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"Good" and "Bad" Foods: Breaking the Dichotomous View

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

radishes, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, pizza, chips, french fries and potato chips

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that as a dietitian, I’m constantly talking to people about food. In these conversations, the words “good”, “bad”, “healthy” and “unhealthy” come up a lot. Here are some typical examples of things said:

  • “I ate a lot of bad stuff during the holidays, so I need to go shopping to buy healthy foods”

  • “You’d be so proud of me because I had a really good lunch today”

  • “I don’t eat fried foods because they’re so bad for you”

  • “I eat good all week but generally have a cheat day on Saturday”

This oversimplified, black and white thinking about foods being categorized as either good or bad is misleading, and this thought process can actually cause harm. No food is simply good or bad; it just doesn’t work that way. Foods have so many characteristics such as macronutrients, micronutrients, taste, cost, etc. There is no possible way these things are simply all good or all bad.

I’d be lying if I said I think ice cream, french fries and candy are great food choices. In terms of nutrition, most people would agree they go in the “bad” category. However, all foods can fit into a healthy diet. There’s not reason to label these foods in a negative way, and there is certainly no reason you should feel negative about yourself for eating these foods. Just because they aren’t necessarily “healthy” foods, doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious! In terms of taste, these foods are very “good”!

Even just in terms of nutrition, it’s hard to label foods into two categories. For example, I naturally think of nuts as a good/healthy food because they are a great combination of carbohydrates, fat and protein. However, nuts are very calorie dense (one cup being somewhere in the 600-700 calorie range.) If your portion size gets away from you, your healthy snack could turn into an unintended extra meal. Context is important when looking at your daily diet.

Sugar sweetened beverages (think soda, lemonade, etc.) is generally be considered a bad/unhealthy food for the general population. They have a lot of sugar and calories and don’t have any vitamins and minerals. As much as they can fit into a healthy diet, they really should be limited as much as possible for most people. However, that doesn’t mean they can't be a good choice for some people, under certain circumstances. If a pregnant woman is having a lot of morning sickness and can’t keep food down, drinking some ginger ale or lemonade might be a great way for her to get some calories and hydration. If someone with diabetes is having a low blood sugar, drinking soda could potentially be lifesaving!

I’ve noticed that when people are adamant about labeling foods as good or bad, they seem to have a poor relationship with food. They become some focused on eating healthy foods that they restrict the “bad” ones completely. They may even begin to judge others because of their intake of the “bad” stuff, or beat themselves up if they end up eating something "bad". Remember, food is simply just food. Let’s spend less time categorizing so we can spend more time enjoying!



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