What happens when you fill a room with nutrition experts and ask them to pick the healthiest diet?
Last month, some of the world’s top nutrition scientists were gathered in a room in Boston, Mass., and given a simple task – agree upon the principles of a healthy diet.
Organized by Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, the Finding Common Ground conference brought together more than 75 nutrition scientists, medical professionals and media members to reach a consensus on healthy eating.
Scientific co-chairs, Dr. Walter Willett, nutrition chair of the Harvard University School of Public Health, and Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, led two-day discussion dissecting scientific studies and comparing diets.
Not an easy task by any means. Vegans called for no meat. Paleo experts called for high protein. Low fat diet proponents were challenged by Mediterranean diet experts who want more olive oil. The dinner debate lasted four hours.
“Ninety minutes into the meeting, we were still trying to agree what the hell a vegetable was,” said Dr. David Katz, according to STAT, a health news website. “That was a dark moment.”
Oldways president Sara Baer-Sinnott said she was inspired to put together the conference because there’s so much consumer confusion about what constitutes eating healthfully. “There are all sorts of misrepresentations and misinterpretations about scientific studies that create crazy headlines and more consumer confusion,” she told conference attendees. “We’re bringing together the experts, asking them to listen to one another, talk to one another, and find a common ground of what is a healthy and sustainable way of eating.”
Katz said that the discussion of vegetables (for example, should potatoes be included or excluded?) was testimony to the tendency of experts to focus on details. “What I think this conference is devoted to is to know that fundamental dietary patterns focus really on wholesome foods and sensible combinations,” Katz said at the conference. “Everybody can understand that; and by and large, if you can get the foods right, the combinations take care of themselves.”
After the debate, the group released an 11-point consensus statement.
Here are the top take-home points:
▪ Eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Limit sugar, alcohol and red meat, and avoid processed meats.
▪ Sustainability of food sources is important. The experts agreed that food should be good for the people and the planet.
▪ We should know where our food comes from, how it is produced and its impact on our health. There was consensus for food literacy as well as respecting cultural heritage of foods.
▪ Do not change your diet based on every new research study that comes out. Do not cut out entire food groups, unless warranted.
▪ Be positive – think about not just what to cut out, but also what to add. “Instead of simply saying, ‘Drink less soda,’ for instance, say, ‘Drink water instead of soda.’ What we consume and what we don’t consume instead, both contribute to health outcomes,” the report on the conference states.
▪ We should generally follow the guidelines of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which means “a focus on decreasing meat consumption, eating more plants and plant-based products, reducing energy intake, and reducing waste.”
▪ Food can and should have flavor. In addition to food being healthy and eco-friendly, food also should be delicious.
Simply put, food should be good for the people, good for the planet and be tasty. Now if this diverse bunch can achieve consensus, anything is possible. Let’s hope for world peace!
Parul Kharod is a clinical dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.