A doctor holding kale

Credit: Photos by Anastasiia Sapon, styled by Jillian Knox

More than a dozen experts weighed in on happy and healthy eating as part of UCSF Magazine's 2019 summer issue. It's a treasure trove of tips you can check out here (the UCSF Guide to Healthy and Happy Eating), and we decided to excerpt a few for you below. Bon appétit!

1. Start with skepticism

We all want easy answers, but nutrition science is an imperfect and evolving field. The food research in our newsfeeds is often overhyped and misinterpreted or skewed by human error, scientific bias, and weak methodology. And when it is wrong, the stakes are high.

Take the ’80s advice to follow a low-fat diet. It triggered a billion-dollar industry of low-fat, high-sugar food with little nutritional value (remember SnackWell’s cookies?) and contributed to a public health crisis marked by skyrocketing rates of diabetes. “Telling people to follow a low-fat diet without paying attention to what was in that diet was one of the worst public health mistakes of the last 30 years,” says Frederick Hecht, M.D., the Osher Foundation Professor and director of research at the UC San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. “We as a field have made huge mistakes. We need to better convey the limitations of current science when providing advice.”

Our best advice to you: Take every piece of nutrition advice with a grain of salt.

“You have to be very cautious of applying animal studies of nutrition in humans. Mice and rats don’t have the same metabolic system that humans do,” says Frederick Hecht. If the subjects are human, you’ve found the gold standard of nutrition research.

2. Beware the Buzzwords

“It’s not that all supplements are bad. It’s just that there are no protections in place at the moment to inform the consumer one way or the other.”
—Joanna Hellmuth, M.D., MHS

Companies excel at using healthy-sounding but meaningless buzzwords to get you to buy their products. They know this “health halo” can trick our brains into thinking their products are better for us than they really are. Of course, the best way to avoid this deception is to skip packaged foods altogether. But if you must buy the box or bottle, look for the facts behind the hype.

Skip the supplements?

Supplements are big business. But unless you know you have a specific nutritional deficiency, supplements could be doing more harm than good. We just don’t know.

Unlike prescription medications, the FDA has few regulations for supplement manufacturers. In fact, supplements are considered safe by the FDA until proven otherwise.

Three illustrations with supplements facts

3. Treat food as medicine

More than half of Americans are on at least one prescription medication, and most of our homes are bursting with over-the-counter pills, ointments, and syrups. It turns out, however, that your kitchen pantry and fridge are also key  — as long as you fill them with the right stuff.

That’s why UCSF family physician Daphne Miller, M.D., not only asks all her new patients to bring in their vitamins and prescriptions, but also dives into what she says really matters: “We talk about what they eat.”

Miller, who spent years traveling and researching the healthiest regions around the globe, wrote her first book, “The Jungle Effect,” on the traditional diets and recipes that had kept those communities healthy for generations. In the process, she came to see the dramatic link between certain diets and a striking lack of chronic diseases, including heart disease, depression, diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer.

Blueberries tumbling into a pill bottle

The “food-as-medicine” movement Miller represents is hardly new. But recent studies by the renowned UCSF food-policy expert Hilary Seligman, M.D., MAS ’06, and her collaborators have begun to rigorously evaluate outcomes of programs through which doctors “prescribe” increased access to healthy foods. In 2017, the UCSF team found that sick patients who got special meals for six months suffered less depression, were less likely to make trade-offs between food and health care, and were more likely to stick with their medications.

While the effectiveness of such programs needs more study, researchers from Tufts University have calculated that providing insurance coverage for healthy food to patients could prevent as many as 3.3 million cardiac conditions and save more than $100 billion in health care costs.

What’s more, the idea of fighting chronic disease through diet has already entered the mainstream. And perhaps no disease is more closely associated with “food as medicine” than cancer. According to UCSF integrative oncologist Donald Abrams, M.D., nearly half of all cancer patients pursue popular diets, such as the alkaline, Paleolithic, ketogenic, vegan, or macrobiotic regimens, in the hope of improving their survival and preventing a recurrence.

However, writing in the online journal Oncology, Abrams and his co-authors caution that these diets can introduce nutrient insufficiencies or even eliminate foods proven to be beneficial for cancer prevention and general health. They point out that most of these diets have positive aspects, but that physicians should encourage dietary changes that emphasize the positive features of these popular diets while correcting for their faults (see “Dietary Rx” below).

The bottom line? Whatever you have in your medicine cabinet, what’s on your grocery list matters, too.

Chart of different foods evaluated for their health benefits

Credit: UCSF

Ready for more? Get the full menu of tips in the UCSF Guide to Happy and Healthy Eating here.