Written by Astrid Naranjo (Clean Health Accredited Clinical Dietitian)
Are there good and bad foods?
The short answer is… Single food items or single nutrients aren’t inherently good or bad for health.
Now, the idea that some foods are inherently good while others are inherently bad has unfortunately become a well-accepted belief under the society’s health and nutrition view. But, what does it mean to talk about a food as being good or bad? How can you tell if the food you are eating is good or bad? Is it useful or even conceivable to think about foods as being good or bad?
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Naming or labelling a food as good or bad seems to be usually justified on the basis of the nutritional quality of that particular food and/or how the components of that food may contribute to or affect a person’s health. While at first glance this may make some sense, there are important issues with this approach.
First of all, the literature on the health impact of any particular food or single nutrient is extremely limited. Most of the information that have been collected to date on the relationship of individual foods to health comes from studies that look at the diets and the incidence of disease in large populations over extended periods of time. Extrapolating this data to the effect of specific/single foods on individuals may be an extremely inaccurate science at best (1-3).
When actual experimental data are available on specific foods, it is often from studies in which animals are fed these foods in ultra-larger amounts/quantities than what is considered “normal” consumption for humans. Once again, extrapolating results of such studies to humans is likely questionable(1-3).
Also, research and people’s interpretation of what the actual literature suggests about how foods, or specific components of food, relate to our health is constantly changing, being updated and/or evolving.
Remember just a few years ago when all fats were considered to be bad? Then it was only saturated fats that were bad, then only some saturated fats. Most recently the villain du jour is trans fats. Carbohydrates, on the other hand what we were supposed to be eating instead of the bad fats were considered good. But now, only a few years later, they aren’t that bad. But not all carbohydrates are bad. Sugars are particularly bad. But some sugars are better than others; sucrose is not as bad as fructose, and so on and so forth.
Nonetheless, when all foods are put into a continuum, all foods have a nutritional value. Single nutrients “macros” have essential roles in the diet.
If something is a nutrient, then by definition it will have nutritional value and will be needed by the body for essential functions.
It’s important to consider the context. In reality, whether a food adds to or subtracts from a person’s health is always relative; that is, the healthiness or unhealthiness of a specific food cannot be determined without considering the context of when, how and why that food is consumed.
For example, a pizza or a cake may be labelled as unhealthy when taken into a context of a metabolically unhealthy person, with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (and if eaten in excessive amounts and consistently), because they are likely to get no benefit from these types of foods. However, these same foods happened to be provided to a malnourished person whose appetite is so low, that these foods may be actually great options specially since they are energy dense and highly palatable.
Unfortunately, eating healthy “good foods” has become almost a religion, and it has become almost sinful to eat those foods on the latest bad food list. Indeed, foods are regularly talked about in moralistic terms, as when a weight loss company markets their low fat pizza as pizza without guilt or a fast food chain claims that their sandwiches are good, so you don’t have to be.
On top of this, it is important to reflect on the psychological aspect of attaching ethical value to food, because this also attaches guilt when consuming “bad” foods, which affects person’s ability to enjoy food within the context of moderation and balance.
Most times, one small bite of “bad” food may be turned into a complete binge, just because a black-and-white label to foods were attached, there was no room for moderation. Thus, consuming any of the “bad” foods has more likelihood to trigger an all-or-nothing response. Therefore, that type of message tend to lead to restriction, and food restriction can often become a sign of disordered eating (6).
Obviously, overconsumption of any individual food is probably not healthy in the long run, but this certainly does not make any of these foods inherently bad. Almost anything taken to the extreme can be dangerous. While oxygen is absolutely essential for human survival, breathing air with too much oxygen in it can be very fatal (5).
Similarly, while no one would argue about the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, eating only fruits and vegetables would make for a boring and unhealthy diet (ironically, recent research indicates that people who follow vegan diets may actually have an increased risk of heart disease due to lowered vitamin B12 concentrations and elevated homocysteine levels) (4).
This is why it’s so important to use a form of eating that does not attach labels to food and instead focuses on sustainability.
There are no good or bad foods.
Some foods have more calories than others, and some have less. Some have more sugar, and some have less.
Some have more fat, and some have less. None of these make foods inherently good or bad, but rather they must be considered in the context of the entire day’s intake and caloric “budget.”
Referring to foods as good or bad is not truly justified by literature and only contributes to an underlying lack of peace and unhealthy relationship with foods. There are lots of different foods, with different textures, colours, smells, tastes, and nutritional composition. The bottom line is that there really are no bad foods with the possible exception of the green stuff we may find growing in the back of our refrigerators during the semi-annual cleaning. Yuck! Now that is bad food!
- Byers T. The role of epidemiology in developing nutritional recommendations: past, present, and future. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999;69(suppl):1340S-8S.
- Ambika Satija, Edward Yu, Walter C Willett, Frank B Hu, Understanding Nutritional Epidemiology and Its Role in Policy, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 6, Issue 1, January 2015, Pages 5–18, https://doi.org/10.3945/an.114.007492
- Nutritional Epidemiology. Section of Nutrients (ISSN 2072-6643). Available: https://www.mdpi.com/journal/nutrients/sections/Nutritional_Epidemiology
- Herrmann W, Schorr H, Obeid R, Geisel J. Vitamin B-12 status, particularly holotranscobalamin II and methylmalonic acid concentrations and hyperhomocysteinemia in vegetarians. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003;78(1):131-136.
- Ballatyne, Coco. Strange, but true: Drinking too much water can kill. Scientific American. June 21, 2007. 3 August, 2013.
Hauser, Annie. Are anti-“obesity” programs causing eating disorders?. Everyday Health. January 27, 2012. 3 August 2013.