With all of the wellness philosophies out there today, it’s safe to say healthy is in the eye of the beholder. While a hearty turkey chili may be the epitome of health for you, it doesn’t even come close to virtuous for a vegan.
Although the boundaries of what's considered healthy may be blurred for the American public, they’re far more black-and-white for the government agencies that manage our food supply.
Take, for example, the newly released 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture. They call for Americans to follow a “healthy eating pattern,” which includes an appropriate amount of calories, nutrient-dense foods, and limited amounts of added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
Fair enough. Yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides an even stricter definition of “healthy,” along with a long list of regulations regarding food labels. According to the FDA, a food may be labeled as such if it meets the following requirements:
- low in total fat (three grams or less per serving)
- low in saturated fat (one gram or less per serving)
- limited amounts of sodium and cholesterol
- provides at least 10 percent of the daily value of one or more of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber
(There's an exception for fish and meat, which can have up to 5 grams of fat and two grams of saturated fat per serving.)
So if you’ve ever strolled through a grocery store and wondered why there’s a “healthy” low-fat breakfast pastry, well, there’s your answer.
Still, all of this stayed fairly underground until March 2015, when the FDA sent a strongly worded warning letter to KIND Snacks. (Editor's note: KIND has partnered with Greatist in the past, but we're writing this story simply because we feel strongly about the topic.) The ubiquitous nut-filled snack bar brand, which most would lump into the health food category, was told it needed to remove a term from the label: healthy.
The issue? Several KIND bars surpass the mandated limits on fat with 9 to 13 grams of total fat and 2.5 to 5 grams of saturated fat per serving, mainly thanks to those clusters of almonds, pecans, or peanuts.
Moreover, the FDA claimed that phrases like antioxidant-rich, low in sodium, and plus protein were misleading, as the bars didn’t meet nutrition content claims or include "relative claims," such as, this product is not low in fat. Not one to mess around, the FDA asked KIND to address these concerns by taking action within 15 business days.
Redefining What Healthy Means
As KIND started brainstorming ways to solve the issue, execs realized they were up against a much bigger problem—namely, the FDA’s outdated definition of healthy. “After looking at the current regulations, we saw an opportunity to have better alignment among the regulations, current nutrition science, and today’s expert dietary guidance,” says Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND.
In response to the FDA's warning, KIND filed a citizen petition in December 2015 to request that the FDA update its regulations around the term "healthy," which immediately made waves in the food industry. The petition, co-signed by some of the top nutrition and public health experts in the country, could potentially open the door for other high-fat foods, packaged and whole, to finally earn the right to be labeled healthy.
After all, anyone who pays attention to nutrition news likely sees the FDA's fallacy. While the requirements for low sodium and daily values of certain nutrients may be beneficial, the low-fat mandate is out of touch with recent research. Again and again, studies point out that not all fats are bad. In fact, our bodies can benefit from eating more of the right fats. Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Lawrence GD. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 2013, May.;4(3):2156-5376. The role of dietary fats for preventing cardiovascular disease. A review. Szostak-Wegierek D, Kłosiewicz-Latoszek L, Szostak WB. Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny, 2014, Apr.;64(4):0035-7715. Emerging nutrition science on fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: nutritionists' perspectives. Kris-Etherton PM, Fleming JA. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 2015, May.;6(3):2156-5376.
High-fat (and objectively healthful) foods, such as nuts, salmon, olive oil, and avocados, can’t be labeled “healthy” under the current FDA guidelines.
But under the current FDA guidelines, high-fat (and objectively healthful) foods, such as nuts, salmon, olive oil, and avocados, can’t be labeled “healthy.” Sugar-free puddings, breakfast pastries, or sugary cereals, on the other hand, can since they're low in fat—even though these foods lack nutrient density, says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and senior nutrition advisor for KIND.
For an already-bewildered American public, this is bound to cause some consternation in aisle two. But the FDA isn't intentionally trying to confuse us, Lubetzky says. “The regulation was created with the best intentions more than 20 years ago when available science supported limiting total fat intake,” he says. “The change came when modern science discovered that unsaturated fats in foods like nuts, seeds, and certain fish are beneficial to our health.”
The Bigger Issue at Stake
Indeed, the FDA’s regulation is one part of a larger national conversation about nutrition that needs to be revisited. “The definition of healthy has to be changed—it’s very confusing to the American public,” says Taz Bhatia, M.D., board-certified physician and founder of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine. “As a country, we’re failing at getting the message out that healthy fats are good, while hydrogenated and trans fats—found in fried foods, packaged foods, and processed foods—are unhealthy.”
It’s no wonder Americans are suffering from nutritional whiplash. During the fat-free craze of the 1980s and 1990s, we were told to buy products that were low in fat—and fat-free was even better. The problem: Those products were filled with sugars, salt, starch, and other additives that made them palatable after the tasty fats were removed, Bhatia says. So we filled up on empty carbs and added sugars, which are now being recognized as a cause of the cardiovascular disease and metabolic crisis we’re seeing today.
