Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.
As our understanding of human nutrition grows, we must revise our misconceptions and accept new truths. For example, we now know that eating fat isn’t what makes you fat. Nor is losing weight just a matter of consuming fewer calories. Recent research about the human microbiome is also changing our understanding of the role of bacteria and other microbes in how we metabolize food.
We have found that certain so-called “health foods” actually aren’t all that healthy. Look at former all-stars like orange juice, granola, rice cakes, fruit leather and low-fat salad dressing, for starters. We’ve also demonized certain foods, only to find out later that they have benefits of which we were not aware or that we thought were trumped by what we thought were their flaws.
The following three foods have been considered unhealthy for decades, but now it’s time to accept a new reality.
1. When White Is Right
For decades, any brown grain has been lauded as a “health food,” and any white grain has been held in low esteem. But when it comes to rice, the tables have turned. Brown rice has certain pluses, but they aren’t necessarily outweighed by the minuses. White rice is simply brown rice minus the bran and germ (the seed), but retaining the endosperm, which is the starchy energy source. Rice bran is a good source of fiber, but if you’re eating vegetables, fruits and other grains, you’re probably already getting plenty of fiber — and too much bran can create its own problems. Bran does contain some B vitamins and minerals, but, again, these nutrients are available in plenty of other foods. Finally, bran also contains anti-nutrients, specifically phytic acid, which leaches minerals out of your body. Remove the bran, and the minerals in rice are more bioavailable. When it comes to the germ, there’s good reason to remove it as well. It’s full of polyunsaturated fats, which can easily become rancid.
But what really tips the scale in favor of white rice is that it is less likely to be contaminated with arsenic than brown rice — arsenic tends get trapped in the bran. If you’re worried about the starch in white rice, it’s helpful to know that refrigerating cooked rice for a few hours converts the starch to resistant starch, which acts like fiber in your gut. Nor does resistant starch produce a blood sugar rush. Interestingly, cultures with rice-based cuisines — think China, India and Japan — have always used white rice. And none of those cultures suffered from obesity as long as they ate their traditional diets. Served with a protein source and fiber-rich veggies, white rice deserves a place at the table.
2. Revisiting Coconut Oil
Coconut oil, like butter, suet and bacon fat, is considered a saturated fat because it remains solid (or semisolid) at room temperature. Saturated fats were long implicated in cardiac disease, although recent research is more equivocal. Initial studies on coconut oil’s health effects used a refined and partially hydrogenated product, meaning it contained dangerous trans fats, which also gave coconut oil a bad name. The virgin coconut oil you’ll see today on the shelves of natural foods stores is neither refined nor hydrogenated.
Although research on the healthfulness of virgin coconut oil has not yet been published, research on societies that consume lots of coconut oil has been unfailingly positive. For example, the traditional diet of residents on the island of Tokelau in the South Pacific Ocean once derived more than 50 percent of their calories from coconut, making their diet extraordinarily high in saturated fat. Nonetheless, the native population never experienced heart disease. It wasn’t until their traditional diet began to give way to the standard Western diet that the islanders began to develop heart disease.
Because coconut oil can withstand high heat without oxidizing, it is actually better than olive oil for stir-frying. It also adds a smooth texture to baked goods. (It is not suitable for dressing salads or cooked vegetables.) Coconut oil contains a kind of fatty acid called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which have been found to cause the body to burn excess calories, helping enhance weight loss. Although more research remains to be done, you can rest assured that today’s coconut oil is not the demon it was once considered. Use it in moderation, along with extra-virgin olive oil and other healthy oils.
3. It’s How You Cook Your Potatoes That Matters
Despite the fact that it’s America’s favorite vegetable, the humble potato has had to take a lot of grief, which has made enjoying spuds something of a guilty pleasure. Let’s step back and take a more nuanced look at the vegetable people both love — and love to hate. On the minus side, the potato is a member of the nightshade family, known for creating gastric distress for some people. But its biggest problem has been that it occupies a high rung on the ladder known as the glycemic index, and therefore often gets lumped in with refined carbohydrates — think pasta, bread, other baked goods and breakfast cereals. As a starchy vegetable, some weight-conscious folks consider the potato Public Enemy Number One.
But the humble tater is not without its virtues. Potatoes are a good source of vitamins C and B6, as well as the minerals potassium and manganese. A medium spud contains just 160 calories. The way in which you prepare potatoes also impacts the form the starch takes. As with rice, cooking and then chilling potatoes increases the amount of resistant starch. This form of starch acts like fiber, so it passes through your GI tract without being digested. Your gut bacteria, on the other hand, thrive on resistant starch, and that’s a good thing for gut health. That means that eating potatoes in a cold salad dressed with olive oil and cider vinegar is very different from dining on French fries hot out the deep fryer or a loaded baked potato.
So nutritional science marches on. We’ve already learned that eating a small piece of dark chocolate a few times a week has many health benefits, as does a cup or two of coffee a day. But don’t hold out any hope that a hot fudge sundae will join the list of such turnarounds!