1. Your cycle
  2. Lifestyle
  3. Diet and nutrition

Flo Fact-Checking Standards

Every piece of content at Flo Health adheres to the highest editorial standards for language, style, and medical accuracy. To learn what we do to deliver the best health and lifestyle insights to you, check out our content review principles.

Unhealthy Eating Habits and the Dangers They Pose

Flo continues its interview with Dr. Eric Rimm, Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Previously, we discussed good eating habits, the risks of skipping breakfast, and understanding supermarket food labels. Today, we'll focus on how to overcome unhealthy eating habits.

Which eating habits to change and how to do it?

One of the things we study is how people decide what to choose at the supermarket. 

It's easy to say, "Well, I want to buy fruit and vegetables. They're healthy," or" I want to buy frozen fish, I know that's healthy". 

But then you turn into the aisle with lots of processed foods. They can be sweets, meat, or other food products that require food manufacturers to spend a lot of time processing to make your brain think they taste good. 

That's why my first tip is...

1. Make a list before you go grocery shopping

It's important to know what you're going to buy before walking into the store and then sticking to it. I practice this habit because I know how easy it is to buy unhealthy food items if I see or smell them if I don't have a list. 

2. Change your eating behaviors

I think eating is based a great deal on behavior. What we eat now is largely tied to what we ate as children and what makes us feel good. 

Learning healthy behaviors is as important as knowing which foods to eat and what's in them. This is a great tip for parents shopping for themselves or their kids. 

Of course, when you're shopping for kids, the natural inclination is to make them happy. That often translates into buying them sweets. But getting your 6-year-old kids sweets drives home the message that they need to have three snacks a day or two sweets a day. Sweets are meant to be something you have once in a while. They're not really meant to be eaten twice a day. 

3. Choose healthy snacks

Snacking is what leads to weight gain for most people these days. Generally speaking, people know what's healthy and unhealthy. But it's the snacks that come between meals or meal add-ons, like French fries or large beverages — where a lot of calories can be found. 

Snacking can be a good thing. You can have an apple or a hand full of nuts, for example. A snack like this, in the middle of the morning at 10 o'clock, leads you to eat less at lunch because you feel less hungry. When it comes time to have your next meal, you most likely feel that you don't need to eat that much because of the snack you had. 

4. Teach yourself to know when you're full 

It's important to learn how to identify when you're full so you know when to stop eating.  This applies to a meal or to snacks. Unfortunately, for many people the signal to your brain that you are full comes too slowly. Thus, you can overeat a meal or snacks and then an hour later, it hits you: “I ate too much, I'm really full”. 

That's why I feel it's important to think about this when you are eating. Not only should you think about how full your stomach feels, but also think about how much you have eaten. Learn from your past mistakes and remember that if you felt too full last time you ate this meal, this time have a little less or don’t have the dessert at the end of the meal.  The same applies to eating snacks.

Is it harmful to eat junk food once in a while? 

Saying ‘I'm not going to eat pizza again' really feels like you're depriving yourself of something. I think eating junk food occasionally is okay. 

However, if you look at countries like China or India, or very large countries going through an economic transition, their populations start experiencing weight gain once the big fast food restaurants become more popular. 

I'm not saying that fast food establishments are solely to blame, but they do offer unhealthy food at a relatively low cost, which can be very enticing to people to eat too frequently. 

Don't eat it every night and don't go from McDonald's to Pizza Hut to Kenntucky Fried Chicken. You can spread out your junk food intake over the course of the month. But if you have it four times a week, that's too much.

Think about what pizza is made from. Pizza dough is white bread made from highly processed grain. Top that with cheese, which contains a lot of saturated fat, and tomato sauce, which sometimes has a great deal of added sugar. Many people then top that with processed meat. This should be a once in a while food, not 3 times a week food.

You can make pizza relatively healthy or you can make it unhealthy. I think choosing wisely by having a small slice of pizza with vegetables for toppings is definitely okay to have every now and then.

