Surprises found on list of 'bad foods'

Rolled oats, dried fruit and nuts spring to mind when considering the main ingredients of a common muesli bar, but a group of University of Otago researchers want alarm bells to ring instead.

The snack has made it on to a list of 49 foods people should avoid, putting it alongside alcohol, doughnuts and pies.

The list of non-essential, energy-dense, nutritionally deficient (NEEDNT) foods has been compiled during the past two years by Dr Jane Elmslie, Dr Ria Schroder, Dr Frances Carter and Prof Doug Sellman, researchers from the university's Christchurch and Dunedin campuses.

The list, published in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal, was developed to help obese people more easily identify foods which were best avoided, or limited, in a healthy diet.

Along with naming the generic foods, the research suggested a healthier replacement, or none at all.

It was hoped the list would also be a useful tool for medical practitioners and other health professionals working with people who wanted to lose weight.

Lead author and dietitian Dr Elmslie said it was aimed at "differentiating nutritious foods from those that are just high in calories".

"Many people struggle to know what to eat if they have a weight problem.

The advice out there is often complicated and contradictory. It can be quite difficult to understand the relevance of health-related product endorsements and the information on food labels."

Examples included labelling foods high in sugar "low-fat" or implying they were healthy because they had "organic" or "natural" ingredients.

Even foods which had the Heart Foundation tick may just be the best option in a category of typically high-calorie foods such as ice cream, pies and oven chips.

With 63% of New Zealanders either obese or overweight, there was an urgent need for new strategies or guidelines to deal with the growing issue, the researchers believed.

A New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey, released last year, showed 69% of males and 60.6% of females were overweight or obese.

Compared with the 37% of New Zealanders who were considered overweight, 34% were normal weight.

"Reducing consumption of NEEDNT food is an important health priority. We are not advocating this as a magic bullet for everyone ... it is a tool. It's important that what you eat is nutritious," Dr Elmslie said.

However, this is not simply another list of of high-calorie foods, because the foods are also either bereft of nutritional benefits, or could easily be replaced with lower-calorie, more nutritious alternatives.

Some foods to make the list were orange juice, honey and muesli bars, which surprised a group of research participants.

"Muesli bars are a classic example of how overweight people can be misled into thinking they're eating healthy food.

"In fact, most muesli bars are high in calories, and fat and sugar, with minimal nutritional value. Essentially they are another form of biscuit," Dr Elmslie said.

Fruit juice was on the list because, while it contained more essential nutrients than soft drink, its sugar content was similar, and it was much higher in energy and lower in essential nutrients than whole fruit.

Honey was often thought to be healthy because it was natural, but it contained a high amount of sugar.

Whole milk also made the list because, while it was a valuable source of calcium and protein, it was a significant source of energy and saturated fat, and could be replaced by low-fat milk without having a detrimental effect on overall nutrition, except in the very young.

Dr Schroder said while simply avoiding NEEDNT foods was unlikely to be an effective weight-loss strategy, knowing the specific foods could help people think more carefully about whether what they ate was "nutritious and necessary, or just random recreational grazing".

These were foods of which people should be mindful if they were wanting to lose weight.

The list was used in conjunction with 25 people in a support group looking at ways of achieving permanent weight loss through lifestyle change.

The group "overwhelmingly" appreciated how clear and easy the list was to use.

"It gives them something tangible to think about," Dr Schroder said. 

Foods to avoid

- ellie.constantine@odt.co.nz

 

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