Are the Foods You’re Eating Good or Bad for You?

It's tough to tell which foods are healthy or not. Find out now!

Lewis Black has a hilarious bit about milk and all the kinds of milk available nowadays. He starts the bit with a simple question, “Is milk good or bad?” The room filled with hundreds of people remains more silent than midnight in the Sahara. Not even a cricket was bold enough to chirp. Nobody knows. It goes beyond milk, too. Nobody knows anymore if anything is good or bad. There’s so much conflicting ideas and diets and articles, there’s no way someone spending less than a full-time job would be able to discern reality anymore. You have low-carb diets saying carbs are bad, low-fat diets saying fat is bad, vegan diets saying meat is bad, the recent carnivore diet saying eat only meat, superfoods, clean eating, atkins diet, south beach diet, keto, blah, blah, blah, on and on and on it goes and they all praise or vilify something else.

I have good news. We’re stripping away the dogma, keeping away from emotional responses, simplifying notions, and letting you know really what is good or bad.

What is food?

Seems like an embarrassingly easy question, but since there’s so much confusion about food, it’s best to shuck all that previous burden and start over from the ground up. For our purposes and to be as applicable as possible, food is simply going to be an edible solid or liquid that contains energy and nutrients. 

Energy is exactly what it sounds like. Just like a car uses fuel (gas, diesel, or electricity) to move, the body does the same thing. Instead of fuel though, the body uses energy locked in food which we refer to as calories. In physics, a calorie is a unit of measurement like equates to the amount of energy required to change the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. In biology and nutrition, a calorie is the same thing—it’s just a measure of energy.

Nutrients are another factor in considering if food is good or bad. Nutrients can be broken down by their daily demands into Macronutrients (Carbohydrates, Fats, Protein, and Alcohol) and Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). There’s a lot of different types of nutrients, but to simplify, just think of them as Lego bricks. Your body is always in a perpetual state of rebuilding itself. Your hair grows, your fingernails grow, you gain fat, you lose fat, your hair turns grey, etc., etc. In order to rebuild properly, your body needs the right Lego bricks available. You can’t build a model of Michael Jordan in his red Bulls jersey if you only have small yellow bricks. Similarly, you can’t build a properly functioning body if you have the wrong nutrient Lego bricks.

This simple definition of food, an edible vessel of energy and nutrients, is how we will judge food as good or bad. Let’s break down some common foods that often get celebrated or vilified by health and fitness professionals and determine what’s actually good or bad for us.

Food is simply an edible solid or liquid that contains energy and nutrients

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (commonly referred to as “carbs”) are a macronutrient and a source of energy. In fact, 1 gram of carbohydrates equals 4 calories. I think it’s also important to understand the structure of this one as that will come up later. Molecularly, a carbohydrate is carbon atoms attached to hydrates (2 hydrogens and 1 water, more easily recognized as H₂O or water). Sugar, the most common talked about carbohydrate, is C6H12O6 or 6 carbons attached to 6 hydrates. Carbohydrates are most richly found in grains and starches (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, farrow, barley, etc.) but also exist in smaller amounts in the sugars and cellular structure of fruits and vegetables.

What does it do in the body?

Carbohydrates have, up until the last 50 years or so, been a staple of the diets of almost every culture across time and geography (exceptions exist in harsher climates where agriculture is more difficult to maintain such as the Inuit tribes in the icy tundras). The carbohydrate molecule itself tends to be the easiest and fastest source of energy for the body to produce through something called the Kreb’s cycle (we won’t dig into the details, but it’s fast). Carbohydrates also impact the release and regulation of several hormones throughout the body and can help with mood and sleep regulation. Glucose, the simplest form of carbohydrates, is the brain’s preferred source of energy, and the limitation of carbohydrates can lead to feelings of fuzzy brain with impact on ability to think, recall, and focus. Many grain-based foods are also rich sources of iron and a complex of B-Vitamins (which help you feel energized). Wholegrain carbohydrates are also one of the best sources for fiber which is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, certain gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, and metabolic dysfunctions, including prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, and colorectal, gastric, and breast cancers. The consumption of carbohydrates greatly affects the balance of water and electrolytes in the body as well.