Don't eat it every night and don't go from McDonald's to Pizza Hut to Kenntucky Fried Chicken. You can spread out your junk food intake over the course of the month. But if you have it four times a week, that's too much. 

Basically, I think having pizza or other fast foods occasionally is nice. It's also a good idea to learn how to make it at home using whole grain instead of just plain white pizza dough. Learning how to make healthier food at home can be fun, and that makes the food just a little more enjoyable.

Let's talk about drinking alcohol. How much is too much and is there such a thing as a healthy amount of alcohol?

This is the trickiest issue that I've researched. Drinking presents challenges to many people in the United States, but also globally. 

Alcohol is unlike any other item we consume. Here's one way to look at it. There aren't too many people who consume too much fish or eat way too much pizza. Other foods generally don't cause the same kind of extreme addiction problems or overconsumption. 

If you look at all the consumables available to us, alcohol is clearly the one thing that causes the most damage to society, physical health, families, and even personal finances. 

As a parent, you really have to be careful. We don't really know why is it that a 10-year-old who doesn't drink alcohol can start drinking at 16 and then develop serious problems when they reach 25 or 30. 

We don’t know exactly what causes this transition in some people but not others. The roots lie in various areas: behavior, culture, genetics. There are all sorts of reasons. 

The research we've done, studying hundreds of thousands of people, indicates that people who consume one to two drinks a day — depending on your size and weight, and whether you're male or female — live longer than people who drink a lot more or people who do not drink at all. That's what the science shows. 

If you don't drink now, I wouldn't suggest that you start. There are lots of other ways you can stay healthy for the rest of your life. Eating right, exercising, or having a strong family and friend structure around you. All those things are important, so I do not recommend starting to drink. 

However, you should make healthy alcohol choices. If you like to have a glass of wine or a can of beer occasionally, and you have one serving four or five times a week, I can tell you that you probably shouldn't stop, because those people tend to live the longest. 

They have much lower rates of heart disease, lower risk of stroke, and lower risk of developing diabetes. 

I definitely don't think you should drink several portions every night. That's more alcohol than necessary. So drink in moderation and be mindful of your habits.

Which alcoholic beverages are healthier than others? 

Yes, wine is good. There's a big marketing push for wine in the United States, with a lot of money going towards advertising. 

Everybody thought red wine was the only way to reap wine's benefits. Red wine does have some polyphenols in it, but the amount is very small compared to what you get from fruits, vegetables, and other foods. So, that's not a reason to drink only red wine. 

The biological effects of wine come from the alcohol. That's the same alcohol you find in beer, wine,  vodka, or gin. 

If you have a standard serving, you imbibe the same amount of alcohol. So, I don't think one beverage is better or worse than others. Sometimes people have vodka with something else in it, a mixer. In the US, people drink a lot of Rum and Cokes or Gin and Tonics. 

The mixer sometimes has a lot of added sugar.  In some ways, you have to be careful about what else is in your drink.  Thus, the gin or the vodka is likely just as beneficial as a glass of red wine if you have several drinks a week, but it is not as good if you have it with coke or tonic water every time. 

 Another thing to be mindful of is the speed at which you drink. Sometimes people have a shot of vodka. They put it to their lips and down it in one go. That's probably not as good as slowly sipping wine or slowly drinking a beer. Drinking quickly could lead to overconsumption and much high blood levels of alcohol, so speed is important. Slow down, enjoy the drink!

To answer the question, it doesn't make a difference what you drink. Just be mindful of how often you drink, how fast you drink, and what you drink your beverage with.

There are a lot of these diseases. The easiest one to see initially is weight gain. Many of the things we study — diabetes, heart disease, many different types of cancer, and other chronic diseases — usually start with some aspect of weight gain. 

What causes weight gain? One thing is eating too much. Even if you're on the healthiest of diets, when you eat too much, you gain weight. 

It can be hard to keep track of all your meals on a daily basis or write down how many calories you consume. But I think it's important to at least remember portion sizes. Even if your food's healthy, have modest portions to avoid overeating. 

