Healthy vs. Unhealthy Foods

People with diabetes are often encouraged — by health-care professionals, and by sources of health information like — to follow a healthy diet. Typically, when it’s aimed at people with diabetes, this advice is assumed to mean limiting extremely processed or quickly digested forms of carbohydrate, which can make your blood glucose level spike. But it also means choosing foods that will keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and body weight in check. So what are these foods? As a recent survey shows, popular perception and expert opinion sometimes give different answers to this question.

The results of the survey, published last week in The New York Times, show that in most cases, expert opinion on what foods are healthy mostly lines up with popular opinion. For example, both experts and non-experts considered apples, oranges, oatmeal, chicken, turkey, and peanut butter to be healthy foods — by large margins, and with very small differences between the two groups. Similarly, both groups frowned (nutritionally, at least) on chocolate chip cookies, white bread, diet soda, beef jerky, and hamburgers in similar numbers, with differences of 1% to 4% between the groups for a given food.


But in other cases, there was a wider gap in opinion between the two groups. Granola bars, for example, were viewed as healthy by 71% of the public but only 28% of nutrition experts. Other foods that were viewed far more favorably by the public than by experts include coconut oil, frozen yogurt, granola, SlimFast shakes, orange juice, and American cheese. On the opposite side, nutrition experts were much more likely than the public to view quinoa favorably — 89% vs. 58% — as they also were in the cases of tofu, sushi, hummus, wine, and shrimp. (Incidentally, sushi and hummus top the list of American Internet searches asking if a certain food is healthy.)

So what accounts for the differences between mainstream and expert opinion seen above? The Times article’s writers note that many of the foods viewed more favorably by the public than by experts contain large amounts of added sugar. It’s possible that nutritionists simply think about this factor more than most Americans do. And when it comes to foods that experts view more favorably than the public, the writers speculate that the public may simply not be as familiar with the foods as they are with others. Quinoa, tofu, sushi, and hummus have all become mainstream foods only in recent decades. In the cases of wine and shrimp, the differences in perception may be explained by changing or conflicting views on whether alcohol and cholesterol, respectively, are healthy.

It’s worth noting that certain other foods seemed to confuse both experts and the public, often in nearly equal numbers. Foods that were viewed favorably by 50% to 65% of each group include popcorn, pork chops, whole milk, steak, and cheddar cheese. In all of these cases except popcorn, the mixed views can probably be explained, in part, by conflicting opinions on saturated fat and animal fat — among both experts and the public. Popcorn, on the other hand, may be viewed differently depending on whether you imagine it dripping with butter or oil and salt.

What’s your take on the foods mentioned in this article — are there any foods that you tend to view as healthy but nutrition experts apparently don’t, or vice versa? Do you think your views on what’s healthy, or the views of of experts, influence what you eat to a large degree, or does taste or habit play a larger role? Has your diabetes shaped your perception of what foods are healthy, or made you generally more nutritionally aware? Leave a comment below!