Should Foods be Classified as Healthy or Unhealthy?

Should Foods Be Classified as Healthy or Unhealthy?

I hope this is a thought-provoking question for you.  What is it that causes us to view foods as healthy or unhealthy? Is it the amount of calories in the food? Is it the ratio of carbs, fats, and proteins or the fiber content? What about the micronutrients?  In this article, I’m going to make the argument that in general, there is no such thing as an unhealthy food without context, and that portion sizes matter much more than the actual foods themselves. This article will serve as the introduction for the series of articles on healthy food choices that we’ll be writing for the next several weeks.  

First let’s try to define our terms.  What does it mean for a food to be unhealthy? The American Heart Association defines unhealthy foods as those that are highly processed, high in sodium, sugar, and “empty calories,” and low in nutrients.  Some examples they list as unhealthy foods include chips, cookies, cakes, and sugary cereals. I’m not 100% on board with this definition, but it’s a starting point.  Since healthy and unhealthy are opposites, for our purposes we can define healthy foods as those that are minimally processed, low in sodium and sugar, and high in nutrients.  Now let’s talk about some of the problems with these definitions.

Imagine that you’ve gained a few pounds in the past couple of years, your blood pressure has increased, and your doctor has told you that you need to lose weight ASAP.  You hear that “eating healthy” is the best way to lose weight, so you decide to stock up your fridge and pantry with nothing chicken breast, lean beef, almond milk, olive oil, walnuts, brown rice, sweet potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, eggs, and apples.  If you asked the average person if these foods were healthy or unhealthy, they’d probably look at you a little funny and say, “of course they’re healthy.” However, what if you eat such large quantities of these foods that you fail to enter a caloric deficit and you continue to gain weight and become more unhealthy? Would these minimally processed, low sugar and sodium, nutrient dense foods still be considered healthy?  Likewise, what if you eat so much of a particular fruit or vegetable that you exceed the tolerable limit for your body (very unlikely, just a thought experiment) and you enter vitamin toxicity that requires medical attention? Conversely, what if you’re able to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and consistently hit your protein, fiber, vitamin, and mineral requirements while eating donuts, cheeseburgers, and potato chips along with your fruits, vegetables, and lean meats?  Would this diet be considered unhealthy even if it resulted in weight loss and improved markers of health?

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone should eat a diet rich in processed, sugar filled foods.  I’m simply suggesting that health is a nuanced topic, and that demonizing certain foods or food groups is a little too reductionist.  Context matters! The poison is in the dose. It’s probably better to eat a small handful of m&ms than it is to eat an entire container of walnuts.  It is entirely possible to live a healthy lifestyle and accomplish your fitness goals while eating a mix of “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, as long as you’re eating the correct amount of total calories to meet your needs and you’re fulfilling your macro- and micronutrient requirements.  Don’t miss the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter how “healthy” your food is if you’re eating too much of it! All of this being said, the next several articles will discuss some “healthier” alternatives to common food choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks/dessert, and eating out.