A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) singles out 10 foods and nutrients that, when over or under consumed, may contribute to almost half of all deaths in the United States.

According to the study, we are not eating enough nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, whole grains and some seafood while at the same time we’re over consuming salt, processed meats and sugary drinks. The research is based on U.S. government data and national health surveys that asked participants about their eating habits.

Trigger Foods

My general advice to the public is based on nutritional context. A handful of almonds after a workout are fine as a snack but eating peanuts out of a dish at a bar in the company of wine or scotch is a different context and is a form of unconscious eating and blind snacking.

As far as bacon is concerned, bacon bits in a salad are different than two slices of bacon and a Spanish omelet with two pieces of buttered toast. I do believe that there are “trigger foods” based on fMRI evidence, which doesn’t make the food bad, but does say something negative about the behavior of the dieters that needs to be countered.

I asked four of my colleagues and experts in nutrition and nutrition policy to share their opinions on the new study.

Avoid the Slippery Slope

I agree with my colleagues that both context and overall dietary patterns need to be considered. I understand that demonizing certain foods and ingredients CAN be a slippery slope, but – on the other hand – I’ve also never been totally comfortable with the “everything fits/variety, balance, moderation” approach, either, because it can be an equally slippery slope.

The “everything fits” approach suggests that you can eat a fast food lunch and then somehow “balance it out” with a healthy lunch and dinner. While that may look fine on paper, I’ll bet few people actually eat that way. I would expect that someone who chooses a fast food lunch is going to look for something pretty similar for dinner, and that someone who chooses yogurt and fruit for breakfast is unlikely to hit the drive-through at lunchtime.

Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Functional Nutrients

In my opinion, different nutrients have different functions, and too much or too little of a specific nutrient intake will not do good to our body. Therefore, a “good” food or “bad” food approach may not be ideal. It is important for people to learn about what a healthy diet should be and take action to change their eating behavior. High sugar, high salt and large/ uncontrolled portion sizes are some common problematic issues nowadays. Besides, diet alone cannot make us healthy, an active lifestyle with regular physical activity is equally important to maintain a healthy weight, improve our body composition and thus prevent a wide range of health problems.

– Simon Sum, DCN, RDN, ACSM-CPT, FAND – Manager, Global Product Safety & Science, R&D

Small Changes

I think that as Simon said you cannot eliminate physical activity and lifestyle from this equation. You may have the “healthiest” diet but if you never exercise you will not be optimizing your health. Also, I think from a psychological perspective, focusing on good vs. bad is not the best approach. With a list of “bad” foods you can end up focusing on the things you can’t have, which can become frustrating and counterproductive.

Ultimately small, incremental changes in eating habits and physical activity are the key to long-term lifestyle change. Focusing on eliminating or adding a few foods most likely won’t result in helping you achieve your desired outcome.

– Dana Ryan, PhD, M.A. – Director, Sport Performance and Education

David Heber

David HeberM.D., Ph.D., FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

Dr. David Heber is the chairman of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute (HNI), which promotes excellence in nutrition education for the public and scientific community and sponsors scientific symposia. The HNI Editorial Board is made up of key scientific opinion leaders from around the world in the fields of nutrition, exercise physiology, behavioral medicine and public health. Dr. Heber holds a degree in chemistry, an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a Ph.D. in physiology from UCLA.* In his spare time, he enjoys golfing, reading and painting. Dr. Heber’s favorite Herbalife products are Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix, Herbalife Personalized Protein Powder and the SKIN product line.

*The University of California does not endorse specific products or services as a matter of policy.