It’s a question we hear often…. sometimes in desperation. “If there are no good or bad foods, how will I ever know what to eat?”
Over the years, foods that have been demonized are later celebrated as a superfood. Or first celebrated and then demonized – “You MUST eat this” and “You absolutely cannot eat that.” It goes around and around until we’re all confused, and over and over, we wonder: Are potatoes good or bad for me? What about ‘too many’ eggs or ‘too much fruit? Can I eat pasta and still get to my goal?
We get it, it’s A. LOT. to figure out.
And the truth is that there is no right or wrong strategy, no good or bad way of eating that applies across the board. What is “healthy” depends on you, your lifestyle and your specific goal; what are you eating FOR? What do you actually WANT from your nutrition?
So what do you want?
While that can be frustrating that there is no one quick and easy answer (wouldn’t it be great if there was just a set of rules that we could stick to that would just continue to work?), the good news is that seeing food beyond the “good” and “bad” boxes gives us a lot of freedom.
To make sense of that freedom, though? First, we need to identify the goal. Are you looking for more energy to get through your day? More strength gains from your workouts? A shift in body composition for more lean muscle mass?
Once we’ve narrowed that down, we can start to see food beyond the two buckets – the objectively good and the objectively bad – to a continuum where foods fall somewhere along a line of more or less helpful toward that particular goal.
Okay, we have a continuum. Now where does a particular food land?
When you are figuring out where on the continuum a food might fall for you and your goal, you might consider factors like:
- The caloric density of the food – how many calories does your goal require in a meal? What about overall? How does this food – amongst everything else you are eating – help you stack up?
- The macronutrient makeup – what is the ratio of fats, proteins and carbs that best align for your goal? How does the food – again, together with everything else you’re eating – play a part?
- The diversity of micronutrients – are we getting enough (and the right) vitamins and minerals to help your body do what we’re asking of it? What micronutrients does this particular food provide?
- The amount of processing the food has undergone – note: food items that are higher in processing tend to strip fibre and nutrients and are designed to confuse our innate hunger and fullness cues. Here, you might want to consider how much room our goal allows for these kinds of choices [remember, there is almost always room for *some*] and how does the balance of these foods fall among our other choices in a day?
Then we evaluate!
If we look at our overall intake, the individual foods we choose and how they stack up together, we can start to evaluate where we land overall on the balance of what our goals ask of us and decide how we can integrate foods that are higher on the “more helpful” end.
For example, if our goal is weight loss and we eat a lot of processed fruit juices and it could be helpful to integrate more whole fruits and veggies to get the added benefit of the additional fibre and increased micronutrient content, too.
And if we are focused on our sports performance, but our diet is predominantly made up of dietary fat, choices higher in lean protein might contribute to a better balance that moves us more quickly toward where we want to be.
When we’re able to take a closer look at how our food choices serve us, each meal is an opportunity to make a slightly more aligned choice.
And the best part?
When we break free of the “good” or “bad” framework, it also means we can acknowledge that don’t need to eat “perfectly” to make progress – because let’s face it, we probably can’t maintain that over the long term, anyway.
Some meals will be slam dunks, some won’t be that well aligned, and most can and will fall somewhere in the middle leading us sustainably toward our goal, step by step. The name of the game becomes how to lean more often into the ‘more helpful’ zone for the goals that are important to us.
Because there is no one plan, no one set of rules, no one way of eating or way of being coached that is the be-all and end-all of the path to “health”. It’s ALL about finding what works for you – in a balance – what works now, what is sustainable in the long term, and what can you do while living your best damn life.
And that, my friends, will get you so much further than any “good” or “bad” label ever could.