Bad Foods: Why Some Foods Probably Should Not Be Part of Your Diet

Many people follow diets that do not allow this or that kind of food. Some avoid gluten, while others forego meat. For others, refined carbohydrates are bad foods.

Conversely, many people who eat whatever they want. Many of these people use catchphrases like, “There are no bad foods.” You might also hear things like “all things in moderation” from those who do not believe there are bad foods. So, what’s the truth?

Are There Bad Foods?

chips and berries

After more than twenty years of studying nutrition, I understand the limitations of restrictive diets. I understand why some people say there are no bad foods. But my belief is there are most definitely bad foods. Or perhaps I can put it more accurately and say there are foods that are not good for you!

What I can’t do, though, is give you a list of such foods. Foods that are not good for you depend on your own uniqueness. We are not all the same physically, emotionally, or biochemically. So a food that does no harm to one person might have a terrible effect on another.

Worse, in the case of some allergies, eating a certain food could be deadly. For an obvious example, consider nuts. They are healthy for many people. For those with severe nut allergies, though, eating nuts can have catastrophic consequences.

A Better Definition of Good and Bad Food

In a sense, I agree there are no bad foods, but I agree with a caveat. My definition of food may be narrower than most. To me, food is a substance that is nourishing. To understand what I’m getting at, think beyond what you eat and consider a phrase like “food for the soul.”

The idea of nourishment is simple. A food is not nourishing because it tastes good or because it’s filling or because everyone else at the party is eating it. It’s nourishing because it is good for you. Something positive happens to your health when you eat it. Or at least, something negative does not happen.

If I have a nut allergy, a nut is not food to me. If I’m diabetic, perhaps I shouldn’t think of sugar as food. If my gut goes haywire when I eat wheat…you get the picture!

Food for Overall Well-being

I have not eaten red meat or poultry in decades. I wrote about why in another post. At this point, if I were to eat a single hamburger, I doubt that anything “bad” would happen to my body. But for me (just me), something negative would happen to my spirit.

Based on what I’ve learned about factory farming and its abuse of animals and the environment, eating meat from a grain-fed cow slaughtered in a factory would not be a nourishing experience to me. If I thought my body needed meat for physical health (I don’t), humanely raised grass-fed beef might be an option. This is one personal dietary choice. There are many others. I’m sure you have your own.

Everyone is Different

The truth about food as I see it is no one diet is appropriate for everyone. But to make choices about food, we must know how our bodies use it. We must also know how it is produced. I remember an excellent article in which a naturopathic physician took the idea of bad foods to task. In the article, she stated that she eats “anything she wants.” What she didn’t really get into, though, is that her passion for health and her education about food give her the incentive to make choices that are good for her. Not all people have this luxury.

There are certainly people who believe that feeding a child a hot dog on a white-bread bun and a soda for lunch every day is healthy. I’m fairly confident in my belief that it’s not.

The One Question to Ask About Food

If you’ve found a way of eating that works for you, chances are you had different beliefs before you found that diet. And you may change your ideas about food as time goes on. I’d need to spend a good amount of time with you before I could suggest what might be good or bad for you.

I think there’s only one question to ask about food. The answer to that question may not be so simple, though. The question is, “Does this make me healthier?” And when I talk about health I mean not only physical health, but other aspects of your well-being too.

Over time, if you have a good relationship with all aspects of yourself and with food in general, knowing what is good for you becomes intuitive. Only you know when a piece of chocolate cake will do your body no harm and when it will it will hurt you. You may need to expand your definition of food to make this decision well.

This idea works with almost every food you can think of. Sure there are some foods (organic berries come to mind) that are good for almost everyone. There are others (like blue cotton candy) that can be called food only by a great stretch of the imagination.

The point is the path to good health depends on a lot of things. Diet (in the good sense of the word) is only one of those things.

If you don’t have a good relationship with food, you will not be able to make better choices overnight. You might get on track more quickly by getting to know more about you instead of trying to decide if a food is good or bad.

Think about it.

You Are What You Don’t Eat

calfYou are what you don’t eat. And what you do eat. Or maybe you’re not food at all. So what, then, “are you” when it comes to nutrition and dietary choices?