An important question to ask yourself is whether the food in front of you is true nutrition or just highly processed products that food manufacturers frame as food.

Some overeating is driven by messages from your brain that you are hungry. This is due in part to the brain’s need for glucose to function properly. Your body very quickly absorbs highly processed carbohydrates, from things like white rice, white bread, or other highly processed grains. 

If you eat food with added sugar, processed flour or drink a soda, the glucose is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream. The brain recognizes that a lot of sugar is circulating in the bloodstream and looks for a way to moderate blood levels.  

As a result, it produces a high volume of insulin to absorb the glucose into muscle or organs. Typically, because hyper levels of glucose in the bloodstream are dangerous, and even cause you to pass out, the body overcompensates and produces too much insulin. the resulting excess in insulin eventually causes you to be hungry again after you over absorb glucose. 

So having glucose-laden white bread, white rice, or soda for lunch leads your brain to tell your body it's time to eat again a few hours later, even though your body doesn't need the calories. 

An important question to ask yourself is whether the food in front of you is true nutrition or just highly processed products that food manufacturers frame as food.

That's why I think it's crucial to limit the amount of processed foods you consume as much as possible, especially if it's processed grain. If the first ingredient on the product label is wheat, but it doesn't say ‘whole wheat', it's overly processed. Processed grain has all the nutrients stripped out, leaving only the wheat's sugars. This is what causes your brain to give the signal to over produce insulin, then over absorb the sugars and finally to send hunger pangs a few hours later to eat again. The consequences of this vicious cycle over many years leads to obesity, diabetes and other serious health conditions. 

Other things we've looked at that are perhaps not so obvious are related to eating meat.

Some meat products, like bacon or sausage, can be highly processed. I urge people to steer clear of eating processed meat very often, because besides concerns about the long-term health of the planet with over production of meat, there is real concern about processed meat long-term causing elevated cancer risk. 

The World Health Organization has placed processed meat in the same category as smoking cigarettes in terms of concerns over cancer risks. That's a strong signal that this should not be part of your daily diet.

Alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer 

Middle-aged women who have one alcoholic beverage a day are susceptible to an increased risk of breast cancer. But I hate to scare people, which is why I tried not to give advice about alcohol because we know that women who drink a drink a day also tend to live longer. 

I think you just have to live your life in moderation. I realize this can be difficult since it's easier to think about what you want to have for your next meal or what you want to drink when you are with friends rather than the potential risks 20 or 30 years from now.   

Thus, I usually do not tell women that they should stop drinking if they are a moderate drinker. If you are at very high risk of breast cancer because of a family history or due to other risk factors, then you may want to have less – say only a few drinks a week.

You can still enjoy an occasional drink without feeling the need to abstain for life. Moderate alcohol among women does strongly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Just always remember, if you do drink, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly is very important.  

Revisiting topics from above

But let's go back to processed grains and meats. Remember what I said about concerns about eating too much process grains because of the way your body absorbs the sugars? That story applies to some fruits and vegetables too. Fruits and vegetables are almost always a healthy alternative, but one item in this category where we don't find benefits, and sometimes see risk, is around potatoes and corn. In many countries these are included in the definition of vegetables even though potatoes are technically tubers are corn is a grain.  

I'm not going to be anti-potato, necessarily, although recently I did get a little too much media attention when I went viral for negative things I said about French fries.

Corn and potatoes are actually a lot like white bread. When they hit your tongue, they release starch, which is present in both. Starch is just a bunch of glucose molecules put together that break apart very quickly. That's why potatoes and corn taste a little sweet. The enzymes in your mouth are already breaking down the starch into sugars to absorb it. 

Potatoes, like soda, gets absorbed very quickly into your bloodstream. So, if you only eat potatoes for vegetables, you will eventually experience weight gain, as well as an increased risk of diabetes. 

Try to eat fruits and vegetables with colors to get more nutritional benefits, while limiting your intake of potatoes and corn. 

If you’ve missed the first portion of Professor’s recommendations, you can find them here

Read this next