In short, carbohydrates can improve energy levels, improve sleep, improve mood regulation, promote better mental clarity, can maintain heart health, aid digestion, and provide some micronutrients that help us feel energized.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

Generally, people vilify carbs or say that carbs are bad. Remember how we mentioned that a carbohydrate is a collection of carbons attached to hydrates? Well, the consumption of carbohydrates has been shown over and over again to directly affect the body’s retention of water. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but water also carries weight, so if your body has more water, the scale will tell you that you have more weight.

When a diet contains more carbohydrates, such as a low fat diet approach, water retention stays a little higher. However, when the dietary approach is switched to a low-carb diet, a lot of water gets expelled. This means that a low-carb diet is possibly the fastest way to lose weight which is very appealing. Conversely, researchers have shown that switching to a high-carb diet can result in increased weight gain within 2 hours. Seeing an increase in weight with such a small change is terrifying for people monitoring their weight management.

There is a misconception that because you lose more weight quickly with a low-carb diet that you lose more fat. In recent research, we’re finding that fat loss between low-carb and low-fat diets to be identical when both diets have the same calories even if overall weight is different. The low-carb diet does lose more weight due to increased water loss. However, long-term studies have shown weight-loss to be even between low-carb and low-fat diets once the body has had time to readjust water levels.

So what is it really?

Truthfully, carbohydrates are better than people give them credit for. They do some important functions within the body in terms of hormone regulation, sleep regulation, mental clarity, electrolyte retention, and providing iron and B-Vitamins. However, the answer will be a bit nuanced depending on the individual.

For healthy individuals, you don’t really have to worry about carbohydrates. In fact, for optimum health, you should eat some for the iron and B-Vitamins. Carbohydrates are also the body’s preferred source of energy. Remember that food is a vessel of energy and nutrients. Be aware that you can overconsume energy and gain unwanted weight if you smash a ton of cookies, and it can be pretty easy to overconsume carbohydrates. We recommend grain based carbohydrates instead of sugar based carbohydrates.

Because carbohydrate intake can increase water retention, you may want to limit carbohydrates if you have edema or high blood pressure. Because carbohydrates break down into various sugars, if you have diabetes, you’ll want to discuss appropriate carbohydrate levels with a medical professional.

Carbohydrates are MOSTLY GOOD

REFINED SUGAR

What is it?

Sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate meaning it breaks down and digests incredibly fast. In fact, a lot of sugar begins to digest right on the tongue before it even gets to your stomach. Anyone that knows what a child is also knows that sugar is a potent source of energy.

There are two main sources of sugar. Fruits and some vegetables have a small amount of sugar, but most commonly people think of sugar as the isolated refined sugar you would use for baked goods and sugary treats. Because those two sugars act differently in the body, we’ll address fruit sugars separately later in the article. You’ll be able to see more about fruit based sugar in the Fruits and Vegetables section. 

What does it do in the body?

It gets digested and used for energy almost immediately. Simple sugars, as opposed to complex carbs like the starches in grains or potatoes, don’t tend to get stored in the body’s glycogen stores unless overconsumed or movement is restricted. Sugar in the body also creates an insulin response which has a myriad of effects in the body that are beyond the scope of this article and truthfully not wildly valuable to know the specific details unless you want to be a medical professional. Over-exposure to sugar can lead to a diminished effect of insulin referred to as insulin resistance. Sugar can also cause a release of dopamine in the brain which creates a happy “feel good” emotional response. Consumption of large amounts of sugar before sleep can also lead to disturbed sleep and nightmares.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

People usually think of sugar as bad. We talked briefly about how over-exposure to simple sugars can lead to a disorder referred to as insulin-resistance which causes a cascade of negative health outcomes. This is bad. We can’t sugar-coat that (excuse the pun). Foods that are high in refined sugar are also massively loaded with huge amounts of energy and very few nutrients. Because sugar releases dopamine, it becomes a happy reward and is really easy to over consume and ruin any weight management efforts. We also found that from the 80’s to 2000, as sugar intake increased among Americans, obesity rose at the same exact rate which lead people to conclude increased sugar intake increases obesity.

So what is it really?