Telling people I’m a vegetarian is the easiest way to explain why I don’t eat beef, pork, poultry or lamb. But it doesn’t explain why I do eat wild-caught fish and shellfish. It also doesn’t explain why I don’t eat sugar, refined carbohydrates or processed foods that contain ingredients I can barely pronounce. It doesn’t explain why I try to avoid the “dirty dozen” (the produce that absorbs the highest amounts of pesticides) or why, for me, a day without vegetables is like a day without water.

So what exactly am I, and does it really matter? Personal dietary choices are something like religious beliefs in a way. Just because someone claims to be a member of a particular religion doesn’t mean that person has the exact same beliefs and behaviors as all the other members of the group.

Why labels don’t really matter

Religious labels do not tell the whole story, and neither do dietary labels. Still, people seem to want them. It helps to have some “rules” if you need to explain to someone why you choose not to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. You really can’t just say “turkey is not part of my diet” and get away with it, but you can say, “No thanks. I’m a vegetarian.” It seems people expect a label with a definition attached to it, and then you are allowed to say no to the turkey. A case like that is a perfect example of “you are what you don’t eat.”

Dietary labels get complicated in some circles. It’s difficult to explain to your Italian mother that pasta is not something you eat now that your body is showing signs of carbohydrate intolerance. It took my mom years to adjust when I began to move toward a vegetarian diet. Now this?

If I had to find a label for my diet, I guess it would be unprocessed/clean, real-food vegetarian that also eats some kinds of fish and drinks red wine and too much coffee. (By the way, did you know that some vegans eat shellfish?)

But do you eat eggs?

Yes—cage free organic omega 3 eggs (unless I’m in a restaurant; then any egg goes). And, believe it or not, I really don’t like talking about any of this most of the time.

I know people imagine my dietary choices are restrictive or boring, but they’re really not. It’s true what they say; you stop craving things that are bad for you when you start eating healthier (and yummier) things instead. You don’t have to believe me, but there really are much tastier dishes you can make with veggies and lentils. Bacon grease or white bread are extremely dull by comparsion!

Why all this fuss about food?

My interest in vegetarian nutrition started when I was in college looking to shed the “freshman 15” (more like 20). Soon after I graduated, I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. I took an actual test though I know it was a fad diagnosis at the time. I learned more about hormones and other unwanted things that accumulate in the fat of animal flesh. And I gradually made the shift to a vegetarian diet. As a DES daughter (one of millions whose mothers took this drug during pregnancy between 1938 and 1971), I’d already overdosed on synthetic hormones before I was even born. (The consequences of that is another story.)

As I learned more about the things going on in the food industry, particularly with respect to factory farming, I became more and more convinced that the lower on the food chain one eats the better. It’s better not only for that person’s health, but for animals and the entire planet as well. Ethical reasons for my food choices soon became as important, if not more important, than health issues.

Then I realized how complicated that can get!

It took years to get where I am now, and I’m sure my dietary choices will continue to evolve. I even earned a traditional college degree in nutrition. I believe the important thing, whether you eat animal flesh or not, is to pay attention to how the food you choose affects you, the environment and the world. There’s always something new to learn when it comes to nourishing not only our bodies, but everything around us as well.

And life is just better when you care!

I think the important thing, whether you eat animal flesh or not, is to pay attention to how the food you choose affects you, the environment and the world. There’s always something new to be learned when it comes to nourishing not only our bodies, but everything around us as well. And life is just better when you care!

Good Food, Bad Food; Eat This, Not That

chips and berriesI recently had a conversation with a man—I’ll call him Kenny—who insisted that “all foods are good.” In fact, he went beyond that to suggest that “all foods are healthy.” The conversation went something like this:

Kenny: All foods are healthy.

Me: No they’re not.

Kenny: Yes they are.

Me: No they’re not

Kenny: Yes they are.

Okay, we both made some other points, and in the end we agreed more than we disagreed, but the one issue I do take with Kenny is the idea that all foods are healthy (or “good” if you want to use that word instead).

