Lifestyle diseases are rampant, obesity is an epidemic and even our skin ages much faster. Sure, levels of pollution are much higher today, as are the causes of stress, but there is something else that is contributing to our deteriorating health—the food we consume. Excessive salt and sugar; giving up on saturated fats; and including and dumping foods based on every bit of new research. In spite of information, or because of it, we are skewed about what we eat. Here are five things that most of us either consume in excess or exclude from our diet, when we should be working to consume them in moderation.

Overdoing the salt

It’s a fact that we are consuming too much salt and it is affecting our health. A study presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association in March 2013 showed that 75% of people around the world consume significantly more salt every day than is recommended. According to the researchers, we ate nearly 4,000mg of salt a day in 2010, which is twice the amount recommended by the World Health Organization.

Another report presented at the same meeting pointed out that over-consumption of salt was associated with 2.3 million deaths worldwide from heart-related causes in 2010. Huge numbers, for something we don’t really think twice about using in our food.

Viveka Kumar, director, cath lab, and senior consultant, interventional cardiology and electrophysiology, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, New Delhi, agrees. “Excess salt consumption (more than 2g per day) can lead to high blood pressure, and hence, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Unfortunately, in our diets, salt consumption has approximately doubled compared to 10-15 years back because of packaged food. I feel the biggest danger is from these hidden sources. We need to begin eating more freshly cooked food like our grandparents did," says Dr Kumar.

The wrong fats

Ever since saturated fat became a bad word, many of us started embracing vegetable oils (extracted from seeds—rapeseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower) in our attempt to cut them off totally. This skewed the balance of omega-6/omega-3 (both polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body needs) in our diet.

Research has shown for a while now that vegetable oils tend to be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammation and lifestyle disorders like diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. A 2006 study published in the journal Biomedicine And Pharmacotherapy showed that a higher omega-6/omega-3 ratio, found in today’s diets, promotes the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Whereas, a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio, or increased levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, help suppress the risk.

Plus, these vegetable oils are often hydrogenated, which makes them high in trans fats, spelling even more trouble by marking up inflammation.

We need to get back to having a little of all kinds of fat sources and not shun saturated fats completely. A March study by the University of Cambridge, UK, has come out in support of saturated fats, saying that instead of saturated fats, it is the excess carbohydrates and sugar in our diet that should be blamed for our ill health. The study was published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Consuming too much sugar

There is no doubt that we are also consuming way too much sugar. Two decades ago, most sugar consumed in urban India was “visible". “Today, it’s the hidden sugar that really adds up (in packaged juices, cereal bars, aerated drinks, processed foods, ketchup and salad dressings). Too much does not just deliver diabetes, it can hurry heart disease, grow gallstones, hasten hypertension, add arthritis, and even aggravate acne and wrinkles," says Maneesha Pandey, head, endocrinology department, Asian Institute of Medical Sciences, Faridabad.

“And those early wrinkles on your face could be because of too much sugar in the bloodstream attaching to proteins to form advanced glycation end products. This can damage the collagen and elastin (the protein fibres that keep skin firm and elastic), leading to dull skin and early ageing," says Deepali Bhardwaj, cosmetologist and skin specialist, The Skin and Hair Clinic, New Delhi. “Plus, a diet high in sugar (and fat) lags the digestive tract and burdens the skin with wastes, thus escalating wrinkles, acne and ugly cellulite," she adds.

Giving up inherently healthy foods

Many of us follow food fads to the T—new research, even if preliminary, turns our plate topsy-turvy and we adopt or give up foods way too quickly. Information is available at the touch of a button but the ability to put things in perspective is missing. Coffee becomes bad or good depending on the study. Chocolates, after facing flak for decades, are now superfood. Eggs have faced a similar fate. In fact, egg consumption was cut down, citing the cholesterol scare, whereas studies have now clarified that their consumption does not increase bad cholesterol in the body (a 2012 study published in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition And Metabolic Care). “Just think! When you give up egg yolks completely for whatever perceived benefit, aren’t you also giving up on essential fatty acids’ long chain omega-3 fatty acids, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is necessary for the brain and proper retinol function and also arachidonic acid required for healthy skin, hair, reproduction, growth and response to injury. Plus, their yellow colour is due to antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect the eye against age-related degeneration," says Reeti Kapoor, chief clinical nutritionist, Rockland Qutab hospital, New Delhi.

“Similarly now after years of confusion, we know that moderate amount of coffee has no adverse effect on our blood pressure and chocolates, again in small doses, are actually our heart’s true friend," she adds. “So my advice would be to be moderate in what you eat and don’t junk or green-light food on the basis of every new study. Don’t ignore new findings but make sure that your response is not too radical. Stick to common sense."

More refined foods

Just tick what you consume regularly: packaged cereals, white bread, white rice, pasta, cakes, biscuits, sweets, candy, pastries, pies, white flour, ready-to-eat noodles.... “Unwittingly or by choice we have continuously over the years edged out wholegrains from our diet and switched to refined foods. While wholegrains are linked to reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases, refining ups their risk considerably," says Priyanka Rohatgi, chief clinical dietitian, head, department of nutrition and dietetics, Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore.

She points to a 2011 study conducted in Chennai, and published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, which showed that the diet of the urban south Indian consisted mainly of refined cereals with low intake of fish, fruit and vegetables, and all of these could possibly contribute to the risk of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

Stick with more “whole" than refined (for example, more chapatis than bread) and cut down on processed foods, which are mostly refined.