A Healthy Perspective - Good Foods vs Bad Foods: How to Know Which is Which
Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. Pn1
Eating well is crucial to looking and feeling your best.
That’s why at Fitness Made Clear we do a lot of nutrition work with our students.
A place where we spend a lot of time is on one of our fundamental principles of nutrition - Food Quality.
Food quality refers to the foods you choose to eat and will have the biggest impact on how you feel, your health, and also your body composition.
What we see time and time again is that our students come to us with the notion that foods are either good or bad.
More concerning is that what they say is good or bad varies wildly between people.
The nutritional landscape we live in is incredibly polarized. Everyone has an a opinion or theory as to what's good and what's bad.
It can be difficult to make sense of what you should or should not be eating.
Today I’d like to go over a mental framework you can use to look at food and determine if it’s good for you or not.
First though I’d like to say that we need to stop thinking of foods as good or bad. Food is food. What may be good for one person may be bad for another.
There is nuance to how our foods effect us. Nuance that is loss when we lump all of our foods into good or bad buckets.
Instead, think of food not in buckets, but on a continuum.
A continuum where certain food choices will take you closer to your goals while others may take you farther.
Foods aren’t good or bad, but rather better or worse.
With that said how do you determine which is which?
First let’s try an exercise.
Look at the list of foods below and tell me which you would consider better choices and which you wouldn’t.
If you said cookies and candy were the worst choices while broccoli and carrots were better then congrats, you were right.
But can you tell me why one food is better than the other?
The most common answers we receive are
Veggies have more nutrients
Veggies have less calories
Cookies and candy are full of added sugars, processed fats, and calories.
All of the above are valid answers and speak to what I feel is the biggest differentiator between what makes one food better for you than another.
Nutrient density is a measure of how many nutrients are in an item of food compared to how many calories are in that item.
A food with more nutrients and less calories is more nutrient dense than a food with less nutrients and more calories.
For example foods that tend to be the most nutrient dense are vegetables such as dark leafy greens such as broccoli, kale, or spinach.
Foods that tend to be the least nutrient dense are typically processed and manufactured with oils and added sugars such as candy or baked goods.
Why is this such an important measure?
First because nutrients provide nourishment essential for the maintenance of life and for growth.
There are macro nutrients that include carbs, proteins, and fats.
Each of these is vital to providing your body with energy and the vital building blocks it needs to create new cells.
There are micro nutrients that your body needs that include vitamins and minerals. These are found in smaller portions but are crucial to a well functioning body. They include minerals such as calcium, potassium and sodium and vitamins such as niacin and beta carotene.
Then there are another group called phytonutrients and zoonutrients which can be found in plants and animals respectively. These nutrients seem to have impacts on our body that we are just beginning to learn about and they can only be found in plants and animals.
Together all these nutrients interact with each other and our bodies to create complex reactions that help make you healthy and life possible.
When your body gets all the nutrients it needs you’ll recover faster, have more energy, your skin will glow, you’ll look younger, age slower, and reduce your risk for illness and disease.
The other side of this equation is calories.
Calories provide energy to the body and are necessary to keep everything working. Without energy your body will fail.
Calories get a bad wrap because we often over consume them. When we consume more energy than we need our body stores it. We gain fat, get heavier, and increase our risk of illness and disease.
With that said we want you to eat enough calories, just not too many.
So Lets Put the Equation together - Nutrients and Calories
A person can only consume so many calories in a day. In this way there is a cap. You have a calorie budget and each food you eat counts towards that budget.
If your body only needs 2000 calories a day, then you want to make sure you get the most out of that 2000 calories.
This is why nutrient density is an important measure.
Nutrient dense foods allow you maximize the amount of nutrients you get while minimizing the amount of calories you eat.
Eating a lot of nutrient dense foods provides your body with everything it needs to function without any of the drawbacks of gaining weight or getting fat.
Other Factors To Consider
Nutrient density is a great measure for making better food decisions. It helps explain why foods such as vegetables consistently rank as healthy, and why foods such as cookies and candy are considered unhealthy.
However there are a group of foods out there that fall in the middle.
They have nutrients but they also have calories. Sometimes there processed, but not always to the degree of junk food.
These foods may include the likes of bread, grains, certain meats, dairy, nut butters, ect.
What do we make of these foods? Are they good? Are they bad? Should we be eating them?
These foods have a place in your diet but whether they are good for you or not really depends on your situation and lifestyle.
Before you pass judgement, consider the following variables that can determine whether a food is good or bad for you.
The Dose Makes The Poison
Did you know drinking too much water could kill you? My point here is not to stop drinking water, but realize that any nutrient consumed in excess can be harmful.
Foods like eggs get a bad rap, but eggs are some of the most nutritionally dense foods you can eat. However, that doesn’t mean eating a half dozen eggs for breakfast is a good idea. Eat a variety of foods, just don’t over do any. Foods are only bad if consumed in excess.
Are you looking to lose weight or gain weight? If you are exercising, competing in sports, or looking to build muscle then you’ll need more calories and carbs than the person who spends there day at a desk or is trying to lose weight.
Depending on your goals, these middle foods could be necessary to help you achieve your goals, or they could undermine your hard work.
Are you a busy parent who doesn’t have time to cook? Are you a broke college kid who is struggling to eat enough? Are you and athlete? Are you a vegan?
Your lifestyle plays a big role in the food choices you make. Yes you always want to prioritize nutrients and whole natural foods. However, your lifestyle and situation can make a ‘bad’ food into a good food.
For the vegan who is ethically against eating animal products foods such as rice, bread, or nut butters suddenly become important to them having a healthy diet.
Dairy is a ‘bad’ food for the person whose lactose intolerant.
Eggs may be great for the healthy active person looking to build muscle but may be bad for the person suffering from high cholesterol.
Each person is different, and this will play a huge role in which foods are best for you and which aren’t
Making good food choices is key to looking and feeling your best. However let's not fall into the trap of calling food good or bad.
There are better choices and worse choice which can change depening on your situation, lifestyle and individual differences.
However, when making these decisions I suggest using nutritional density to help you make the best decisions.
Eat a variety of foods high in nutrients compared to their calorie content. To make it simple, have a variety of whole natural foods, such as veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and fish.
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