I am sure you have heard it before: X food is healthy vs X food is unhealthy junk. Maybe you even think about food in terms of “good” and junk “bad” yourself. In this post, I want to give good reasons for why this way of thinking is not only mentally unhealthy but how it can actually hinder your efforts of eating better.
Why do people think in terms of “healthy food” Vs “unhealthy food”?
- We long for simplicity
Let’s face it, life is complicated. People are longing for anything that seems simple and easy. We want a quick fix, a fast answer, an easy solution to our problems.
We do not want to settle for: “It is complicated” or “It depends on many factors.” Dividing foods into two categories: healthy food vs unhealthy food, makes things easy. Eat the good, don’t eat the bad.
- The world is inherently complicated
Fact is, nature does not care about what people want. Our bodies and therefore nutrition are simply incredibly complicated.
Why food is not simply good or bad
- Amount matters
Sodium is essential to life and without it, we would all die. Most people understand, however, that too much sodium is not healthy. The same is true for pretty much any food, even “healthy ones”.
For example, parsnips have plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They also contain psoralens, which are potent carcinogens and mutagens. While eating parsnips in moderation is not a problem, eating too much could be harmful.
- Everybody is different
It is easily overlooked that we do not only look different from each other but are genetically and biochemically different as well. Food allergies and intolerances are good examples.
Lifestyle can also make a difference. An athlete has different needs than a couch potato. This makes one food “good” and “bad”, depending on the person who is eating it.
Another example is a bowl of whole grains, which may be healthy for one person but may instead advance atherosclerosis in a person with insulin resistance or diabetes.
- Food is not just about health
The terms junk food vs healthy food most often strictly refer to health. But food is and should be more than just fuel.
For most people, food has the potential to increase the quality of life and therefore happiness! When you eat food only for the health benefits, you might be missing out on overall happiness.
And isn’t that what it is all about? What is the point of living a long life when you are unhappy doing it?
Of course, if you strictly focus on pleasure and happen to enjoy the wrong kinds of foods, it can eventually make you very unhappy when you suffer the consequences. It is all about balancing and trying to maximize both pleasure and health. Besides, how “bad” is food really when it makes you so happy to eat it once in a while?
How “junk food vs healthy food” can be bad for you
Deciding what’s healthy and what’s junk
Of course, every decision we make is based on something. Sometimes, we place food in a category because we heard or read something about it. The thought process can go like this: X contains a lot of fiber, fiber is good, X is good.
Our ideas also strongly depend on past experiences. When our parents said: “Drink your milk, it is good for you”, it made an impression on us.
Nowadays, our perception of food is also shaped by the media. There are literally hundreds of sentences published each day, mentioning how and why food is either junk or healthy for us. It is hard to not be influenced, especially so on a subconscious level.
Information can be misinterpreted about junk food vs healthy food
The problem is that good information can be misinterpreted and other information is flat out wrong. If you decide that one food is junk and stop eating it, you might unnecessarily restrict your diet and lose potential happiness.
On the other hand, if you decide the food is healthy you might eat it without really enjoying it, when you could be eating something equally healthy that you like better.
Even worse: you eat something thinking that it is healthy (everyone talks about the health benefits), when in reality it is not good for you.
don’t get sucked in
Manufacturers know about the psychology of consumers and use it to their advantage. The recent shift to more wholesome food has resulted in product descriptions and ingredient lists that contain the word “natural”, “organic” and “pure”. Don’t be fooled. Natural does not equal healthy! Also, your body does not care if something was created in a lab or by nature if it is the same substance.
Feeling safe when eating healthy food
Another problem with this kind of black and white thinking is that it is easy to feel “safe” with certain foods.
Too safe. Once a food has been deemed good, you might think it is ok to eat it as often and as much of it as you want.
As mentioned before, this is often not the case, even with “healthy” foods.
The same kind of thinking often hinders people from losing weight. Many people are trying to find the one macronutrient or even the one food that is responsible for their weight.
Some end up blaming carbohydrates, others choose to blame fat. The former then often overeat on “safe” fat and the latter overeat on “safe” low-fat foods. Both behaviors ultimately lead to weight gain.
Another obvious problem with the concept of junk food vs healthy food is that it leads to bad feelings. A lot of people have blacklisted so many foods that it is practically impossible to never get exposed to or eat any of it. And when a “junk food” is consumed, the person often experiences incredible guilt and a sense of failure. After all, if food is simply “bad”, it is always “junk” and should never be consumed.
A better way of thinking about healthy vs unhealthy food
After all that talk about how not to think about food, the question emerges: how should we think about food? Here is an idea:
Every healthy and unhealthy food plays a role
I like to think that every food plays a role in our diet. For each food, there are healthy and unhealthy roles. This means the same foods can be “junk food” or “healthy food” depending on the role it plays.
Roles differ by size and purpose
The difference between a healthy and unhealthy role can lie in the size of the role. A little sprinkling of cheese can be perfectly healthy. But when cheese plays a larger role in a dish — think fondue or cheesy casseroles — the role of cheese is not a healthy one in that particular dish.
But of course, even an unhealthy dish can still play a healthy role in a diet overall — if the role is relatively small.
Even if the amount and frequency of certain food are the same, the role can still differ by purpose. If you eat one cupcake because you love the taste and it makes you happy and satisfied, the cupcake plays a healthy role.
On the other hand, if the role of the cupcake is to numb your feelings or to simply fuel addiction, the cupcake plays an unhealthy role.
The role most foods should play
Optimally, most foods that you eat should play the role of nourishing your body and protecting you from the disease. Of course, it is a major bonus when it also makes you happy, because it is delicious and satisfying.
Other roles food can play
It is also perfectly acceptable when a food’s sole role is to enhance the flavor of a dish. A sprinkling of cheese is the perfect example.
Cheese, like most other foods, is not inherently bad. It is also fine to sometimes indulge in something that simply tastes good.
Some foods play a role of indirectly promoting health. When a sprinkle of cheese helps you to eat your broccoli, which you would not eat otherwise, the cheese plays a healthy role.
Sometimes the role of food goes even deeper than just health and flavor. Food is linked to traditions, can bring back memories, and can strengthen human relationships.
Spirulina, for example, has a special meaning for a lot of people. To eat it once a year is perfectly healthy.
Understanding what truly matters
While it is very unlikely that eating something like cake once a year will have an impact on your health, having the wrong mindset — even just once — does have a negative impact on your mental health and happiness.
- In sum
Labeling food as junk or healthy does not really make things easier. It often leads to unhappiness and sometimes even poor health. If you truly want to lead a healthy life, start by improving your relationship with food and with yourself. The rest will follow naturally…