This might seem a tad controversial to some, especially coming from a nutritionist, but I’m going to say it… ALL foods have a place in our diet, that’s right all of them. The World Health Organisation defines health as not just being free of disease but being in a state of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing – this, to me, is a really powerful statement and opens up the argument of what health really means.
It’s important to question what rules or definitions you use to define unhealthy or healthy foods – where did these come from? Are they logical and do they make sense for your body and for your individual tastes? Are they over-simplified like: ‘carbs are bad’, ‘eating fat makes you fat’ or ‘anything processed has to be bad for you’? It’s very easy to follow this logic down rabbit holes, but this only helps to contribute to our current state of ‘food worry’, otherwise known as healthism, which we seem to have accepted as reality. Scared to even think about food for fear of harming our bodies.
A recent headline in the Daily Mail demonstrates my point exactly: ‘Why potatoes could be fuelling the nation’s obesity crisis: A baked spud contains the equivalent of 19 lumps of sugar – almost three times the amount in a can of Coca-Cola’. This has so many problems that I won’t get into fully but comparing a baked potato (which is also a great source of fibre, vitamin C, B vitamins and potassium!) to sugar cubes (sugar only, surprisingly) is seriously unhelpful and doesn’t demonstrate the complexity of foods or what happens to them inside our body.
By the way our body’s response to 19 sugar cubes is entirely NOT the same as how it responds to a baked potato.
When thinking about foods it’s key to take into account context (e.g. special events, eating alone, parties etc), portion control and food pairings, as well as looking at our diet as a whole rather than honing-in on individual foods or nutrients. Below I’ve pulled out some foods that might be given either a ‘health halo’ or a ‘diet no-no’ depending on context and individual requirements.
Foods: Let’s look a little closer
I’ve seen this (and put this) on meal plans before as a ‘sweet treat’ assuming that everyone gets the same amount of pleasure from it as me (not true, some people just aren’t into it!). However, although some dark chocolate contains higher levels of antioxidants than milk chocolate and around half the sugar, dark chocolate usually contains more saturated fat; showing there’s pros and cons to all foods.
If you are someone that takes great pleasure from having a variety of textures in your diet, there is little as satisfying as the crunch of a crisp that you can’t quite get from anything else. The devilish potato snack actually contains a significant amount of vitamin C and niacin (vitamin B3) – showing even ‘beige’ foods can provide some amount of nutrition, as well as satisfaction.
Again, another food with a lot of red tape for many people, especially in terms of long-term health effects. But bacon does provide a fair amount of protein and actually, gram for gram, contains roughly the same amount of fat as an avocado – see what I mean about over-simplifying things? For many (especially for Brits) a full English is not a satisfactory meal without it and I’ve often heard vegetarians admit that bacon is the one food they miss most.
Now, I’m not trying to demonise ANY foods. In fact, I’m attempting to do the opposite and highlight that all foods have some nutritional value and that this exists on a spectrum, in all shades of grey. Eating huge quantities of any one of the above foods every day isn’t going to be healthy for your body or your mind. Bringing yourself closer to recognising this will allow you to accept that all foods can be included in a balanced, varied and enjoyable diet in a way that is right for you.
Restricting or placing foods off-limits only makes it more likely that you’ll come back to them with a vengeance in the future. So, allowing yourself ‘forbidden foods’ helps to level out the playing field, removing the power that they might hold over you. By giving ourselves what we really want, when we want it (ie. that post work-week pizza with your friends) instead of always trying to have the ‘sensible choice’, and regretting it, we can help to prevent dissatisfaction and inevitably turning to foods later on that we don’t even find that enjoyable.
So just as there aren’t any inherently unhealthy or healthy foods each individual’s interpretation of how to honour their health with foods that make them feel good physically and mentally will look slightly different. This is yet another reason why prescriptive diets don’t work as only you can know how hungry you are, what foods appeal to you and what you find satisfying. Eating nourishing foods, in situations where we can feed our soul with fulfilling conversation, engaging with other people or even by ourselves can be so much more powerful for our health and wellbeing than virtuously eating a bowl of quinoa and kale in front of the TV and then sneaking to the kitchen to eat the gooey brie you really wanted later on…
Take a step back from and begin to really question the constant bombardment of information from the media that can collectively make you terrified to even make breakfast for fear of instant weight gain or developing cancer. What’s more important is to work out what foods make us feel good, without getting hung up on whether these are saints or sinners. When you take the time to reflect on this and eat mindfully you will likely find that foods you previously thought were extremely pleasurable are actually pretty meh, or that just small amounts are enough to feel satisfied.
Keeping the door open to a wide range of different foods (from ALL the food groups available to you) that you really get pleasure from – as opposed to watery ‘diet’ soups or cardboardy crackers – provides a more satisfying experience and the variety will likely benefit your overall health in the long run.
“If it’s not enjoyable, it’s not sustainable” – Kelsey Miller (The Anti-diet Project)
For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:
Daily Mail (2018) – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5803271/Why-potatoes-fuelling-nations-obesity-crisis.html
The Original Intuitive Eating Pros – http://www.intuitiveeating.org
Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch & Evelyn Tribole (2012). Available on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Intuitive-Eating-Evelyn-Tribole/dp/1250004047/
Kelsey Miller (2016). What is “Gentle Nutrition”?. Refinery29. Available at: https://www.refinery29.uk/gentle-nutrition-intuitive-eating
Palascha et al (2015). How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behaviour and weight regain? Doi. 10.1177/1359105315573440
Skin & Shit (2018). Diets don’t work. Deal with it.