The truth about nutrition is always in flux. One day coffee is a carcinogen, the next it’s a potent antioxidant. Carbs used to be the devil, now (the right kinds) are the staple of a well-balanced diet.
What’s healthy seems to change regularly, and 2016 was no exception, which is why we’re looking back at the biggest nutrition discoveries of the year.
To recap: Remember how we all suffered from serious false hope when butter was said to be healthy? (That is, until another study quickly squashed that dream and confirmed that saturated fats have been and always will be bad for us…sigh). Or that time we gasped when we learned that in addition to being ineffective, dietary supplements may be flat-out fatal? How about the happy dance we did when our nut butter obsession was deemed a-ok? In case you missed these important health moments, we’ve rounded them up for you. Read on for the Cliff’s Notes versions of the biggest nutrition lessons we learned in 2016.
It’s confirmed: saturated fat really is bad
Butter lovers went bananas when science (momentarily) said saturated fats are healthier than they’ve been made out to be. Update: They aren’t. A second study confirmed that we were actually right all along—and saturated fats are definitely not a superfood. The research, published in The British Medical Journal, found that a reduced intake of saturated fats can lower one’s risk of coronary heart disease, while swapping in unsaturated fats (from good-for-you sources like vegetable-based oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and seafood) actually works to boost heart health. Luckily, topping your toast with avocado instead of butter isn’t the worst sacrifice (and we have the delicious avocado toast recipes to prove it).
(Some) fats keep you slim
Research from the University of Barcelona in Spain found that eating the right type of fat could help keep you at a healthy weight. The study, which looked at more than 7,400 men and women with type 2 diabetes or high heart risk, assigned participants to three different eating plans: one group ate a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, another ate a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts, and a third ate a low-fat diet that skipped dietary fats altogether. The outcome? The olive oil eaters lost the most weight over the course of the five-year study, even more than those who followed the low-fat diet. So go ahead and eat (good) fat to get skinny.
A Japanese diet is advised
That all-you-can eat sushi buffet sounds like a pretty good idea right now. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that Japanese people who closely followed their national food guidelines—lots of rice, veggies, fish, meat, and soybean products—had a 15% lower mortality rate than their peers who didn’t adhere as strictly to the classic Japanese diet.
Pulses keep pounds off
Without making any other efforts to slim down, people who added three-quarters of a cup of pulses (think: peas, lentils, chickpeas or beans) to their diet every day for six weeks lost .75 pounds, according to a review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this year. Eat beans, lose weight, repeat. Try these bean recipes to get started.
Carbs could be linked to some cancers
You don’t have to go cold turkey on carbs, but do know this: A recent study found that a diet high on the glycemic index—that is, one that’s full of refined carbohydrates that cause blood sugar levels to spike—may be associated with a greater risk of lung cancer, even among non-smokers. The good news is that you’d need to eat a lot of the stuff to put yourself in danger, said Health’s contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, RD, in a previous interview: “The reality is that no, eating one bagel isn’t as bad for you as smoking a cigarette. However, having one for breakfast several days a week is not a great idea for a number of nutritional reasons.” To protect yourself against lung cancer and other chronic diseases linked to dietary choices (like type 2 diabetes and heart disease), Sass recommends opting for healthier carb sources, like pulses, starchy veggies, and whole grains instead.
You should watch what you eat—literally
What you see is what you eat, according to recent research from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. The 2016 study found that women who kept packaged foods and sugary drinks on their kitchen counters weighed up to 26 pounds more than those who didn’t. What’s more, women who had a bowl of fruit out were shown to weigh almost 13 pounds fewer than those who didn’t. Expert tip: Keep health-boosting bites within reach and stash splurges far out of sight if you’re trying to stick to a slim-down plan.
Honey has a hitch
We learned the not-so-sweet truth about honey this year, and we weren’t thrilled about it. The sticky stuff has long been thought of as an all-natural, antioxidant-rich alternative to traditional sugar, but research published in The Journal of Nutrition showed otherwise. In fact, the study suggested that honey sparks the same responses as both white cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, raising peoples’ blood sugar, insulin, weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure post-consumption. The bottom line: All sugar is sugar, so practice moderation no matter what form of the sweet substance you’re snacking on.
If you're nuts about your health, eat them
Well this is nutty. An analysis of 29 studies about nut-eaters and their health outcomes found that the benefits of eating the good fat-packed snack are abundant. That is, people who ate a handful of nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, peanuts—you name it) every day had a 30% lower likelihood of having heart disease than their peers whose diets were nut-free. And that’s not all. Those who regularly noshed on nuts had a 15% lower risk of cancer, as well as a 22% lower risk of premature death. Does that mean we can feel less bad about spooning PB straight from the jar now?
You should add insects to your diet (yes, really)
Forget green juice; bugs may be the new "it" food. Why? When researchers in the UK and China teamed up to study the nutritional content of insects, they found that creepy crawlers actually offered more nutrients than steak. In particular, grasshopper, cricket, mealworm, and buffalo worm samples were all shown to have a higher concentration of calcium, copper, zinc, and magnesium than a sample of sirloin. Plus, all of the insects had higher iron solubility than steak, meaning the body was better able to absorb and use the critical mineral when it consumed it from bugs rather than beef. Burger, meet bug-sandwich.
You don't actually need to drink 8 glasses of H2O every day
We’ve all been told that drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day is the key to staying healthy and hydrated, but new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States says it’s not totally necessary. For one, the amount of fluids we need daily depends on all kinds of shifting factors. Plus, the researchers found that people felt it was three times harder to swallow a small amount of water after they’d consumed a liter of the liquid in comparison to when they actually felt thirsty post-exercise. The takeaway? The body knows what it needs when it comes to water intake, hence the “swallowing inhibition” mechanism observed in the study. Instead of religiously counting your cups, read up on the real causes of dehydration, and simply sip when you feel thirsty.
Be even more sparing with salt
Here’s one more reason to skip the chips in aisle five: A 25-year study released in October found that upping your salt intake even the tiniest bit (i.e. by less than a half teaspoon each day) could increase your risk of premature death by 12%. Yikes. Nix these surprisingly salty foods from your diet, and add flavor to your food with these sodium-free herbs and spices instead.
Eat more plant protein to live longer
Research from the Massachusetts General Hospital showed that those who consumed a large quantity of animal protein—especially if they ate more processed red meat than fish or poultry—had a higher risk of premature death than the average person. If that isn’t enough to convince you to pick salmon over sausage, get this: Individuals who ate more plant-based proteins (from foods like breads, cereals, pastas, beans, nuts, and legumes) had a lower risk of premature death than the average person. To be fair, the link between meat-eating and early death was bolstered by other unhealthy habits, like heavy drinking or inadequate physical activity (when carnivores lacked these lifestyle factors, the diet-death link disappeared). Still, a diet high in processed meats isn’t advised for anyone. Ditch the bacon and load up on beans instead.
The dangers of dietary supplements are real
Just because something’s sold in a health food store doesn’t mean it’s good for you. An article published in Consumer Reports this summer found that tons of dietary supplements are contaminated with dangerous bacteria and ingredients that may cause scary health outcomes from vomiting and nausea to liver damage and heart problems. Though the report highlighted 15 concerning ingredients that are commonly found in the pills (including seemingly benign substances, like green tea extract powder), it’s best to keep your guard up around all supplements, since they tend to be mislabeled and unregulated.