The Current

Forget everything you've heard about 'bad food' to avoid, says doctor

"People can't figure out what a healthy diet looks like anymore."
Dr. Aaron Carroll, author of The Bad Food Bible says so-called 'bad' foods might not be as sinful as they seem. (Marina Waters)

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If you're looking for a healthy diet, forget everything you've heard about "bad food" to avoid. 

That's the message from Dr. Aaron Carroll, the author of The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully.

Carroll, who teaches pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, says most warnings from doctors, nutritionists and other experts are misleading. 

"Almost anything good these days has been labelled a bad food," Carroll tells The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen. 

"I would agree that moderation should be everyone's keyword — that you want to have a well-balanced diet with a variety foods, but there's nothing that you have to avoid almost 100 per cent," says Carroll.

"Unless, of course, you have a disease which absolutely requires you to do that, but that's a minimal number of people."

Dr. Carroll says the constant messaging around what's healthy and not healthy has people so confused that they can't figure out what a healthy diet looks like. (
Food is a way we celebrate. It's a way that we get together.-  Dr. Aaron Carroll

Putting the joy back into eating 

Popular thinking around what's healthy or unhealthy is constantly changing, Carroll says, and these sudden shifts only leave people confused.

"People can't figure out what a healthy diet looks like anymore."

Carroll also believes that changing rules around eating has removed a significant amount of joy from our daily lives.

"Try to remember that this can be a joyful part of your life. And not always be so hung up on the idea that food and nutrition in general are things that you need to constantly fear and obsess about," he says.

"This is still supposed to be something that you can enjoy. Food is a way we celebrate. It's a way that we get together. It's something we do with family and with friends."

The vilification of meat, eggs and alcohol doesn't add up, according to Dr. Carroll, because he says there's no evidence of an absolute health risk. (
When it comes to food, too often we only focus on the danger.-  Dr. Aaron Carroll

Murky evidence 

Meat, eggs, or alcohol have all been vilified as "sinful" foods, but Carroll says the evidence that they pose an absolute health risk is lacking.

Most of the thinking, he says, is based on cherry-picked evidence.

"You have to look at all of the evidence together and take all of the research — that which agrees with you and that which doesn't," says Carroll. "And when you do that, for so many of these foods, the evidence base behind proclamations that they're dangerous for you become very weak."

"There's really no evidence that almost any of these big changes we've made have made a significant dent or improved our lives in any way." 

There is one nutrient Dr. Carroll won't defend: sugar. (
The evidence against [sugar] is pretty conclusive.- Dr. Aaron Carroll

Artificial sweetener over added sugar

While Carroll challenges most of the popular thinking around unhealthy eating, there is one nutrient that he won't defend. 

"Added sugars are related pretty significantly to being overweight, to higher rates of heart disease, and even to death," he says. "The evidence against it is pretty conclusive."

That's why Carroll advocates for choosing drinks with artificial sweetener over those with added sugar. 

For his New York Times column challenging the evidence against artificial sweeteners, Carroll says he was the subject of intense backlash. 

"Commenters were questioning why my medical licence hadn't been taken away, why my children hadn't been removed from me because I let them drink diet soda once in a while."

"We're not very good at nuance," says Carroll.

"When it comes to food, too often we only focus on the danger."

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Donya Ziaee.