"Good Foods" vs "Bad Foods"... Are Black & White Labels Helpful?




"You shouldn't eat that... its got 'x,y and z' in it!"


"You NEED to eat this everyday... it's a superfood!"


We've probably all done it...


And we've definitely all been on the receiving end of it...


Everybody has an opinion on which foods are "healthy", which ones are "unhealthy", which ones are necessary to produce the fitness/aesthetic/health results that you want, and the ones that supposedly "prevent" you from reaching your goals.


In fact, even if nobody else was trying to influence what you eat by labelling foods as "good" and "bad"...


You probably do it to yourself on a daily basis!


We all know that different foods contain different nutrients... some are obviously more likely to contribute to good health, fitness and wellbeing, while others are obviously less so and may contribute to negative health outcomes when eaten to excess, or if you have an intolerance/allergy to that food...


...I am NOT about to suggest that you abandon your diet plan or ignore the generally accepted 'rules' of a healthy diet.


But I do intend to encourage you to question whether individual foods, individual meals, or even individual days should be labelled in such simple terms as...


  • "good" or "bad",

  • "healthy" or "unhealthy".




Thinking About Individual Foods In Isolation...


Foods, and the nutrients contained within those foods, are too often judged in isolation...


(Chocolate, biscuits, cakes... they're all 'bad' foods right?)


Foods are quickly judged as 'unhealthy' or 'healthy' without considering their place in the context of your overall diet.


If you were asked to label a bag of chips as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy', that decision would probably seem fairly straightforward...


It's difficult to identify any nutrients within those chips that are going to support most people's health & fitness goals...


...but very easy to identify ingredients or nutrients that would contradict the health & fitness outcomes that most of us want.


However, that meal, in isolation, only tells part of the story...


It tells you what somebody is eating in that one single meal/snack...


You still have no idea what that persons overall diet looks like throughout the rest of the week.


The same applies to nutrients and calories...


eg. chocolate and avocado are both relatively high in total fat, and therefore may both make a significant contribution to daily calorie intake.


However, if you eat a bar of chocolate, you are of course also likely to get a large dose of sugar, and not much in the way of health promoting nutrients.


The equivalent amount of total fat via avocado (as well as being predominantly monounsaturated fats, which are relatively beneficial to overall health) will also come along with a useful supply of fibre, vitamins, minerals and a less severe effect on your blood sugar levels.


The two foods, in isolation, affect your diet very differently, so we can't simply say that 'high fat' foods are automatically "bad".


That's just one example.


But does that then mean that avocados are always "good" and chocolate is always "bad"?


It's obviously not that simple...


What if you are aiming to maintain a small calorie deficit for weight loss, and consistently over-consume your daily calories even though you are eating "clean"...


...what effect do you think that has on your weight loss results?


What if you are intentionally eating to achieve a calorie surplus for weight/muscle gain... you've met all of your nutrient needs within a day and have 'room left over' for discretionary calories, which you decide to obtain from chocolate? Is that automatically a problem?


You can see that the quick and simple labelling of foods as 'good' or 'bad' is problematic...


  • Does one 'cheat meal' make a whole diet unhealthy? What about two cheat meals per week? Three? How do you quantify 'too much'? Equally... does eating your '5-a-day' of fruits and vegetables automatically make your diet healthy?

  • Does the existence of a single nutrient within a food make it healthy or unhealthy? What about the other nutrients in that food?

  • What if a "healthy food" does not support your personal goals... What if an "unhealthy food" can be included in your diet while you are successfully achieving your personal goals?




Thinking In The Context Of Your Whole Diet...


In the real world, individual meals/snacks make very little, if any, significant difference to your long-term progress.


Obviously a breakfast from McDonalds is not your best choice in most scenarios...


But even if you do choose to do that on any given day... following that decision up with better choices at lunch, dinner and for your snacks, could still turn the whole day into a 'healthy' day overall (or at least one that supports your personal goals).


It's even easier to correct course over a whole week (it's common to abandon a daily, weekly, monthly plan based on one or two bad decisions... "I've started badly, I may as well write today off"... in reality those decisions could easily be incorporated into a plan that still produces the target result).



Assuming that...

  • your overall calorie intake for the day is on target...

  • You eat all of the important macronutrients & micronutrients that you need for good health (meeting evidence-based guidelines)...

  • you avoid regularly exceeding the guidelines of potentially harmful ingredients such as alcohol and trans-fats (see below)...

  • And you remain consistent with your exercise programme...


...then you should theoretically be able to achieve a diet that is healthy overall, while allowing room for your favourite foods that might have been considered unhealthy in isolation...


Does that mean you should be eating McDonalds for breakfast on a regular basis...


...obviously not!


Clearly you would be making things harder than necessary...


But the point is that an individual food, or individual meal, doesn't define your diet as a whole...


And of course, the opposite is also true... one healthy meal each day clearly doesn't guarantee that you have a healthy diet!


Recommendations such as '5-a-day' for fruit and veg are designed to help you achieve a minimum benchmark, not a license to treat the rest of your diet as a free-for-all.




Right Place, Right Time...


Consider timing of foods and nutrients too...


When (and why) you eat certain foods can also be worth considering as this might occasionally have an effect on the way those nutrients interact with your body.


