Good foods, bad foods, good diets, bad diets: time for a rethink?

“There is no such thing as an unhealthy food, only an unhealthy diet.”

I read this recently on Twitter, but it’s a regularly repeated statement in matters health and nutrition. It’s a variation, of course, on the “there are no bad foods, only bad diets” line we often hear too, and by extension, the implication has to be that there are no good foods either – “no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets”.

In this post I’d like to contest this, because I think it is both wrong and potentially damaging – both for people with food sensitivities, and the wider consumer. I’ll argue the case against, and then I’d really like to hear your thoughts. Consider, first, the following:

“There are no good or bad songs, only good or bad albums.”

“There are no good or bad football players, only good or bad teams.”

These are obviously statements we would not accept. So why do we give credence to analagous statements made about food? Can you come with another example where the “There is no good or bad…” line is used, and where it holds true? Maybe you can, but I can’t.

My contention here is that there are bad or unhealthy foods, but that you can eat them and still have a good or healthy diet. I eat them. I like occasional fizzy drinks, for instance, which are (I think) not healthy. I also like bananas, which are (I think) healthy. My take is that there are good and bad foods and diets, and there are degrees in between.

If you disagree, then I guess you must conversely agree that apples aren’t a good food, that you’ve never been served a bad meal, that you’ve been mistaken whenever you’ve referred to a food as healthy, that junk food is a misnomer, and that a fillet of wild salmon is on some level equivalent to a bag of crisps. To say that there is no good food is basically to say that there is nothing remarkable about any food – which anyone who has wrapped their chops around a choice and ripe and carotene-rich mango will surely know is just silly.

What is a good food?
It’s not just about nutrition, of course: the health or ‘goodness’ value of a food certainly does not only come from its minerals and vitamins and omegas and amino acids and antioxidants. There’s pure enjoyment, there’s taste, there’s the psychological and emotional wellbing certain foods give us. There’s also the tradition and celebration associated with foods and meals, the nostalgia of a homemade meal made by your mum, the feeling of community you get from food, and sharing it. There can be lots of factors which contribute to a food or meal’s goodness or healthfulness. And there are lots of factors which contribute an opposite, to my mind: heavy in preservatives, luminescent with artificial colours, artificial sweeteners, high in trans-fats, high in the salt-sugar-fat trinity, rubbish taste, highly processed …

The widespread acceptance of the ‘no good or bad food…’ notion saps my soul a bit. Where did it even come from? How did it become a part of our everyday food dialogue? Everywhere you look, you’ll find it. Go Google it. You should come across the NHS, the FSA, assorted food companies, nutritionists, dietitians – and the organisations which represent them – all claiming that there are no good or bad foods.

You’d perhaps expect it from certain food manufacturers such as confectioners – it could be argued it’s a convenient shield for them to deflect accusations that they produce rubbish – but I find it depressing when experts are involved. I respect nutrition experts hugely and rely on them for my work and I’m sure not all of them feel the same way. But food advisors who don’t believe good foods exist? Nutrition and diet gurus who don’t see the health in a homemade winter vegetable soup or perfectly ripe avocado? Does this not strike you as strange?

This dictum has been challenged before, of course, but I’ve found it difficult to find many dissenting voices. Dr Andrew Weil, in his very readable and food-positive book, Eating Well for Optimum Health, calls the ‘no good or bad food’ mantra “remarkably unhelpful”, and gives counter-examples of both good foods (soybeans) and bad foods (margarine). In her critique of our food and nutrition landscape, Bad Food Britain, investigative food writer Joanna Blythman lists ‘There is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets’ as one of ‘Britain’s Top 10 Bad Food Beliefs’.

Why do I also think this is a problem? Well, if we accept this supposed level playing field of foods, why should anyone bother to put pressure on food manufacturers to improve individual foods – for instance, by lowering salt content? If all food is equal, how do we teach our children to be selective about what they put into their mouths? If all tomatoes are equivalent, what’s the point in growing your own when you can go buy those bland ones at the supermarket? Why bother baking your own homemade fruitcake when the boxed-up one with the 2012 best before date is just as neither-good-nor-bad? Are we to forget about food campaigns, awareness and education, grow-your-own initiatives and cooking entirely, then?

Good food for coeliacs and food sensitives
This blog’s target reader is people with food sensitivities. For years, many people with long-standing food restrictions have struggled to find replacement foods which are both palatable and nutritious. Can we really deny that the beany soya milks of old were in no way ‘worse’ than the tastier soya milks of present? And that their fortification with nutrients that may be missing from a food intolerant’s diet is not an improvement, of sorts? Do coeliacs, who may have damaged intestinal linings and need to be very careful about what they eat, not need to choose ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ foods in order to promote healing and replace the absent nutrition caused by malabsorption during their undiagnosed years?

