is there such thing as good vs bad foods
  • December 9, 2022

Episode 6: Are There ‘Good’ or ‘Bad” Foods?  

  One of our pet peeves as dietitians is anything that puts foods into black-or-white categories or places moral values […]

 

One of our pet peeves as dietitians is anything that puts foods into black-or-white categories or places moral values on foods or eating.

There are 6 main reasons why we don’t want to label foods in this way.

 

1: It ignores the big picture of health

Overall health doesn’t come down to one food or meal, it involves the overall balance of your diet. It also includes things beyond nutrition such as relationships, self-care, hobbies and socialising.

Think of nutrition as an average across the week. It should be able to include both nutritious foods and fun foods in balance.

 

2: It creates food rules

Food rules such as “carbs are bad” are also unhelpful. This is because these are unsustainable in the long run and very easy to break. When we eventually break them, it often can leave us feeling guilty or ashamed.

 

 

3: Food rules and associations of guilt with foods cause anxiety surrounding eating those foods

The longer you avoid foods because of the rules you have placed on them, the more you fear and anxiety around eating them increases. If this becomes more extreme, you may need gradual exposure to reduce the anxiety around these foods to re-incorporate them into the diet. Check out episode 3 on food fears for more information to tackle food fears.

4: It adds moral value to foods

When we eat foods we label as ‘good’, we then feel great about ourselves and like we are doing great. However, when we eat something we label as ‘bad’, we feel guilt/shame. We may also feel like these choices make us a bad person.

At the end of the day, food is just food. It should be morally neutral and shouldn’t be able to dictate our self-esteem and how we feel about ourselves.

 

 

5: Nutrition is circumstantial – it depends on the context in which you are eating that food

For example, a quick digesting carbohydrate meal such as a bagel or white bread or cereal might be the best choice for your body before a workout to give you the quick releasing energy to fuel your workout. Whereas maybe later in the day you need a fibre rich carb such as wholegrain bread to give you longer lasting energy to sustain you until your next meal.

Everyone has different nutritional needs and what works for one person won’t for you. This is why we urge you not to compare yourself and what you need to others. This includes people on social media’s diets and nutrition projections.

 

6: Being able to say food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can only come from a place of privilege

You need to be able to have access to these ‘good’ or ‘better’ foods in order to place these values on food.

For instance, think of if you labelled organic foods as being healthier or better for you. Yes, there may be some small benefits to eating organic produce, but not everyone can afford this. In this case, eating non-organic produce is going to be a healthier choice than not eating any because it isn’t ‘good’ if its not organic. Another example is people in rural communities who may not have access to fresh produce and need to make do with shelf stable options such as canned vegetables.

Nutrition is a spectrum – there is no one size fits all! Plus, as dietitians we don’t prescribe foods just based on your nutritional needs, we also take into consideration things like:

  • Shopping habits
  • Living situation
  • Cooking abilities
  • Food availability
  • Financial circumstances
  • Time

 

Some commonly asked questions we get rebutting this:

Q 1: You can’t tell me it’s healthy to eat chocolate on a regular basis.

Answer: Start by considering what even defines healthy? Health is not just the nutritional content of foods. Chocolate may bring you joy, and joy is an important part of life and health. No, it wouldn’t be healthy to eat chocolate for every meal and snack every day. But this isn’t what a regular basis means.  

 

Q 2: My doctor told me not to eat junk food because I have high cholesterol (or another medical condition)

Answer: Yes, certain foods such as cakes and biscuits are high in nutrients which can cause medical conditions such as high cholesterol to worsen. But this doesn’t mean we need to cut them out completely. It’s about the frequency we have them not an all of nothing approach. Limiting them to only here and there in the context of eating an abundance of more nutritious foods is enough.

Plus, does this even align with your values? If your health and your cholesterol levels aren’t important to you and eating lots of these foods brings you joy, then arguably, doing what is more important to you is going to be a better choice for you and your ability to enjoy life. As dietitians it is our job to help you achieve your own goals not your doctors or our goals.

 

Q 3: I thought gluten was inflammatory. Doesn’t this make it a bad food?

Answer: Unless you have Coeliac disease then no, there is no research to back up the claim that gluten is inflammatory. There is also a very small percentage of the population who have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, but this is still only a small amount of people and not everyone.

Plus, even if it is inflammatory to some people, this still doesn’t make it a ‘bad’ food as that would be assigning moral value to it. If someone with Coeliac disease accidentally (or even purposefully) eats a bit of gluten, they are not now a bad person. We would advise against it as dietitians as it can cause you harm, but you still have a right to eat it if that is more important to you.

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