It’s been said that there are no bad foods, only bad diets. The idea is this: if we simply ate a wide range of foods – mostly healthy foods – and didn’t eat too much, we’d all be better off. But even though most people might understand the concept of a diet based on variety, balance and moderation, for many it’s still difficult to put into practice.
We crave variety. Humans evolved in surroundings overrun with a huge range of plant foods. And the drive to consume them was nature’s way to ensure that nutrient needs would be met. We carry this same urge with us today – which would still serve us well if we were merely selecting from a spread of edible plants. But we’re not. We’re faced with way too many food choices – not all of them good for us – and studies show that the more choices we have, the more we eat.
What does balance mean? Does it mean you can ‘balance’ a relatively unhealthy food with a healthy one? Do the nutritional positives of a grapefruit balance the negatives of a cream puff? This idea that ‘everything fits’ works out nicely if you plan a diet on paper. You could plan for a fast food burger and fries for lunch, and sandwich it between a really healthy breakfast and dinner. And, if you did the nutrient and calorie calculations for a day like that, it might not look too bad. With careful choices at breakfast and dinner, you could probably keep the days’ calories and fat under control, and even meet many of your nutrient requirements, too.
But who eats that way? I would bet that most people who opt for a fast food lunch are looking for something pretty similar for dinner. And, I wouldn’t expect that people who eat cottage cheese and fruit for breakfast are hitting the drive-through at lunchtime.
Moderation is usually taken to mean not overeating in general, but it especially applies to the ‘extras’, like fats, sweets and alcohol. Some people can moderate really well – they can keep a bag of cookies in the cupboard without losing control. But for others, the concept of eating a single cookie is completely foreign – and for them, learning to moderate intake may never happen. They may be better off to avoid temptation altogether, and never bring the cookies into the house in the first place.
So, are there bad foods, or just bad diets? I think we have both. I’ve got my own list of things I think are ‘unhealthy’, and it’s likely that you’ve got a list, too. Whether we choose to eat these foods, or how often, is a personal decision. But pile enough bad foods on your plate, and you’ve got a bad diet.
In the end, we should be striving to eat as healthy as we can. Variety should come, for the most part, from the huge range of healthy foods we have available. Balance should be less about countering the ‘bad’ with the ‘good’, and more about getting the right amounts of what your body needs – lean proteins, healthy fats, and ‘good’ carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains – in order to meet your nutrient requirements.
This isn’t to say we can’t indulge from time to time, but the hardest part is moderation. It’s tough to take in only what you need when there’s temptation everywhere you turn.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.