The importance of diet quality: Why not all foods are created equal
July 1, 2021
When we’re looking to improve our health, it’s easy to become trapped by thinking that individual foods, or indeed meals, can cause poor health.
Have you ever felt guilty about enjoying that second slice of birthday cake, or heard your friends complaining that they are “cutting carbs” in a bid to lose a few pounds? You are not alone.
The refreshing truth is that overall diet quality is a much more reliable indicator of health than focusing on individual meals or foods.
What’s the deal with diet quality?
Diet quality is a term used by nutrition professionals to describe the overall pattern of an individual’s food intake. Rather than focusing on individual foods, meals, or macronutrients, overall diet quality takes a step back and is a measure recorded over many weeks and months.
But why is it important?
Diet quality is an important metric in nutritional research as it is used to investigate links between an overall dietary pattern in a population and the risk of diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular disease, Obesity, and some cancers.
On an individual level, taking the focus off specific foods allows room for flexibility in our diet. It enables us to enjoy times of celebration and relaxation - when meals may be less nutrient-dense, or more frequent than normal - without feeling guilty. It’s no longer necessary to scrutinize each meal as we can consider the bigger picture and the overall pattern of our diet.
When we stop demonizing individual foods or food groups, we are released from the burden and pressure of restrictive diets.
Want to discover what's possible with ZOE's scientific analysis of your body's responses to food? Start here.
Not all carbs are created equal
Over the last few years, it has become increasingly popular to cut out, or at least cut back, on carbs. However, carbohydrates are the chosen energy source for our brain, and they provide our bodies with readily available fuel. Many carbohydrate-rich foods also contain other important nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
However, research suggests that low-quality carbs from processed foods high in added sugars represent more than 40% of our daily calories. When we instead choose high-quality carbs from whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, we not only enjoy a greater variety of foods but also many health benefits (like increased fiber!) that help support a happy and healthy microbiome.
Find out more about carbohydrates, fat, and protein here.
In defense of fats
It’s a similar story with fats. Historically, we have been told that fat, and saturated fat, in particular, is bad for our health. Indeed, eating high levels of saturated fat has been linked to raised LDL cholesterol levels and an increased chance of developing atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
However, we now recognize that it’s not as simple as labeling a particular food as good or bad - and this can be very misleading. For example, despite the high saturated fat content, full-fat dairy products may help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
There are many different types of fats, and they form an important part of overall diet quality. Avocados and nuts are rich in monounsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL cholesterol. Oily fish and rapeseed oil contain a readily available supply of essential omega-3 fatty acids, which our bodies are not able to easily make on their own. By labeling an entire food group as “bad”, there is the potential to miss out on a host of health benefits.
Learn more about the best sources of seafood in our expert article.
Plant by name, not by nature
At the moment, there is a real movement towards plant-based diets, which for many epitomize the definition of health and wellbeing. And while it is true that enjoying a wide variety of plants - nuts, seeds, grains, fruits, and vegetables - is associated with positive health outcomes including a well-populated microbiome, not all plant-based foods can boast the same merits.
Findings from one of our latest papers suggest that diets that rely on highly processed plant foods were associated with higher numbers of “bad” microbes. So it seems that it’s not quite as black and white as we first thought.
Tips to improve overall diet quality
It’s no secret that enjoying a wide variety of plants will make your microbes very happy; our research backs this up. Equally, replacing highly processed and refined carbohydrates with whole grains is a great way to increase your fiber and keep your blood sugar levels stable.
But we also understand that we are all unique - and our bodies respond differently to different types of food. The magic lies in understanding how to make all foods work for you.
Our at-home test kit can help you to understand your body’s unique responses to food. Using these results, you'll discover the foods that work best for your body, rather than the latest fad. Rather than focusing on restriction, we'll teach you how to build better meals - including foods that you love - that can help you feel satisfied for longer.