Is _________ a healthy food? Is __________ good or bad for you?
I get asked these two questions, or a similar version, every single day. My answer used to be “it depends” but now I answer a bit differently.
The answer to any question about food being good or bad: food is food.
The Food Police
Foods are not inherently good or bad so we need to stop applying morality judgements to them. Although they seem to promote or hinder our lives and health in a number of variable ways, we need to stop looking at food via the good vs. bad framework. Like everything in life, food goes much deeper than good vs. bad and trying to categorize things in this way (as in any walk of life) is a futile exercise in reductionism and a loss of perspective, both of which get us into more trouble than anything they help solve.
Why shouldn’t we look at foods as good and bad? Because we just don’t really know if foods are good or bad due to an endless amount of situations, circumstances and conditions which can change the “label” both in an instant and as a general rule. And we certainly have no right to make a blanket statement that applies to all humans.
Did the food industry finally get to me? Have I sold out? No. I just realize everyone is different and the more we try to treat things as polar opposites instead of a continuum the more confused we all seem to get.
What influences the impact of a certain food?
The version eaten.
The amount being eaten.
The other things being eaten with it.
The last time it was eaten.
The person doing the eating.
The goals of the person.
The belief system of the person.
The situation/environment of the eating.
Every single one of these, along with countless others, play a role in the value of a food at the moment, as well as its value to a person (or people) over the long term.
Is wheat good or bad?
Is bacon good or bad?
Is spinach good or bad?
Are peaches good or bad?
Is sugar good or bad?
How about high fructose corn syrup?
What about food combos?
Baked potato with butter and chives?
Coffee with cream and sugar?
Oatmeal with brown sugar?
Sausage with sauerkraut?
Greek yogurt with berries?
Peanut butter sandwich?
Giant salad with tons of different veggies?
I could make an argument for or against any of these foods or combos and it would be based on those situational questions listed above. Are any of those foods inherently good or bad? No. Some of them make (most of) us feel better than others but nothing is absolute so we need to resist the urge to judge things via the food morality police, it simply makes it harder to have good, educated and rational conversations about individualized food choices.
Food is food. Make your decision about things based on how they fit into your life and impact your body, don’t look at foods as “good” or “bad” no matter how often you are encouraged to do so. The foods that are positive for you will reveal themselves pretty quickly, as will the ones that aren’t.
So now that I’ve made my case for leaving good/bad labels alone, here’s how I find it much more helpful to approach the impact different foods have on my health and in my life.
Foods are like people. The ones that make me feel good become friends and are a part of my life. The ones that don’t enrich or serve a purpose in my life get left alone. The people that are good genuine people are friends with lots of people, just like some foods make most people feel good. Some people have a hard time finding and keeping friends just like some foods don’t make most people feel good. However nothing is universal. Just because someone is my friend doesn’t guarantee you’ll get along with them or vise versa. Ever have a friend who has another friend you can’t stand? Food is not much different, i.e. “you have got to try these kale smoothies- they’ve changed my life!” A food that serves a purpose in my life may not serve one in yours. We all have to find our own food friends and be willing to analyze our relationships from time to time, particularly if you think it might be time to let a food friend go. We also have to be conscious to the possibility that some food friends are only situational and temporary, just like friends and acquaintances. You can be friendly with someone during a dinner party without becoming a friend permanently. Spend the majority of your time nourishing your food friends but always keep your eyes open to new friends or dropping the toxic ones.
When you meet someone, usually they have to go through a bit of a checklist or trial period before you consider them a friend. Here’s one of the ways I approach a new food friend…
– The further away from natural, the more a food has to prove itself.
– The newer a food, the more a food has to prove itself.
– The more isolated a food/nutrient, the more a food has to prove itself.
– The more advertised and promoted, the more a food has to prove itself.
– After all of that I take a step back. Do I like it or not? Even the greatest “healthy” foods often fail to become friends at this point while a few food friends are just so darn fun to hang around you forget they’ve failed the other tests.
Some foods I connect with right away, others not as much. Food “products” for instance, have the burden of proof. I don’t think of food products as bad, I think of them as new kids on the block that need to prove they’re worthy to hang out with. Over time, I see which ones I like and those are the ones that stay in my circle. The rest I choose not to spend time with and only hang out with if I have to, like if we need a few more dudes for a pickup football game or something. Ultimately, I’m not judging them good vs. bad but rather if they serve a purpose in my life.
Foods that serve a purpose in your life will enrich you, foods that don’t will bring you down. Finding your food friends is what’s important for your life and health. Trying to figure out what to eat based off other people’s ideas of food friends is a recipe for confusion and suboptimal health.
Therefore, you can make the strongest argument humanly possible against chocolate chip cookies but, in my food friend circle, they serve a very good purpose and are anything but bad for me. BFFF. Best Food Friend Forever.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. *** This concept doesn’t exist to offer an excuse to eat whatever you want and think you’re going to end up happy, it means we all have the ability and freedom to decide what foods can contribute to making you the happiest and healthiest you can be.
P.S.S. A couple extra thoughts…
Bacon is bacon. There are better or worse versions out there but bacon in and of itself isn’t healthy or unhealthy. It’s just bacon.
An apple is an apple. There are better or worse versions out there but an apple in and of itself isn’t healthy or unhealthy. It’s just an apple.
Kale is kale.
Sugar is sugar.
Context matters and so does timing.
Just because a food isn’t good for me doesn’t mean it isn’t good for you.
You can’t say any food is healthy or unhealthy as a rule because I can find an example when it’s not.