foods, including products made from grains like pasta and bread. But now you can get vitamins in many soft drinks, many of which have as much sugar as soda. And calcium is added to a variety of foods from breakfast cereals to snacks.

There are, of course, some benefits of doing this. People who don’t eat a healthy diet can get enough essential nutrients through these products. Some of these foods are low in calories so they can help people who are trying to lose weight.

While these “hidden” nutrients may seem like a good solution for people who don’t eat enough vegetables, this form of stealthy healthy eating may have some negative consequences.

These processed foods may be high in sugar, fat, and calories which could contribute to weight gain. The fact that these foods are designed to taste good—many include chocolate—may lead people to overeat. Aside from excess calories, eating far too much fiber could cause GI discomfort or other health problems.

More concerning, though, is the fact that these foods set an expectation that healthy foods should be sweet. This is particularly problematic in children, who may avoid eating vegetables (and other healthy foods) in favor of sweet drinks and snacks that contain the same nutrients.

Additionally, getting vitamins, minerals, and fiber through processed foods keeps people from learning how to make healthy choices and prepare real food. This has consequences for developing healthy eating habits in both children and adults.

Focusing on getting individual nutrients over eating a variety of healthy foods is thought to be an important cause of the current obesity epidemic. Relying on processed foods with added vitamins, minerals, and fiber may be doing more harm than good to your health.

The bottom line is that you should get your nutrients from real food and balance what you eat with daily physical activity. Remember, good health comes from making smart choices, not from a bottle or a box!

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