By: David A Fein, MD
“The label says ‘no added sugar’ and it’s got lots of vitamins. It’s healthy”, she said. No amount of arguing seemed to convince her that the bottle of fruit juice she was holding was part of her problem. It didn’t even help to point out that the label clearly said why it was hurting. Fruit juice is natural. It must be good for you. In fact, our concept of “healthy food” is often overly simplistic and many foods that are healthy in some ways may be no better than a candy bar in other ways.
We have all grown up with the concept of what constitutes healthy food drilled into us. Some of those teachings are right. Cookies, cakes, candy, soda and snack foods usually offer little in the way of nutritional value and contribute to the growing problem of obesity and chronic disease in this country. But there is more than one way to look at even the “healthiest” foods. When we tell our kids (and ourselves) that a particular food is healthy, we usually are focusing on only one way of looking at it when we really should keep in mind at least 3 ways of thinking about our food.
Let’s take 8 ounces of orange juice as an example:
There is no doubt that compared with other drink options, like soda or highly sweetened “fruit drinks” that have little actual juice, orange juice packs a lot of good nutrients. It’s a good source of important vitamins including Thiamine, Folate and, of course, Vitamin C. It also has potassium and a bit of calcium and iron. Orange juice is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, all of which it is beneficial to limit in the diet. So far, OJ looks like a great drink.
Americans have been told for the past 40 years or more that they should eat a low fat diet. (In reality, that is a terrible over-simplification since many fats are beneficial and others are more harmful. But that is a topic for another article.) Since you still need to get your daily calorie requirements from somewhere, by default a low fat diet is high in carbohydrates. Roughly 40% of the population has a genetic tendency to develop problems with metabolizing carbohydrates. Combine this genetic trait with a high carbohydrate diet and the result is increased visceral obesity, elevated cholesterol levels and a greatly increased likelihood of developing type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even certain cancers.
That orange juice that seems so healthy when looking at its vitamin and mineral content turns out to have a very high level of the most common carbohydrate in our diet -sugar. One glass of orange juice has about 26 grams of sugar. That’s almost 10% of your recommended daily intake of carbohydrates just from one small drink. It turns out that a glass of orange juice has just about the same amount of sugar (30 grams) as a glass of the leading brand of cola soda! For many of us, a cup of unsweetened low-carb coffee or tea may actually be a healthier breakfast drink than juice.
Now that it turns out that your “healthy” glass of juice has as much sugar as a glass of soda, take a look at what that means for the third way of thinking about your food- the calorie content.
When we think of “healthy” foods that usually means that along with the calories we are eating we are also getting a good dose of important nutrients. But when it comes to how those calories affect your weight, your body doesn’t care what else came along for the ride. Whether you eat 100 calories of broccoli or 100 calories of chocolate, the effect on your weight is exactly the same.
Your glass of orange juice has about 110 calories, almost all of which come from all that sugar in your juice. And because the amount of sugar is similar, orange juice has just about the same amount of calories as the cola.
One pound of body fat contains 3,500 calories. It doesn’t matter what your metabolism is like; that is just simple physics and it doesn’t vary from person to person. Now assume your weight has been absolutely stable for years when you decide that you should have a glass of orange juice each morning to get some extra vitamin C. The rest of your diet and activity level remains exactly the same. At the end of one year you will be 11 lbs heavier. Do that for one decade of your life and you will have gained more than 100 lbs. It’s just simple math: an extra 110 calories a day for a year is a little more than 40,000 calories per year. Divide that by 3,500 and you have more than 11 lbs of extra you to fit into your clothes.
So, the next time you reach for a snack and tell yourself that it’s “healthy” keep in mind that doesn’t mean eating it is entirely beneficial. Sure, it’s better to have 100 calories of nutrient-filled veggies than 100 calories of junk food. But if you are trying to watch your weight or are at risk for diabetes and other health problems, your body doesn’t care if those carbohydrates and calories come with vitamins and minerals. Read those labels carefully, choose wisely and think about the calorie and carbohydrate content of your foods.