If there are no good foods, then it’s the death knell to BBC Good Food Magazine and time to boycott the BBC Good Food Show for mis-selling itself to us. It’s time to decommission Masterchef and we may as well abandon all food awards, including the Free From Food Awards. Let’s not bother celebrating and championing food – let’s instead leave the question of food in the hands of people who don’t even believe good and healthy foods exist.

“No good or bad food…”, to me, feels thoughtless and careless. It fails us and it fails the next generation of food consumers, it’s an insult to our food culture and to our instinctive senses of taste, sight and smell. It is an ‘up yours’ to the one-woman ‘free from’ producer baking and selling homemade GF cakes from her kitchen, and is a middle-fingered salute to the small artisan producers and local growers who take care over their output and try to deliver it to the wider public at food fairs and farmers’ markets.

And that’s my case against. Now over to you!

8 Comments

  1. Roland

    A quick look for a definition of Food brought up this "Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth". Seems reasonable to me.

    No single food can sustain a person and keep them healthy, we all know you need a balanced diet. We'd all like a food to be labled 'good' so we could have an excuse to eat loads of it.

    To use your football anaology, there are 'Good Players' but they can't win anything on their own, they need a balanced team around them. Delving deeper footballers have different strengths and weaknesses and roles. Can you really compare a great striker with a great goalkeeper and say which one is best?

    Food must be similar they maybe can be ranked in terms of how full they are of vitamins, calories, fat or protiens but can you really compare "Apples and Pears"?

    Trying to say one food is good or bad is perhaps a waste of time because in my view the key to a healthy balanced diet is "everything in moderation, nothing to excess". Long a go I got disconnected from what I was eating, I called it food but couldn't really tell you where some of the ingredients came from. Until I became a Coeliac I thought I was eating a balanced diet but then realised a large proportion of my diet was wheat.

    The description 'Good Food' depends on the context. A restaurant would serve 'Good (tasting) food', for someone dieting a low fat spread is a 'Good (slimming) food' and to a marathon runner pasta is 'Good (energy) food'.
    I've been forced to think about my diet a lot. The more I look into it, the more I consider our modern diets based on farmed foods make it difficult to achieve a balanced diet. We evolved over 100,000s of years eating what we could hunt and gather. That is probably a truly balanced diet.

    Now I must go and sharpen my spear.

    Reply
  2. Alex G

    Thanks very much for suc a thoughtful response.

    I'm not sure I'm really suggesting we make comparisons between different foods – ie arguing over whether a pear is better than an apple – but I think comparing a homegrown tomato and an anaemic supermarket tomato is reasonable.

    "Everything in moderation, nothing to excess" sounds at face value reasonable, but I'm not sure about that either. Vegetables in moderation? It's another dictum I'm not convinced really helps.

    Reply
  3. Michelle

    'Good diets' are made up of 'good foods' – but in balanced and moderate consumption.
    Some foods (transfats) are intrinsically bad because they deliver neither nutrition nor flavour; some foods deliver little nutrition but taste good (crisps); some foods are good (carrots) because they deliver both nutrition and taste but are bad if consumed to excess.
    A good diet, to my mind, consists of a wide variety of 'good' foods which deliver both nutrition and flavour interspersed with occasional indulgence in relatively 'bad' foods which deliver little in the way of nutrition but much in the way of taste (crisps/sugar) and excluding really 'bad' foods (transfats) which deliver neither!

    Reply
  4. Ruth Holroyd

    Food should be 'food'! How much of what people eat these days is processed and contains ingredients that if faced with them in jars to identify they wouldn't know what they are? E this and trans that. The more varied, natural, organic, colourful and nutritious your diet is the better. Treats can still be made with relatively healthy ingredients. We just need to be more aware of what we eat. Having allergies and intolerances forces you to do just that so there's one good positive thing about have them. So, back to your question. Good foods – yes in moderation, bad foods? If you fancy them, but not often, Good diets? eat varied foods, not the same stuff all the time and get some exercise. That is just as important as diet in my opinion.

    Reply
  5. Alex G

    Thanks both. I like 'food should be food'. Do you think we're all surrounded by 'pseudofood' too much these days? Whole supermarket aisles devoted to those fizzy drinks which are my occasional weakness, and assorted fluorescent sweeties?

    Reply
  6. Martina Watts

    The statement 'there are no bad foods only bad diets' sounds like it could be true, and we want it to be true, dont we. Responsibility is shifted away from toxic additives, or 22 tsp of sugar in a single big-gulp (bad food, arguably poisonous) to our own diet choices, which are our own responsibility. But when you think for a moment, they arde saying "there are no bad foods until you eat them" (and then they comprise your bad diet). Completely trivial statement, yet so re-asuring, and so useful for the companies who do actually make bad foods. Hey – they dont exist!
    Its a 'False truism'. See http://cokespeak.org

    Reply
  7. Alex G

    Thanks Martina – had forgotten about this old post – but always nice when a new reader and commenter comes along to find something from the vaults!

    Alex.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Grumpy Guide to the Grumpy Guide to Food | Allergy Insight

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