At the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, founder Marc David explores the emotional factors that influence what we eat and how our mental states influence the impact of those foods on our bodies. In this article, David argues that the paradigm suggesting that some foods are “good” and others “bad” is an overly simplified take on nutrition that only serves to induce guilt, lower metabolism, and promote suboptimal eating habits. This is perhaps one of the most important yet most overlooked concepts in the field of nutrition.
Food is Amoral
In the article, David explains that certain foods – usually those perceived to be “too high” in calories, fat, salt, or carbohydrates – are often labeled as “bad.” If we indulge in them, therefore, we must be bad, too (or weak-willed, lazy, etc.). As a result of this way of thinking, we punish ourselves emotionally. That, in turn, causes the body to react with a stress response, which actually lowers metabolism.
But there is more too it than that. By labeling a food “bad,” we write off the food and fail to study its nuances in depth. The exceptions to this are highly processed food products with artificial ingredients – which probably are, in fact, bad. But whole foods are a different story. Yes, butter has some saturated fat and is probably not healthy if eaten in excess. On the other hand, Vitamin A, for example, is fat soluble, meaning our bodies absorb more of it when eaten in combination with fat. So sautéing certain vegetables with a little bit of butter is probably beneficial. Similarly, Egg Beaters are fat free, whereas real eggs are not. But real eggs, if they come from free-range chickens fed an appropriate diet, are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. So disregarding a food because we believe it to be “bad” is a risky practice because it increases the likelihood that we will miss out on those foods’ many important nutritional benefits.
When we examine traditional food cultures from around the world, foods whose nutritional benefits are complimentary are often intuitively combined. For example, beans and rice have been traditionally paired together in many cultures. As it turns out, when eaten together, beans and whole grain rice provide complete protein but, if eaten separately, they provide only partial protein. The same is true in the case of the vegetables sautéed in a reasonable amount of butter or olive oil – the two foods are probably more beneficial when eaten together.
Food cultures give us a reference. They help us build an understanding of what foods work well together, what benefits particular foods provide, and how much of a food is good to eat. But diet fads attack this intuitive knowledge. They tell us we shouldn’t eat butter or olive oil because they are high in fact. They denounce rice for being too high in carbohydrates. The result is a fractured diet that lacks many of the health benefits we would enjoy if we simply listened to our cultural wisdom and ate reasonable amounts of varied whole foods. Of course, moderation is important. Slathering everything in butter is not a good idea. But even moderation is something that is taught by food cultures. When we eat intuitively, we know how much is too much. We can feel it.
Finally, it is important to refrain from labeling foods as “good” or “bad” because different body types require different types of food. In Ayurvedic medicine, there are five doshas. In simple terms, a dosha can be thought of as part body type part constutition. Some doshas gain more nutritional benefits from diets that are largely plant-based, whereas other doshas require more dairy and meat.
But you don’t have to subscribe to Ayurveda to clearly see that some people do better on certain foods than others. A meal at a macrobiotic restaurant serving quinoa and steamed vegetables might be perfect for one person, but may leave her dining partner still feeling hungry. For people with average cholesterol and a tendency toward anemia, red meat might be a good option. But someone with dangerously high cholesterol might want to eat primarily white meat. When we label certain foods as “bad,” we fail to realize that, though some foods are not right for some people, they may play an important role in helping others achieve healthy, balanced diets.