There is No Perfect Diet

Kenny is a man on a mission to dispel the idea that there is a single diet that anyone must follow in order to be healthy, and I concur. But Kenny also believes that:

  • There is no such thing as a superfood.
  • GMOs pose no health risk to people.
  • If you are trying to lose weight or get healthier, you should not cut any specific food or group of foods from your diet.
  • No food has the ability to boost brain power, improve immunity, or do anything else in particular.
  • Organic foods are not better than conventional foods.
  • Additives, preservatives, and artificial ingredients are fine.

Well, Kenny. Where do I begin? I don’t disagree with all of this, but some of it is just sloppy thinking. I’ll elaborate by responding to this statement (from Kenny): “All foods are healthy; that’s why they’re called food.”

Okay, maybe Kenny and I have a different definition of food. For starters, pesticides, artificial ingredients, and the like are not substances that belong in food, so when they are added to anything intended for human consumption, I will do my best to avoid that thing. Sure it’s not always possible, but it’s worth my attention. And while it may be true that no specific food single-handedly boosts brain power or improves immunity, it is certainly true that certain nutrients do. And where do we get these nutrients? Well, from certain foods, of course (but not all foods).

All Foods Are Not Healthy

So, like I said, Kenny and I went back and forth on this until it dawned on me that I didn’t really have an issue with what he was trying to say; I just had an issue with what he was actually saying (which is that all foods are healthy). That part of the conversation went something like this:

Me: Diet cola is not healthy.

Kenny: Yes it is.

Me: No it’s not.

Kenny: Yes it is.

Me: No it’s not.

And then I realized that I was trying to say that it is not healthy, while Kenny was trying to say it is not unhealthy. What’s the difference? Kenny’s point was that if I drink a can of diet soda once in a while but my overall diet is healthy, the diet soda won’t hurt me. My point was that the diet soda does not nourish me in any useful way, so it is not healthy. And this is just me, but because it is not healthy, I choose not to drink it. Ever. Because it’s not healthy.

Don’t get me wrong, there are other things that I do consume even though they probably don’t contribute to my health in any meaningful way.

This not healthy versus unhealthy issue reminded me of a point I often try to make about people. There aren’t many people I dislike, as in I actively do not like them. But there are plenty of people I don’t like, as in I am not particularly drawn to them.

Get it? Okay, back to the food.

I asked Kenny if he thought it made no difference, given a list of 100 foods, which ones I choose to eat on a regular basis. Since I didn’t actually give him a list of foods, he told me he couldn’t answer the question. So I told him that I was going to choose, bacon, lollipops, hot dogs and diet cola. And then the next day, since all foods are good and it doesn’t matter what I eat on any given day, I would choose those same foods again. And I would keep this up every day because all foods are healthy and it doesn’t matter what I eat.

No, that was not Kenny’s point! (And yes, I knew that.)

But my point was that it is not true that all foods are healthy! To be healthy (I believe) they need to nourish my body. They need to provide me with some benefit that outweighs any deficit.

Kenny thought I was trying to say that there is no single axis measure by which I can compare foods and decide if one is healthier than another.

Well, of course there’s not. I wasn’t looking for one. A banana has some health-promoting minerals. An egg is a good source of protein. Leafy greens are loaded with vitamins. I can’t say that one of those three foods is healthier than the others.

But they are all healthier than diet cola!

Really, Kenny? You can’t give me this one?

When I asked Kenny what is “good” about diet cola, he said it was hydrating.

Sigh.

All Foods Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet

In fairness to Kenny, I have to say that he did make some good points with which I agree. They were just not points that had anything to do with the original purpose of the conversation, which was to flesh out what people mean when they say, “All foods are good.”

Kenny and I both agree that all foods can be part of a healthy diet. As he said, “It’s much healthier to look at your diet as a whole than to fret about individual foods.”

But he also said, “Calling certain foods ‘unhealthy’ just indicates an unhealthy relationship with food. Any food can be part of a healthy diet. No exceptions. There are foods that should probably form a larger part of your diet, and foods that should form a smaller part, but all those foods are good.”

I decided not to try again to get into my whole thing about how saying something is unhealthy is not the same as saying it is not healthy. So we ended the conversation like this:

Kenny: You can’t compare apples to eggs.

Me: I’m not trying to. But I’ll pass on the diet cola.

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