LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It's the season of sinful eating. In just four days, we'll be piling our Thanksgiving plates high with buttery mashed potatoes and MSG-laden turkey. But good news, gobblers - all those forkfuls of goodness might not be as bad for us as we think.
Aaron Carroll is the director of the Center for Health Policy at Indiana University. His new book is called "The Bad Food Bible: How And Why To Eat Sinfully." And he's got the crib sheet on how to enjoy holiday eating in a healthy way. Dr. Carroll, welcome to the program.
AARON CARROLL: Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you cover a lot of foods in your book that get a bad rap - butter, salt, diet soda and even alcohol. What's your main advice when it comes to these sinful eats?
CARROLL: I think the best thing you can do is realize that the evidence base - all the data that's behind making you think these foods are really bad for you - is pretty weak and that if you just take some sensible ideas and try to eat in moderation and not worry about it too much, you'll probably be much healthier and certainly much happier.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say that, basically, there's no evidence for this, is all the information we've been getting for all these years wrong? Or is it just that people, doctors in particular, don't know what they're talking about?
CARROLL: It's a little bit of both. Part of it is that, for a long time, we've just had a very weak evidence base when it comes to nutrition. We take studies that are done in animals or we take studies which, really, can only show us associations, and then we extrapolate them to make it out to be as if there's causation - that we know these foods are making us unhealthy.
But unfortunately, because we've been doing that, we've forced each other into diets, which over time, have been shown not to be that good. First, it was low fat. Then we were avoid - had to avoid meat. Then people started eating too many carbs. Now there's a big backlash against carbs. And, of course, you got to eat something. At the end of the day, there's just not as much evidence into demonizing these foods as people would have you believe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, so what is your advice?
CARROLL: So I think, you know, in general, one thing you can do is try to limit your heavily processed foods as much as possible. And that doesn't mean just the foods that, you know, are really industrial or that, you know, really, we know are processed...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Doritos, Coke.
CARROLL: Yeah, like - not just that, but even things - you know, nature intended you to get the apple-y (ph) goodness from an apple, not from apple juice. And even apple juice makes it too easy to get a lot of that in you. Bread is an incredibly efficient way to get wheat and other things into your body. But again, that is a processed food. So the more we can stick to unprocessed foods, the better.
Of course, lightly processed foods are fine in moderation and even so are heavily processed foods. But the more that we can try to be simple, to cook for ourselves, to know where our food is coming from, to be mindful of it, the better. But we should be so panicked and fearful and constantly believing that if we don't do what we've heard from the latest expert, we're going to get sick and die. That is just not true.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, of course, we are staring down the barrel of Thanksgiving, which, for many of us, can be a moment that provides a lot of anxiety, especially food anxiety. Nowadays, it just feels like it's all so fraught. You know, I'm evil if I eat meat. I'm bad if I like diet coke. Food is loaded. And, you know, Thanksgiving and all the culinary demands make some people feel like they're a catering company and not a host anymore.
CARROLL: That and it's also - it's really important to remember it's one day a year. Your health and your eating habits are not established by one day a year. It's perfectly fine to enjoy yourself and to live. I try to caution people all the time, especially in my columns and everywhere else, that when it comes to...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm a doing a high-five dance here. It's like yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Woo (ph).
CARROLL: You need to weigh, in all your health decisions, the benefits and the harms. And too often, we only focus on the latter. And included in benefits are joy and quality of life and happiness. And there are times when it is a perfectly rational decision to allow yourself to be happy and to enjoy yourself if it's one day a year. So it's not important to panic and obsess and be afraid every day of the year. And Thanksgiving is easily my favorite holiday. And it's not just because of the food, but also because of the meal and the fact that you get to enjoy it with family and friends.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about a few things that you discuss in your book. And there are some things that are, you know, actually quite surprising. First of all, milk isn't as nutritious as we're led to believe. Can you talk about that?
CARROLL: Sure. Yeah, just look at sort of nature. We're the only animal that consumes milk outside of the infant period. Mammals - that's how babies are raised. Then you grow up and you stop drinking milk. But we go to, of course, other animals in order to get our milk. Or even now we try to find it in other places and just call it milk. But there's no need for it. Part of that is politics and the fact that the United States got involved in promoting dairy and the whole dairy industry. That's where a lot of the campaigns that you've heard about that are so popular have come from - those sparks and those starts.
But there's just is no great evidence for the whole, like, milk does a body good or, you know, your bones will be stronger; everything will be better if you consume more milk. One of the things I try to state in the book - and this is true of all beverages with calories - you should treat them like you treat alcohol. It's fine if you want them. I mean, what else are you going, you know, do with a good chocolate chip cookie? Of course, you need a glass of milk with that. But that's like dessert. It's something you should have because you want it not because you need it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about another controversial issue, which is GMO - genetically modified foods. What are your thoughts on that?
CARROLL: So if you want to come from an environmental angle or if you want to come from the sense that, you know, what is it doing to the food industry and the way we raised food - those are interesting arguments we could have. But from a health perspective, there is just no good evidence that genetically modified organisms or food that arises from them are any more dangerous than conventionally grown food. And that's the key. No one should be under the illusion that GMOs have been proven perfectly safe. In the same way, no one has ever proven the conventionally grown food is perfectly safe. People have allergies. People have bad reactions. They exist with all kinds of food.
But we do know through many studies, both industry and non-industry funded, that GMOs are not any more unsafe than conventionally grown food or other seeds that we've had. The bottom line, again, is the GMOs are ubiquitous. They are in our food supply right now. And our food is the safest it's probably ever been in the history of man. We are the healthiest we've ever been. We are living longer than almost any time in humanity. Everything is great. There's just no reason for all of this fear that we constantly have about where our food is and where it's coming from.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, also some other counterintuitive stuff - raw eggs, you say, are fine. Coffee is good for your heart?
CARROLL: So, first of all, the evidence for coffee is stunning. I was sure I'd find, as with many other things, coffee would be a balance of pros and cons. But the overwhelming evidence for coffee is that it is associated with good health outcomes, I mean, across the board in almost any disease state you can pick. So, certainly, it is not a vice or something to be feared. But the raw eggs is another one where, of course, there's a risk. But you have to weigh that against joy again.
The truth of the matter is that if you committed to eating raw eggs - saying cookie dough - once a week every week for the rest of your life, you'd almost never come into contact with salmonella. If you did, you'd almost never get sick. If you got sick, you'd almost never notice. Even if you noticed, it would almost never result in something serious. The joy of, like, doing those kinds of things with your kids or enjoying the process of baking is much more satisfying and will lead to greater increases in quality of life than the infinitesimal risk that you are hurting your health in some way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Aaron Carroll, happy Thanksgiving and thank you so much.
CARROLL: To you as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIA LUNA'S "STRATOVOLCANO")
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