The most frequent question I get in my DM’s is “Is (insert food or product here) healthy?” Instagram doesn't give me enough characters to properly explain why the answer to this question gets us nowhere.
What do people mean when they ask this question? In my opinion, they’re asking for permission to eat something so that they won’t feel guilty in the aftermath. If they hear that this granola bar is "healthy," they don't have to worry when they eat it. Part of creating a long term healthy lifestyle to support optimal health and avoid disease must include abandoning this mindset of “good” foods and “bad” foods. Instead, we need to view our food choices neutrally. Food isn't inherently good or bad. However, we can focus on what macro and micronutrients certain foods contain. This gives you the knowledge to make mindful decisions about what to eat that will fill you, fuel you, and let you indulge without a single ounce of guilt. Before we get there, let’s break down why asking “Is _____ healthy?” isn’t the real question you need to be asking.
1. What does asking “Is an apple healthy” really mean?
We like to categorize foods into “good” and “bad” foods, but this creates such a misunderstanding of what we’re actually eating, not to mention increases toxic diet culture and creates guilt around food choices. Instead of asking if something is healthy, start asking “What’s in this food and what effect will it have in my body?”
Let’s start with “what’s in this food?” For example, what’s actually in an apple? For example's sake, let's say a medium sized apple contains 52 calories, is 86% water, 0.3 grams of protein, 13.8 grams of carbohydrates, 10.4 grams of sugar, 2.4 grams of fiber, and 0.2 grams of fat. Apples mainly contain water and carbohydrates made of simple sugars (fructose, glucose, and sucrose). They have a low-moderate score on the glycemic index, ranging from 29-44, meaning the sugars are digested relatively slowly, so your blood sugar won’t spike too high or too quickly. Apples also contain vitamin C, an important vitamin and antioxidant for several bodily functions, as well as potassium, which is beneficial to heart health.
So how many of you read that and thought, “so it seems like apples are healthy, right?” Remember, we need to start looking at our food neutrally! The neutral, factual information of what nutrients are contained in each food should help guide your decision making process of whether you choose to eat a certain food or not. Someone who is diabetic and needs to lower their blood sugar levels may find that their insulin cannot adequately break down the amount of sugar in a large apple. Or maybe they can in the afternoon after their cortisol levels have dropped, but in the morning when insulin is most resistant it sends their blood sugar out of whack. Someone who isn't diabetic but is looking to balance their hormone levels and wants to start by balancing their blood sugar might realize they get hungry within an hour after eating a breakfast of just an apple. They’ve noticed when they eat it alongside some full fat yogurt and almonds that they stay full for longer, enabling them to be more productive at work. Notice the shift here- the apple is never considered good or bad. We only consider what it’s made of and how it will affect each individual person. Use the same approach when it comes to evaluating any beverage, vegetable, candy, or cookie.
2. Your body will react differently to the same food depending on when you eat it, what you eat it with, and how it’s prepared.
Man cannot survive on bread alone but he also cannot survive on spinach alone. Every macro and micronutrient has an important role in our bodies (note: this is referring to proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. There are certainly chemicals and heavy metals in certain foods that do not support our bodies in any way whatsoever. This doesn’t mean that you can never have them, but you do want to be mindful about how often you consume foods that can actually feed diseases and can be harmful to your body).
Protein, fat, and fiber slow down the absorption of glucose in the blood stream. Foods high in phytic acid and oxalic acid (such as spinach and sweet potatoes) inhibit calcium absorption. Foods rich in Vitamin C foods aid the absorption of iron. Fat soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K) can only be used by the body when you have adequate amounts of fat in your diet. These are just a few examples of the myriad of ways that different foods and micronutrients interact when eaten together. Aim to include a protein, fat, complex carbohydrate, and veggie in every meal.
Instead of asking “Is this granola bar a healthy breakfast?” ask “What actual nutrients will I get when I eat this? Is it filled with protein to keep me full and fueled for a few hours or sugar and chemicals which will make me feel full for 20 minutes and then leave me starving in an hour? But what if I eat it along with some hardboiled eggs and bell peppers, my blood sugar won’t spike as quickly and I’ll be getting in more protein and fat (from the eggs) and vitamin C (from the peppers) in addition to the sugar from the bar.”
Instead of asking, “Is kale healthy?” ask yourself “Kale has many vitamins and micronutrients and is rich in fiber, but doesn’t contain any protein, fat, or carbohydrates. Will this plain kale salad really give me the energy I need for my meetings later? What else can I add from the salad bar to balance out this meal?
3. Make your decisions in real time and context.
Let’s say you had a terrible sleep last night, you’re exhausted, and had a stressful day at work. You come home and the last thing you want to do is cut up veggies for a salad. You need to rest, so you want a quick, easy, comforting dinner, so pasta it is. Last time you went to the supermarket you actually bought red lentil pasta because you saw your favorite food blogger on instagram post about how it’s basically the same exact taste! (it’s not). You also have a box of regular pasta made from white flour. You look at the nutrition labels on both boxes and see that the regular pasta has about 42 grams per serving…but wait, they say a serving size is 1/8 of the box? Who ever eats that little pasta. You know you’ll probably have about twice that amount. So that’s 84 carbs per serving for this meal. It has about 14 grams of protein. If you’re at all concerned about your blood sugar, that’s both a lot of carbos and too little protein, leading to a blood sugar roller coaster. The red lentil pasta has about 50 grams of carbohydrates per serving and 26 grams of protein. In terms of nutrient content, the red lentil pasta is a more nutrient-dense option than the white flour pasta. Does it mean that the red lentil pasta is now “healthy” and you should eat it every day in huge quantities? I’ll let you decide for yourself. After all, part of leading a healthy lifestyle is feeling empowered in your choices.
4) Pride yourself on the good choices, even when you choose the less nutrient-dense option.
Focus on the choice of having the red lentil pasta because it was more nutrient dense than the white flour pasta, not the choice of having pasta instead of a salad. Maybe you had a glass of water with dinner instead of a coke because you knew you needed a good sleep and the caffeine would keep you up. Pride yourself on prioritizing your sleep! You also had a few oreos after dinner because you had a long day and were craving something sweet. Enjoy the indulgence, don’t dwell on it or feel guilty. Move on and look at your next meal as a new opportunity to nourish yourself.
So you see, the answer is complicated. It's never as simple as "this is healthy" and "this is unhealthy." In general, our bodies thrive when we eat a diet diverse in veggies, fruits, whole grains, fats, and proteins. But portions, proportions, food quality, and an individual's health status and genetics will all play a role in whether your food choices promote health.
I hope this gives you some clarity on the best way to make healthy choices for YOU. If this was helpful to you or you have any questions, shoot me a DM. I love to hear from you and love to dive deeper into this topic!
Health and Happiness,