While I was training I was taught there are ‘no bad foods, only bad diets’. It was a phrase used regularly to remind us to take a more complete look at the way people ate. Not to focus on one or two meals, or even one or two days, but to instead see the broader picture.
I’m not sure I completely agree with this statement now. I think there are bad foods – foods which have no nutritional value or benefit. Foods which actually harm our health, no matter what we do the rest of the time. You can’t tell me there’s anything good about a quadruple bypass burger. I’m not saying it should be banned, but it ain’t good.
However, mostly I think the “good” and “bad” labels are unhelpful. By splitting food into two camps, we miss out on all the layers around eating. We miss out on the richness of the food experience, the complexity of human nutrition and it muddles the picture around the food decisions we make.
By thinking about food as good or bad we make it a moral issue. People talk of “being good” or “falling off the wagon”, “treating themselves to something bad”. Food becomes tied up with guilt, denial, punishment – none of which are helpful when you’re deciding what to eat.
More than this though, by simplifying food into a binary choice, we have to make judgements on what good food is, and what’s bad. We reduce food down to criteria and parameters. Foods which are higher in fat are labelled bad, no matter what kind of fat they contain, the other benefits they may have, or the nutrients you need. People start avoiding dried fruit because it’s full of sugar and therefore bad. Good food becomes low fat, low sugar, low salt, low kilojoule food – as if those were the only considerations. In this equation a snack bar with 30 plus ingredients is good, just because it’s low in fat, despite half the ingredients being unrecognisable outside a lab, while ricotta and honey on greek yogurt –even if you make it yourself– is bad.
How can something as complex as food and the role it plays in our bodies be knuckled down to two choices, good or bad?
I’ve found that most of the foods people label as bad really aren’t. They may have more kilojoules and fat than a “lite yoghurt dipped berry snack bar” but this doesn’t mean they’re bad. I’ve heard people describe avocado, nuts, peanut butter, hummous, ricotta and honey as bad. While each of these foods may well contain fat, sugar and kilojoules they also have fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein. But more than that, they have flavour, texture and delicious-ness.
The good food, bad food division is short-sighted and over-simplified. It gets in the way of a more nuanced view of how we eat. It gets in the way of a clear view of food and what we want for dinner. I wish we’d stop viewing foods as good or bad and instead start seeing them as just food, some to be eaten every day and some more occasionally.
Apart from quadruple bypass burgers of course.