Why do so many of us have poor diets?

A ‘healthy diet’ is one that’s balanced, makes us feel good and gives us the nutrients we need to thrive. So what then constitutes a ‘poor’ one?  

Most of us probably think we know what constitutes a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ diet. Healthy means eating a stack of fruit and veg, while an unhealthy diet is one which consists largely of junk food and fizzy drinks. Right? Well, it’s all a bit more nuanced than that.

Fundamentally, healthy eating is all about balance. We’ve previously explored the role that diet culture has played in our understanding of nutrition, and how growing up with ‘clean eating’ has warped our understanding of good food and its mental and physical benefits. And the same can be said for the opposite: many of us think of ‘unhealthy foods’ as being those we most enjoy – chocolate, burgers, pizzas.

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Perhaps one way of getting around that problem is changing the language; we should be talking about poor diets, rather than unhealthy ones. And that’s because the word ‘poor’ is more accurate: we’re talking about diets that are nutritionally lacking in the vitamins and minerals we need to thrive. And it’s that dearth of fibre, antioxidants and protein that can lead to long-term and lift-limiting issues.

In her latest book, The Science of Nutrition, nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert explains that “a key way of defining a poor diet is one that is high in saturated fat, salt and sugar”. Prepared food, she writes, “is responsible for much of the excess: three-quarters of the salt in our diets come from processed foods, including staples like bread, while three large slices of takeaway vegetable pizza could contain around 12g of salt (the RDA of salt for adults is 6g).” But fast food is only one contributing factor: a tablespoon of soy sauce to a healthy stir-fry could increase its salt content to 3g.

Crucially, a poor diet isn’t just about eating too many processed foods; it’s also about not eating enough nutrient-dense foods. That means someone who eats very little and as a result looks small could have a much less healthy diet than someone who enjoys a mix of processed and nutrient-dense foods and lives in a larger body.

While we know that chronic overconsumption of high fat, high sugar foods can increase our risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, Lambert stresses: “Rather than focusing simply on the number of calories, consider whether there is enough variety in your daily diet, and its quality as a whole.”

That means looking at whether you’ve got a smorgasbord of veg, fruit, wholegrains, fermented foods, protein sources, fats, and those nutritionally valueless but good-for-the-soul foodsin your diet. A poor diet could be one that involves only living off raw fruit and veg, with no attention paid to protein-rich beans, for example. The negative noise around keto diets that are rich in lean protein and fat but have no carbs, including grains and gut-loving foods like sourdough, is an example of how seemingly healthy diets can actually be pretty poor (to say nothing of downright depressing).

We know, for example, that not eating enough plants can have truly catastrophic results on our health and lifespan. Back in 2019, a study found that low fruit consumption may have contributed to more than 1 million deaths from stroke worldwide, and more than 500,000 deaths from heart disease every year. Low vegetable intake accounts for 200,000 stroke deaths and over 800,000 heart disease fatalities per year. 

I’m yet to come across a study that has found such startling death statistics linked to say, eating a daily doughnut; obesity may increase someone’s chances of disease (which won’t necessarily be caused by a daily portion of fried, sweetened dough) but it’s the lack of crucial nutrients that is more deadly.

The issue is that many of us do actually have poor diets. Studies have shown that we’re more susceptible to finding high-salt, fat and sugar foods pleasurable and addictive, as they stimulate the brain’s reward centres. And given the past couple of years we’ve had, it’s understandable why some will have prioritised eating quick-to-cook/arrive food that’s guaranteed to give us a quick endorphin hit over plants.

A word on food poverty

When it comes to poor diets, however, it’s often so much to do with choice as it is necessity. One 2018 study by Food Foundation points to the fact that the poorest fifth of households in the UK have to spend 40% of their disposable income to eat a healthy diet, compared to 8% for the wealthiest. Clearly, it costs to eat well. And there are other factors to bear in mind; more deprived areas are more likely to have a load of fast food joints than a big supermarket.

So, when we talk about poor diets, we’ve got to consider socio-economic availability of healthy foods. It’s a good thing to consider when making your own food choices, if you are more affluent. It’s a privilege to be able to eat well; practising gratitude for the nourishment we have access to is a good starting place for removing food guilt. 

And remember, ‘processed’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘unhealthy’

It’s also worth pointing out that a diet high in processed foods isn’t necessarily unhealthy. Frozen veg, some wholegrains, fish and tofu are all healthy but have to be processed to be preserved or nutritionally available. Foods like sauerkraut and fortified milks are both better for us than the original product, thanks to processing. It’s the ultra-processed grub – stuff that offers very few minerals, vitamins or fibre – that we should eat in moderation.

Lambert uses four examples to help you work out how processed your food is.

Unprocessed: fresh sweetcorn on the cob (high in fibre; one of your five-a-day)

Minimally processed: canned sweetcorn (high in fibre; could have added salt for preservation)

Processed: popcorn (altered but may be freshly by adding heat; may have added salt, fat or sugar)

Highly processed: high-fructose corn syrup (made from corn starch; used as a sweetener)

The Science of Nutrition: Debunk the Diet Myths and Learn How to Eat Well for Health and Happiness by Rhiannon Lambert is out now and costs £20. It’s published by DK.

Images: Getty

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