It’s the season of sinful eating. In just a few days we’ll be piling our Thanksgiving plates high with buttery mashed potatoes and MSG-laden turkey.
And good news, gobblers: All those forkfuls of goodness may not be as bad for us as we think.
Dr. Aaron Carroll is the director of the Center for Health Policy at Indiana University and author of The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully. In it, he explains that there might be less evidence against some notoriously bad foods than we think. In fact, maybe we should be eating some of them more often.
Weekend Edition host Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke with Carroll about why “bad” food may not be so bad after all. Excerpts of the interview follow, edited for length and clarity.
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?
I think the best thing you can do is realize is that the evidence base, all the data that’s behind making you think these foods are bad for you, is pretty weak. And that if you just take some sensible ideas and try to eat in moderation and to not worry about it too much, you’ll probably be much healthier and certainly much happier.
When you say that basically there’s no evidence that some of these foods are bad, 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?
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 that can really only show us associations, and then we extrapolate them to make it out to be that there’s causation, that we know these foods are making us unhealthy. … At the end of the day there’s just not as much evidence for demonizing these foods as people would have you believe.
There are some surprises in your book, like milk isn’t as nutritious as some might think?
This is one of those where, if you just look at nature, we’re the only animal that consumes milk outside of the infant period. Now 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. But there’s really no good evidence outside of the childhood period that milk is necessary. One of the things that I tried to state in the book, and this is true of all beverages with calories, you should treat them like you treat alcohol. I mean, what else are you going to do with a good chocolate chip cookie? Of course you need a glass of milk with that. That’s like dessert — it’s something you should have because you want it, not because you need it.
Raw eggs often get a bad reputation, particularly when it comes to cookie dough. How bad are they, really?
The raw egg is another one where of course there is 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 in 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 chance of you actually getting seriously ill is infinitesimal. … The joy of 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’re hurting your health in some way.
So, it sounds like there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding what food is bad for us. What’s your eating advice then?
So I think you know, in general, one thing you can do is limit your heavily processed food as much as possible. Nature intended you to get the appley goodness from an apple, not from apple juice. But the more we can do to smile, to cook for ourselves, to know where our food is coming from, to be mindful of it, the better. But we shouldn’t be so panicked and fearful and constantly believing that if we don’t do what we’ve heard from the latest expert, that we’re going to get sick and die. That is just not true.
Of course, we are staring down the barrel of Thanksgiving, which for many of us can be a moment that produces a lot of anxiety, especially food anxiety nowadays. It just feels like it’s all so fraught. I’m evil if I eat meat. I’m bad if I like Diet Coke. Food is loaded.
It’s also really important, 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! 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. There are times when it’s a perfectly rational decision to allow yourself to be happy and to enjoy yourself. I’m not sort of giving a license for people to eat whatever they want, anytime they want. Yes, the Diet Coke, the pie, these are all processed foods. So you should think about how much you’re eating them in relation to everything else. But on the other hand, a piece of pie on Thanksgiving is not going to erase everything else you’ve done the rest of the year. 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.
I’ve got to ask you, what are you having for Thanksgiving?
As much as I can cram into my body on that day. But, I love turkey, really well-done turkey. I love mashed potatoes, and stuffing and gravy, and I think pie is the greatest dessert that exists, so I’m sure I’ll be having too much of that as well.
Producer Adelina Lancianese contributed to this report.