From simple satiety to mood regulation and hormonal balance, fats play a big role in your health.
The best (if counterintuitive) solution to our nation's obesity and heart disease epidemics: Eat more fat. (And Michael Pollan isn't wrong—eating mostly plants is a good plan too.) “High-fat foods—like eggs, avocado, nuts, or nut butters—have gotten a bad rap for no reason,” Bhatia says. “From simple satiety to mood regulation and hormonal balance, fats play a big role in your health.”
One immediate benefit of eating more good fats: They help you feel full and keep you satisfied throughout the day, Bhatia says. Effects of dietary fatty acid composition from a high fat meal on satiety. Kozimor A, Chang H, Cooper JA. Appetite, 2013, May.;69():1095-8304. What's more, eating a variety of healthy fats helps promote healthy hair and skin, decrease inflammation, boost brain power, and even relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. The effect of nuts on inflammation. Salas-Salvadó J, Casas-Agustench P, Murphy MM. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition, 2008, Jul.;17 Suppl 1():0964-7058. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 2011, Jul.;25(8):1090-2139. And contrary to popular belief, eating fat doesn't make you fat; in fact, research shows it can help regulate weight. Covert manipulation of the ratio of medium- to long-chain triglycerides in isoenergetically dense diets: effect on food intake in ad libitum feeding men. Stubbs RJ, Harbron CG. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 1996, Sep.;20(5):.
All these awesome facts make the FDA’s super-rigid stance against fat sound just plain weird, if not very wrong. Regardless of your dietary preferences or restrictions, science stands squarely in favor of fat—and against those sugary treats that can slip through the restrictions. (Too much sugar in the diet has been shown to promote obesity, raise blood pressure, and increase risk of death from heart disease, among other serious health consequences.)
Of course, KIND's petition doesn't mean it supports slapping a “healthy” label on processed or fried foods—no, French fries still aren't good for you. And remember, not all fats are equal: While monounsaturated, unsaturated, and some saturated fats provide health benefits, trans fats (found in fried foods, potato chips, and packaged baked goods) have been strongly associated with heart disease and obesity.
What the company wants, Lubetzky says, is for the FDA to revise its regulations to "exclude the total fat or saturated fat content inherently found in nutrient-dense foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and seafood—when those ingredients remain whole or are processed in a manner that does not compromise their nutritional value."
As for the FDA, a spokesperson responded to our inquiry about whether the agency is planning to revisit the current regulations with this statement:
Without commenting specifically on the KIND citizen petition, the FDA recognizes that a great deal of scientific research has been conducted since the regulation defining the term 'healthy' was developed and we understand the interest in potentially redefining the term... In the meantime, it is important that all companies continue to use the existing definition for the term ‘healthy’ to ensure that it means the same thing from product to product. That’s the only way that consumers can trust what’s on the label.
Your Action Plan
No one’s saying that the FDA should remove restrictions on the term “healthy” entirely, or that we should eat fatty foods with abandon. While that sounds like a great (and delicious) plan, sadly, it’s not as simple as that. Defining exactly what’s healthy and what’s not is a tricky business, and of course, depends on people’s taste preferences, personal opinions, and moral persuasions. (Just witness the backlash against the aforementioned dietary guidelines.)
But when it comes to making decisions about what’s healthy for you, there are a few points to keep in mind. “It’s all about balance,” Bhatia says. “Remember that fat contains two times the calories that are in protein or carbs.” So don't go crazy eating nuts, even though they truly are a healthy food—you still have to consider calories, or else you will gain weight.
Next time you’re searching for a snack that’s actually nutritious, first make sure the total sugars are low (less than eight grams is a good goal). Then look for a protein-to-carbs ratio of about 2:1, Bhatia says. And rather than total fat grams, focus on the type of fat—avoid any foods with hydrogranted or trans fats. (There's also an FDA loophole that allows food companies to label products "0 grams of trans fats" if it contains less than .5 grams of the stuff, so always check the ingredient list for "partially hydrogenated oils" to be sure.)
KIND bars are a fine choice, but there are plenty of other options. Half an avocado with plenty of healthy fats will keep you full, Bhatia says, or go for a plain Greek yogurt topped with nuts. Bhatia also suggests spreading some nut butter on a rice cake, a whole-grain waffle to eat on the go, or a tasty chia seed pudding.
Those fruit-and-nut bars caught some unnecessary flak. Research shows that fat isn't the enemy, and in fact, offers plenty of health benefits, so KIND's push for the FDA's regulations to reflect that makes sense. Still, just because nuts are healthy doesn't mean you should go nuts—calories still count, so look for a variety of packaged and homemade snacks to help keep you satisfied.