Good Versus Evil: Food Is Not a Competition

Consider your own health values before assigning labels to food.

Clients often ask me to list foods that are good and bad. I don’t like doing that. Assigning a moral value to food isn’t a healthy idea. Good versus evil leads down a road that makes it impossible to enjoy any food. Depending on what article you read, you could be left with an empty plate.

This concern reveals a fundamental flaw in most nutrition approaches. They are all “food-centered” plans. I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t name a wide variety of great foods. The missing approach is the plan that is centered around you.

The only foods I would label as bad are those containing high amounts of man-made trans fat. Aside from that, I usually give the same answer when people ask me to list good and bad foods: “It depends.” Most of us haven’t figured out our own health values or what is truly important for our bodies. This leaves us to be swayed by the noise of the diet industry.

But we all know “it depends” is one of the most frustrating answers to receive. So here is a way to combat the good-versus-evil debate and figure out exactly what foods to eat.

Are cookies a “bad” food? The answer isn’t black and white.

Identify Your Food Religion

If you do practice a religion with food requirements, you might have specific parameters as to what you can and cannot eat. If you need to eat kosher or avoid certain kinds of meat, by all means this must be at the top of your priority list. It also narrows down your food list quite a bit.

Food religion can also refer to other topics that often get debated ad nauseam on the Internet forums. Vegan, paleo, vegetarian, and other groups argue as to which approach is best. This is fruitless (fruit makes you fat, says the Internet), because nobody is going to win the argument. It’s what you believe, and that’s totally fine.

But it isn’t about which approach is better. It all boils down to having your priorities straight and committing to the diet you believe in. Decide if you truly believe in one approach, and get after it. I’ve said to a few people before, “Put the ‘v’ in vegan.” If you have moral reasons against eating animals, that’s totally cool. Just be sure to actually eat vegetables.

Either way, if you hold to these beliefs, your food religion literally takes certain foods off the table. They aren’t necessarily bad or unhealthy foods, though. They just aren’t for you.

Consider How Food Makes You Feel

Another issue I see is people eating foods that make them feel crappy just because they are supposed to be healthy. If broccoli makes you feel bloated, don’t eat it. We have so many options at the grocery store from all over the world. Broccoli may not be great for you, but other vegetables will be. Get creative, learn how to cook different foods in interesting ways, and listen to your body.

In other words, your taste preferences matter. Don’t choke down a kale shake if you hate kale. Comedian Jim Gaffigan says kale tastes like bug spray, so I don’t think I would put it on his nutrition plan. Forcing yourself to eat foods you dislike will only lead to bad choices in the future. Eating nothing but raw vegetables in the morning for the love of “detox” will lead to a big gallon of Ben and Jerry’s a few days later. Raw vegetables are great in a salad, and Ben and Jerry’s is okay too, with a reasonable portion.

If you feel like you are on a diet, you are, and you will fall off. Eat foods you enjoy so you won’t feel deprived. Make a huge list of foods that you love. Forget the healthy or not thing, and just write them down. Then consider how you can include them in your menus and still be aligned with your health objectives.

Don’t Obsess Over Minutia

If you find yourself asking the following questions:

  • Are white potatoes or sweet potatoes better?
  • Is it better to use pink salt or black salt?
  • Is Greek yogurt healthier than regular yogurt?

…take a step back and consider the big picture. These questions are an immediate red flag that you are looking at the trees and not the forest. Mix and match, be creative, and enjoy different foods depending on what mood you are in or what’s on sale.

The more important question is this:

Are these foods keeping me full, energized, and aligned with my health goals?

If not, experiment with different dishes. If you are starving after breakfast, and know that protein or fat will keep you fuller, you know what to look for. Stick with the basic principles, then experiment accordingly.

See the Forest Through the Trees

When it comes to food, “good” and “bad” are relative terms. Almost anything can be healthy, depending on the person and context. And if you have no food values, meal structure, knowledge, or routine, it doesn’t really matter whether kale is better than broccoli.

We are all unique individuals, and this makes nutrition information difficult and confusing. Once you have a better understanding of who you are, finding the right information will be a breeze. Without the big picture first, it’s too easy to fall for fad diet programs and ideas.

More Personalized Approaches to Eating:

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