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What Makes a Food “Good” or “Bad”?

As a dietitian, I’ve been asked and talked about what makes a food good or bad. Today I talk about things I consider when I give people an answer.

One commonly asked thing I get from friends and family is if a food is good or bad. Alternatively, I’ve had some of these same people act like I am going to freak out or judge them if I find out they ate something “unhealthy.” Hell, even at my job, I’ve had people discussing whether or not fruit is good or bad because of the sugar content. Here’s where I express my opinion: Unless the food is going to have a direct effect on you, I think any and all food can be included within your diet.

Some advice often given with regards to health might include following specific diet plan, take certain medications or supplements, or follow a particular gym regiment. Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins have been associated with good health outcomes. Exercise is also associated with better health and well being. The issue with much of the advice that’s given is that it’s not very sustainable long term for most people.

Using myself as the example, I eat fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Typically, the meats I prefer consuming are low-fat meat (including chicken breast and low fat ground beef). Occasionally, I will opt for vegetarian proteins as well, including peanut butter, beans, or tofu. However, I also like several food items that are not very healthy. Pies, cookies, and donuts tend to disappear around me. I also like alcoholic beverages, and have gotten into the most basic forms of mixology and bartending. I also like high fat and salt meats, like bacon, sausage, and pulled pork. If I were to follow some of the diets recommended by popular media, I would not be a successful dieter.

Diets that focus solely on removing one or more component from the diet often fail. Removing foods that the person enjoys in my opinion is not a good way to improve their diet. Some diets opt to remove or strictly limit food groups, such as carbohydrates or dessert items. Others will suggest not eating from certain places, such as fast food restaurants. While fast food is not healthy when consumed in excess, and has a variety of socioeconomic and environmental issues surrounding it, an infrequent trip is not going to harm you.

This still does not necessarily answer the question: What makes a food good or bad? The answer lies within the person asking.

With regards to bad food, I’d consider the person’s allergies. If a person has a food allergy to the common (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat and soy) or other uncommon food items, I’d tell them those are bad foods to eat. While dairy foods, soy-based products, and sea foods offer many health benefits, those are all not worth it if it gives the person digestive issues, or sends them to the ER.

Another case where foods are considered bad is what sort of conditions they might be facing. With certain digestive issues, such as Celiac Disease, avoiding certain foods is a necessity because of the long term damage it causes. Other conditions, like diabetes, benefit from a reduction in certain foods or food groups, like carbs. However, some diabetics might choose either on their own, or with the guidance of a medical professional, to cut out certain foods that affect their blood sugar.

The last of the factors I’d like to mention include personal reasons that are not medical in nature. Many people follow religions that exclude certain types of foods. If a client came to me with these religious food choices, I would take them into consideration and use them to make recommendations. Alternatively, during interviews, if a client says that they are against the idea of certain foods, I would work with them to find an alternative solution that would offer the same nutrition. Some people might avoid certain foods for ethical or socioeconomic reasons.

The answer to the question “What are good and bad foods?” is a complicated one. It is really all dependent on who is asking. All food is good, or bad, depending on the situation at hand. There are a variety of reasons for an individual to choose one food over another. In my opinion, all food is good food in moderation.

By The Nutrition Punk

I am a dietitian living in Portland, Oregon. I write about a variety of nutrition and heath topics, with the goal of improving people's understanding of food and nutrition so they may be empowered against all the misinformation that is out there.

One reply on “What Makes a Food “Good” or “Bad”?”

Done a lot of research on what food to eat or not eat and even when. One expert says eat this and another says surely not. It’s confusing, so I eat this and that in moderation like you say and try my best to keep processed sugar and artificial junk away.

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