It might surprise you to know there’s no such thing as a completely good or bad food. Very few foods either qualify as good or bad, and what I mean by that is that there is no inherent “goodness” or “badness” in their chemical structure. All foods are made up of a mixture of proteins, fats and carbs, all of which your body needs to function and perform at its best. There are extremes to this of course, if you have kidney disease, a high protein diet is probably bad for you, if you have type 2 diabetes then a high carb diet is probably bad.
For most of us, instead of thinking in restrictive terms of good or bad foods and some foods being off limits, it is better to think of it as a scale with foods you should eat more on one side and foods you should eat less on the other.There is an objective component to this which applies to most people, as well as a subjective component to consider which applies specifically to you. I’ll cover both of these below.
When thinking of foods, you should eat more of there are some universal principles that apply to most people.
How to choose the foods you should eat more of:
They contain fewer calories per gram which makes them difficult to over eat. It’s easy to eat 1,000 calories of pizza, but very hard to eat 1,000 calories of salad
They contain a high amount of nutrients
They are high in fibre – think fruits, vegetables and beans
They are less processed – consider a potato vs a bag of crisps. With crisps a lot of the nutrition is stripped out and there are additional calories added through the oil the crisps are cooked in
Foods to eat less of look like the opposite of that:
They contain a high number of calories per gram
They have low nutritional value
They are low in fibre
They are highly processed
And there is one additional thing to add to this list: Eat less of the foods that you find hard to resist.
As I’ve said, no food is inherently bad. A small piece of chocolate every day will do no-one any harm, and it might actually be a benefit if it helps you stick to your diet and keeps cravings down. A whole bar of chocolate every day won’t do much harm if you are active, already lean, and your body has good blood sugar management. Eating 5 bars of chocolate per day will have bad consequences for anyone.
This is where the subjectivity comes in because this will look different for everyone. For me, chocolate is not a problem, I can have one small square of dark chocolate and enjoy it, then put it away again. For some of you that won’t be the case and you’ll need to make a conscious effort as you know that rationing chocolate is a difficult thing for you to do. On the other hand, someone like me just needs to take one handful of something salty like crisps or nuts and before I know it, I’m on pack number 3. I have to limit how many packs I have in the house, and keep them well out of sight to reduce temptation. By the way, your environment matters a lot when you want to eat less of something tempting. The best way to cut down on certain types of foods is not through sheer force of willpower, it’s simply to make that food less available in your daily life. If you know opening a tub of ice cream normally ends up in eating the whole thing with a spoon then your best option is to either avoid buying it altogether or buy a much smaller tub to limit the damage. If your chocolate drawer is bare (yes I have a chocolate drawer, no judging!) then you are more likely to make a better choice when you want something sweet. Having some healthier snack options readily available to turn to also increases your chances of making a better choice. Knowing yourself and managing your environment are a really important factor in all of this.
Lastly bear in mind that it’s rarely the food on its own that is problematic. It is our own environments and the physiology we put the food into. You can improve your environment with the right amount of exercise, the right amount of sleep, more of the foods above, and life that includes active relaxation strategies. Consider the whole system of your body and how it works together, not just the foods you eat in isolation.
Looking at food in a good vs. bad way is overly simplistic. Instead think of foods to eat more vs foods to eat less
Eat mostly foods that are nutritionally dense, minimally processed and eat a wide variety of them so that you never obsess too much about any single food
Consider what your “hard to resist” foods are and how you could change your environment to eat them less
Complement your diet with proper rest, recovery and exercise so that your physiology is primed for the foods you eat