Are we asking the wrong question?
This is a much nuanced topic that I come into contact with multiple times per day, as humans we are conditioned to classify and qualify everything, giving things labels and grouping them together, it helps make us feel in control. Ironically, when we do this with foods, the opposite happens and in most cases it will simply leave you fearing every food choice you make, wondering if what you are eating is taking days off your life, or adding inches to your waistline. The short answer, for those who dislike reading, is that there are neither good foods nor bad foods as such; it’s all a matter of context.
Let’s take for example, white pasta, sweet potato and 40g of cornflakes, if we control for portion sizing, which one is better? Is it fair or even useful to look at foods like this? Out of the 3 options, the pasta would have slightly more protein, and the sweet potato would have more fibre, but the cornflakes would probably be fortified with a lot of vitamins. Each has their strengths. When we have a bowl of pasta, it is common to add oils, sauces, meats and consume with bread and maybe a dessert. If you have a sweet potato, odds are you have quite a large portion, and you may decide to fill it with some cheese and bacon, and have some meat and vegetables with it. The cornflakes, you can add milk. Are any of these bad? Let’s discuss.
If weight loss is your goal, which it is for most people, the main thing you need to look at is your calorie balance during the day, that is the most important thing, and the only thing that actually matters. Yes, we get bogged down in metabolism, fat burning foods, fad diets and dietary modification, however, the fact remains that behind all that, it is calories in versus calories out, it is the first law of thermodynamics, it is as true as the fact that gravity keeps your feet on the ground. If it were breakfast time, the cornflakes would probably be a better option than the other two choices, simply because it’s a breakfast food, use semi-skimmed milk and you are all good. If it were lunch time, the sweet potato would be a good choice, bake one medium potato and stuff it with some low fat cottage cheese and chicken, have it with a side salad, and then you have yourself a good and balanced meal! At dinnertime, opt for the pasta, don’t have bread with it, take it easy on the oils/pesto and try bulk up the dish with veg rather than meat, and that’s dinner. If your confused as to why I didn’t discuss how any of the above were bad options, it’s because they are not and I was making a point, all foods can have a place in your diet, as long as stick with portion sizing, go low fat when you can, include some healthy fats and vegetables, then the individual food item you are worried about, becomes more or less irrelevant.
If I take 11 g of oil, 5 teaspoons of honey or a 25g scoop of protein powder, which all have 100 calories roughly speaking of fat, sugars and protein respectively, NONE OF THESE are any more fattening than the other. Note that oils and fat rich foods are more calorie dense, but it is calories that matter. Does that mean that having some olive oil, avocado and nuts is bad? No, it is very necessary for baseline health to get your fats in. So, we can now stop classing foods as good or bad based on their fat content, we simply know we need less high fat/high calorie food for weight maintenance.
The “bad stuff”
Let’s go for a taboo topic, chocolate, croissants, pastries etc. I assume these may be a source of dread, anxiety or even guilt for you, but they don’t have to be. I put “junk food” on EVERY ONE OF MY CLIENT’S plans, EVERY DAY. Let that sink in, elite athletes, professional athletes, some of the fittest people in the world, see here for a sample, they eat junk food every day. There is a condition to this however, and it is the portion. In strict clinical guidelines, and using all the guidelines and world health organisation points, a nutritionist or dietitian may tempted to tell you to avoid all the foods you like, however in real life, with real people, who have real feelings and urges, this doesn’t work. If chocolate is something you hold dear to you, you can 3-4 squares per day, and it doesn’t have to be dark chocolate either (which I personally think tastes like Monday morning). Croissants and pastries are a little harder to get around, as they have very high fat and calorie contents, however, I would say two-three per week is fine. Let’s do a dogmatic exercise, with junk foods, or “bad foods”, a small portion is okay, and for the beneficial mental effect, ability to enjoy your diet, and the added likelihood of you sticking to a healthier eating pattern, I consider it good!
So, if we all agree that a small portion of chocolate is good, does that mean a bigger portion is better, and a huge portion is absolutely fantastic? No, not even close, for reasons I hope are obvious. Let’s look at it in another light, broccoli, the well-respected green vegetable, including a few florets of this in your daily diet is super good for you, but if getting some is good, surely that means in this case, that eating a whole head a day for example, could probably cure death? No, not even close. In fact, eating too much fibre will make you constipated, give you gas, stomach cramps, and nausea, and if you have IBS or any gastric condition, will ruin your day. I wanted to include examples of the importance of portion control, for both foods you view as healthy and unhealthy. Just to reiterate, eating lots of chocolate, and having it at every meal, would be bad for you, and you would likely gain weight, have pretty bad cholesterol and maybe poor control of your blood sugar, and you would always be hungry, that doesn’t mean you can’t have it, it just means stick to a small portion, and enjoy it! If you ate broccoli at every meal, which may not be ideal, for the reasons mentioned above, that doesn’t mean you should eat no broccoli.
The “very bad” stuff
One last point I want to touch on, is the way we pathologize foods, and relate them to diseases. I deal with diabetics Monday through Friday, and the advice for them is to monitor their carb & fruit portions and to eat little and often, it is similar to normal healthy eating. Diabetics are advised to opt for wholegrain options where possible, to better control their blood glucose, this is where some confusion arises, and “does that mean white bread will give me diabetes?” I hear you ask. No, it simply means that a diabetic requires extra steps and care to regulate how quickly sugars from meals transfuse into their blood. A perfectly healthy person will not get huge blood sugar spikes, or diabetes, if they eat some white bread, note I am not saying to eat white bread, I am making a point, wholemeal is better for you, but white bread isn’t bad or dangerous. A similar thing is seen with protein intake and kidney disease, a lot of the studies that “show” that protein shakes and higher protein intakes are bad for you, came to their conclusion via studying high protein intake effects on people who had existing kidney disease, which can be made worse by intaking large protein amounts. This does not mean that a healthy person consuming a higher protein diet should expect to develop kidney disease, that isn’t how it works. A quick tip, if anyone tells you to avoid “that one specific food” or to “eat these foods to stop this disease”, they are liars, wasting your time and making food more confusing than it needs to be.
To summarize, most of the things you worry about relating to foods make almost no difference. No foods are really off the table, you can eat healthily, balanced and still have the things you like the most, and still hit your goals! Pay attention to portion control, include your veg, your fruits and eat little & often. If you have a specific condition, you should seek my help or the help of a dietitian, or if you are someone who is plagued by food guilt, anxiety or simply no longer know what is okay to eat or not, come see me and book a consultation or sign up to the online coaching service, details of all and a sign up pathway are available here, or follow me rant in a similar fashion on my social media platforms, both here and here.