Pre and post-workout nutrition for example, where carbohydrates, fats, fibre and protein might be increased or decreased compared to other times of the day.


Sugar is normally considered the villain of nutrition... blamed for rising obesity, increasing levels of diabetes in Western populations and unwanted energy/mood swings, among other widely recognised negative effects...


But sugar (or simple carbohydrates in general) might be useful in certain scenarios;


  • during long duration exercise

  • post exercise

  • and frankly, any time you like, if managed within a "balanced" diet (see the guidelines above)...

So again, simply jumping to the conclusion that high sugar foods are always "bad" is simply not an absolute truth...


Especially when, as mentioned earlier, you look at that sugar in the context of your overall diet and activity levels too...


If you are within the guidelines of a healthy diet overall, and you are achieving the results you want... there is no reason to fear sugar per se.




Balance & Sustainability


The idea behind banishing certain foods from one's diet, is presumably to produce, or avoid, a specific physical change in the body...


That may be for health reasons, aesthetics (eg. body composition), or to help improve some aspect of physical performance.


Consider your own attempts at dieting...


What were the foods that you assumed were holding you back and therefore had to be reduced (or in many cases, removed entirely)?


The chances are that whichever foods you have tried to restrict, are probably among your favourites.


Is the specific food the problem?


Or the lack of control (ie. portion sizes)?


The first (obvious) problem with total elimination, is that this is clearly never going to be sustainable...


How long are you really going to remove your favourite foods and drinks for?


Even if you mange it for more than a few days, how is that going to make you feel?


And what hapens to your results when you bring those foods back in?


This is one of the MANY reasons that this type of restrictive "diet" doesn't work in the long-term...


And any successful way of eating, exercise programme, or any life goal for that matter, depends on your ability to CONSISTENTLY implement the plan that leads to that goal.


Meaning... that rather than labelling foods as 'bad'... and fooling yourself into thinking that:


  • A - they need to go...

  • and B - they can realistically be removed form your diet...


... you are going to have to move on from thinking in black & white terms and realise that there are often no 'good' and 'bad' foods...


... only 'successful' and unsuccessful' programmes...


...and a successful programme is more likely to include a healthy balance of the individual foods that you enjoy but might also think are 'bad', than it is to contain only 'healthy' or 'clean' foods.




Assess Your Diet... Not Individual Foods...


Any physical changes that occur to your body (positive or negative) will be gradual...


They will therefore reflect the most consistent patterns in your diet over a sustained period of time.


Individual meals, and especially individual ingredients, are not going to make any immediate difference (remember, daily or weekly fluctuations in weight are most likely not due to significant fat gain/loss).


So not only do you need to cut yourself some slack whenever you think you've eaten something you shouldn't (which you will... you're human!)...


But psychologically, you could probably also argue that achieving a sustainable fitness goal probably relies on achieving balance by deliberately including the foods and meals that you enjoy the most...


If that means getting a better grip on portion sizes of certain foods (that could mean increasing or decreasing, depending on your goals)... then focus on those appropriate adjustments rather than making an unreasonable decision to eliminate 'bad' foods and only eat 'clean'!


Your body changes/stays the same based on your overall diet... not individual meals/snacks. Genuine one-offs (eg. a glass of wine after work on a Friday night) are not a cause of major setbacks. Look for the more consistent, repetitive patterns that are far more likely to be having an impact (eg. craving a dessert after dinner every night)... this is where your attention and subsequent changes are likely to have a significant effect.




Sensible Exceptions...


On that note... the guidelines regarding foods/nutrients that you should be keeping a cautious eye on, usually refer to daily allowances (as opposed to limits within a single meal/serving, although that can obviously help to keep track of the daily total).


eg. in the UK, guidelines (for healthy people) recommend that...


  • no more than 5% of daily calories come from 'free sugars' (added sugar in fizzy drinks, snacks etc and sugars found in processed fruit/vegetable juices, but not naturally occurring sugar in whole fruit & veg) and does not exceed 30g (average UK adult)

  • saturated fat should not exceed 30g (average male) or 20g (average female) each day

  • trans-fats should ideally be avoided (typically found in highly processed foods, deep fried foots, fast foods etc

  • avoid/reduce to a minimum added nitrites, nitrates and any other chemical that has been classified as a potential carcinogen (often only added to extend shelf-life of foods such as bacon and other processed meats)

  • follow the guidelines for alcohol (remember, elimination is probably unhelpful from a sustainability/consistency point-of-view if you already enjoy a few drinks per week, but the reality is that alcoholic drinks do not provide any essential nutrients and you're already aware of the potential negative consequences).




Be Realistic...


The foundation of a successful programme or diet obviously needs to consist of good choices most of the time. Dietary and nutritional guidelines exist for a good reason and for good health, you will need to consistently meet them over any given period of time.


However, that rarely means that every single mouthful of food needs to be 'perfect' from a 'clean eating' point-of-view. It's likely that you can allow for some discretion within your overall diet while achieving your goals.


Resist the temptation to label foods as 'good' and 'bad'... at the very least, labelling in such black and white terms can affect your overall relationship with food and encourage an unnecessary source of anxiety.