Science-Backed Benefits of Eating Nutritious Foods

Science-Backed Benefits of Eating Nutritious Foods

We all know we should eat nutritious food, but what does science say about the benefits?

The nutrition we provide ourselves is vital in determining how well our minds and bodies function (Guenther et al., 2013). Nutrition is also important as a public health issue. Most Americans, although generally aware of which foods are nutritious and which are not (O’Brien & Davies, 2007), do not make deliberate choices to eat those foods. As a result of not eating what they know to be healthy, most Americans are not getting enough of a wide range of important nutrients (Micha et al., 2017). Furthermore, at least in America, access to nutrition is not equitably distributed. Simply put, people who have more resources have more access to nutritious food than people who are more disadvantaged.

This is the case for a variety of reasons. First, physical access to specific foods is not equal. Lower-income individuals and people of color are more likely to live in what are called food deserts – communities where healthy foods are harder to access because grocery stores are few and far between (Karpyn et al., 2019). Second, foods that are dense in energy, but not in nutrients, are cheaper to produce, often more shelf-stable, and are more readily available to these same communities that are in need of more nutritious foods (Darmon et al., 2004). Third, people who are short on resources are often short on time – a very valuable resource, indeed – so they are more likely to turn to foods that require no or little preparation (Drewnowski & Darmon, 2005). Unfortunately, these are usually highly processed foods that have lost most of their nutritional content while being processed.

“Healthy eating should not preclude the odd cake. But it’s good to be able to wait: if not for a while year, at least for an hour or two.”
― Bee Wilson

Nutrition & Food Taste

On top of all that, the energy-dense but not very nutritious foods that economically disadvantaged people are more likely to eat also happen to typically be delicious (Drewnowski & Darmon, 2005): think of the fast food, snacks, and desserts that probably catch your eye when you enter a rest stop on a road trip or a convenience store on your way home from work. It takes time, familiarity, access, and often more money to eat nutritiously, which is why higher-income individuals are more likely to do so (Drewnowski & Specter, 2004).

These days, dozens of vegetables and fruits are available in almost every grocery store. We know the importance of good nutrition and where it comes from, so why don’t we make the “right” choices when we go grocery shopping?

First of all, we unconsciously gravitate to the most energy-dense and pleasurable eating experiences; our brains sense that this is the most convenient and efficient way to get much-needed energy to keep functioning, so they naturally drive us toward those foods. Second, food scientists and marketers know this, and they continually work to make foods even more palatable – at the cost of their nutritional content – and to sell us those foods. To summarize, the odds are stacked against us: the people selling us food, and our own brains, push us to make short-term choices (so quick and so tasty!) over long-term choices (more effort, but longer-lasting health).

Benefits of Good Nutrition

There is a ton of research attesting to the benefits of good nutrition. Here are just a few examples. First, getting good nutrition is related to lower rates of contracting or developing many diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and osteoporosis (Guenther et al., 2013). Second, when people do go to the hospital for serious medical conditions, they are more likely to heal and experience a smoother and quicker recovery if they are getting adequate nutrition (Zaloga, 1999). Finally, good nutrition supports optimal functioning, not just avoiding and recovering from illness. For example, good nutrition is associated with better athletic performance among both elite and non-elite athletes (Thomas et al., 2016), as well as academic achievement (Pucher et al., 2013).

In Sum

Our eating habits are very personal for most of us. Think about your nutrition journey as your own experience, not something to be compared to the experiences of others. You have your own tastes and preferences, your own history of learning about food and cooking in childhood; these are your starting points for moving forward with an eye toward even better nutritional intake, not things you should judge or even shame yourself for. There are tons of resources available to help you make the best nutritional choices possible; hopefully you find the inspiration to use them as needed.

References

● Darmon, N., Briend, A., & Drewnowski, A. (2004). Energy-dense diets are associated with lower diet costs: a community study of French adults. Public Health Nutrition, 7(1), 21-27.

● Drewnowski, A., & Darmon, N. (2005). The economics of obesity: dietary energy density and energy cost. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82(1), 265S-273S.

● Guenther, P. M., Casavale, K. O., Reedy, J., Kirkpatrick, S. I., Hiza, H. A., Kuczynski, K. J., … & Krebs-Smith, S. M. (2013). Update of the healthy eating index: HEI-2010. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(4), 569-580.

● Karpyn, A. E., Riser, D., Tracy, T., Wang, R., & Shen, Y. E. (2019). The changing landscape of food deserts. UNSCN Nutrition, 44, 46-53.

● Micha, R., Peñalvo, J. L., Cudhea, F., Imamura, F., Rehm, C. D., & Mozaffarian, D. (2017). Association between dietary factors and mortality from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the United States. JAMA, 317(9), 912-924.

● O’Brien, G., & Davies, M. (2007). Nutrition knowledge and body mass index. Health Education Research, 22(4), 571-575.

● Pucher, K. K., Boot, N. M. W. M., & De Vries, N. K. (2013). Systematic review: School health promotion interventions targeting physical activity and nutrition can improve academic performance in primary‐and middle school children. Health Education, 113(5), 372-391.

● Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528.

● Zaloga, G. P. (1999). Early enteral nutritional support improves outcome: hypothesis or fact? Critical Care Medicine, 27(2), 259-261