What are "Bad Foods"?

Choosing between different foods

Often, people ask me “Is __ a bad food?” I appreciate this because it shows they are being thoughtful about what they eat. As much as I appreciate the question, though, I actually don’t think it’s a helpful question. Here’s why.

First of all, what do we mean when we ask if foods are ‘bad’? Are there renegade foods that have committed some hidden crime and thus should be banned from the food society? Or perhaps we mean that if we consume certain foods it constitutes ‘bad’ behaviour. But I would like to think that our moral character is not determined by our food choices (i.e. just because I eat chocolate doesn’t mean I am a bad person). So what does makes a food ‘bad’?

Perhaps what we are actually trying to figure out is what foods are unhealthy. In other words, we want to know what foods are harmful to our health. If this is what we mean, then I think we are a step closer to asking a better question. After all, we’ve now recognized that foods or food choices aren’t moral or immoral. There is enough stigma in society as is, let’s not add food choices to the list of reasons to judge others. So now the question becomes “Is ___ an unhealthy food?”

The only problem is I still don’t think is a helpful question.

The thing is, when we try categorizing foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy” we can easily miss the context of our overall pattern of eating. Don’t get me wrong, some foods hands down contain more nutrients than others. Apples have a lot more nutrients than cookies, for example (if you compare the same amounts of each). But if we only focus on the question of what foods are healthy then we can forget to think about what patterns of eating are healthy.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say Person A eats only apples, kale and avocados every day. This person is loaded on superfoods. Person B eats a variety of whole foods (whole grains, vegetables, protein sources and calcium-rich foods) as well as a small serving of ice cream each night. Who is healthier? If we did some simple food calculus based on who eats more “healthy foods” Person A would likely win out. Yet, most of us would say Person B is healthier. Why is that? Because we realize the pattern of eating matters to health, not just the individual food choices. On top of that, we know that foods play many roles in our lives including cultural and social roles.

So what patterns of eating are healthy? Now, here we have a much more useful question. This is a question that we can actually research. It also helps us to think about food in a more holistic way. There are certain patterns of eating that lead to more desired health outcomes. For example, making whole foods the basis of what we eat (e.g. whole grains, vegetables, fruit, animal products etc.), limiting the consumption of highly-processed foods (i.e. would your great-great-grandmother recognize this food?), having water instead of sweetened drinks, and eating in a positive social atmosphere are related to improved health.

So next time you’re wondering “Is ___ a bad food?” please consider this: Don’t tell yourself you’re a bad person for enjoying food. I like ice cream too, and chocolate. Oh, and did I mention nice crispy French fries? But if you want to improve your health through how you eat, then start by asking “What patterns of eating could I adopt that are healthy and sustainable for me?” Most of us frequently consume highly processed foods or beverages (50% of what Canadians eat/drink are highly processed) because they are so abundant and heavily marketed. Eating these foods doesn’t make us bad people, but frequent consumption of them can have negative impacts on our health. We can improve our patterns of eating by having highly-processed foods less often and having nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables and fruit more often. Start small, find support, and take it one step at a time. The good news is you’ve already taken the first step. You’ve started by asking yourself a question that is actually helpful in your journey to better health.


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