Mark Bittman and doctor David L. Katz patiently answer pretty much every question we could think of about healthy food.

If I want to lose weight, should I eat less? And if I eat less, will my metabolism really slow down?
If you starve yourself, yes. And if you lose weight, yes, because a smaller body burns fewer calories than a larger one. The effects tend to be modest, however, unless the weight loss is extreme. You can compensate with exercise, and building some muscle, both of which increase your metabolic rate.

What kinds of foods do you think will help support weight loss?
Wholesome, whole, unprocessed plant foods in particular. And, any food you eat while riding in the Tour de France.

What should I care about on nutrition labels? Calories, fat grams, or sugar grams?
The best foods don’t even have labels, because they are just one ingredient: avocado, lentils, blueberries, broccoli, almonds, etc.

Okay, sure. But what about the ones with labels?
When foods do have labels, look for a short ingredient list of things you recognize as actual food. If the ingredients are wholesome, the nutrient profile will be fine. If the ingredient list is dubious — chemicals, various kinds of added sugar, questionable oils, sodium, and so on — the nutrient profile will be, too. It is really the overall nutritional quality of the food, rather than any one nutrient, that matters. For help getting it right, that even an 8-year-old can use.

What about intermittent fasting? Is that actually effective for better gut health and energy levels? 
It’s “effective” relative to doing nothing.

I can eat how I want and then just occasionally fast to “reset” my diet?
No. Fasting is not more effective than limiting calorie intake every day. Fasting is away to control average, daily food intake — but not the only way. If it works for you, it’s a reasonable option, but it does not involve any magic.

Can I just eat the same thing every day?
Yes, that’s quite reasonable. Variety over time is important to the quality of a diet, but that can be concentrated at dinner if you prefer. So, for instance, how about whole grains (hot or cold), mixed fruits, and nuts for breakfast — every day? Then, how about a salad, soup, or stew of mixed vegetables and beans or lentils for lunch? And then for dinner, a wholesome variety of choices.

Is there really such a thing as a superfood?
If the idea is that a superfood will do super things, then no.

Yeah, except for quinoa, right? Which is magical or something.
No single food, separate from the overall quality and pattern of diet, exerts a major health effect. If your diet is excellent, no single food will be responsible for the benefits. If your diet is terrible, no single food will compensate.

If “super” means the nutrient profile rather than the effects of a food, then … okay: A food that has an especially high ratio of many valuable nutrients relative to calories, and a very low amount of any detrimental nutrients like sugar or saturated fat could be called “super.” But this would not just pertain to exotic berries from neighboring solar systems. This would apply to foods like spinach, broccoli, blueberries, chickpeas, pinto beans, lentils, kale, peaches, or walnuts.

What about avocados? Are they bad for you or good for you? Everyone says they’re full of fat, but that it’s “good” fat.
Think of avocados as you do nuts: They’re “good for you” but with limits. One a day is certainly fine. Their nutrient profile is great, with fat that’s a lot like the fat in olives.

Which is good fat?
Yes.

Which is different from “bad” fat.
Yes.

So what’s the difference between good fat and bad fat? I’ve heard I need to avoid saturated fat.
In the diet, what really matters most is balance. Saturated fat, for instance, is bad not because it is “bad” — there is some in even highly nutritious foods — but because we get too much of it. And too much is bad.

How do I get that fat balance?
To get the right balance of fats in our diet, with an emphasis on a mix of polyunsaturated fats, omega-6, omega-3, and monounsaturated fats, we need a balance of foods. Get the “right” fats from nuts, seeds, olives, avocado, and seafood, and use the best cooking oils: extra virgin olive oil tops that list. To avoid an excess, limit the intake of foods high in saturated fat. That includes most meats, and full-fat dairy. And all junk food is suspect for all sorts of reasons.

What about animal fats like lard or tallow? They’re natural so they must be good, right?
All fat sources are a mix of different fatty acids; almost all fats and oils contain a mix of fat varieties: saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. Lard is almost 40 percent saturated fat; and tallow is more than 50 percent saturated. That’s a lot.

Since the world’s best diets consistently derive 10 percent or less of their calories from saturated fat, raising the average amount of saturated fat in your diet makes no sense. And there are other factors: Unlike oils that are predominantly unsaturated, such as olive oil, there is no evidence of a health benefit from lard or tallow.

Olive oil. Got it. That one I knew. 

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