Most importantly, if you have diabetes, you already know sugar has a strong effect on your blood sugar and insulin levels. Your doctor should educate you on when to consume and when to avoid sugar.

For otherwise healthy individuals, consistent over-consumption of sugar can lead to negative health outcomes due to insulin resistance, sugary foods contain few nutrients, and sugary foods contain oftentimes too much energy for most people most days. However, if you did a lot of taxing physical labor and need a little perk-up, a small serving of sugar can be helpful. That’s a very uncommon situation for most people though. Making sugar a dominant source of food in your diet can lead to negative health outcomes, but if the rest of your diet has a sufficient source of nutrients and you’re lacking energy, a sweet treat won’t kill you.

In addition, you’ll remember that link between increased sugar and increased obesity? Well, after that connection was announced, people decreased sugar intake sharply, but the obesity rates continued to rise at the same rate. This shows that sugar is NOT directly linked to causing fat-gain.

Decreased sugar consumption DID NOT decrease Obesity

If you’re overall healthy and you only eat a sparing amount on few occasions, sugar itself is not inherently bad for your health. It should be limited though and not overconsumed.

Sugar is OKAY ON OCCASION

GMO Foods

What is it?

GMO is an acronym for “Genetically Modified Organism” and refers to foods that have had their DNA altered in a laboratory setting. This is done generally to increase yield, shorten maturation phases, increase nutritional content, and/or create heartier plants less prone to crop failure.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

Because it’s unnatural. There is concern that altering a plant or animal’s DNA can introduce mutations that are harmful during human digestion.

So what is it really?

If you paid attention to food in the 90’s, you’re likely to remember the debate on Frankenfoods and whether they were dangerous or not. Frankenfoods were/are foods that were cross bred to have some blend of traits. Generally you don’t hear about the Frankenfood debate these days because those fears were ultimately discredited.

Lab based Genetic Modification is a modern continuation of an almost ageless agricultural practice of cross pollination and selective breeding. In fact, I don’t believe there is a single food available for purchase that has not been intentionally genetically altered through farming practices regardless of whether the food is labeled as GMO or not. The food available for us today is just drastically different than the ancient predecessors available to our ancestors. See below for a comparison of how food used to look versus how farming has helped evolve our crops.

Apart from foraging in the woods for wild vegetation and hunting wild game, you’re going to find genetically modified food. There’s been no scientific evidence that modern genetically modified foods has any health detriment compared to natural foods or older agricultural practices. In fact, most genetically modified foods have a high abundance of micronutrients making it easier to live a vibrant, healthy life.

GMOs are GOOD AND SAFE

FAT

What is it?

Fat is a macronutrient. Sources of fat contain 9 calories per gram and are a large source of energy.

What does it do in the body?

Fat helps regulate hormone development, particularly of our sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen) which impacts most healthy functions in the body. Fat also is the main component in brain and nerve tissues and studies have shown a positive impact of high-fat diets for various neurological disorders, most notably epilepsy (although other neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease and Traumatic Brain Injuries have a growing body of positive research). Fat, in the form of cholesterol, can also block arteries and create strokes and have been linked with heart disease. Fat is also the most easily stored macronutrient and that can increase body-fat levels.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

Most people consider fat to be unhealthy. Oftentimes people go on healthy diets to lose body fat. It’s easy to see why fat would become a concern if you’re actively trying to lose fat. Since fat is the most easily stored macronutrient, and increased body fat levels have been shown time and time again to be linked with terrible health outcomes such as stroke, heart attacks, heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and organ failure. That’s not a fun list.

So what is it really?

Fat has a lot of positive impacts on the body, but can also have some nasty negative impacts if overconsumed. Fats are also incredibly palatable and easy to overeat. Fat also has the most calories per gram (twice that of protein and carbohydrates) and can easily cause people to consume too much energy. Still, consumption of fat has vital function within the body and should be a part of a balanced diet that avoids excess calories. To avoid over consumption, keep fat intake paired with protein servings and avoid fried or greasy foods.

Fat is HEALTHY IN MODERATION, DANGEROUS IN OVERCONSUMPTION

MEAT

What is it?

It’s the muscle tissue of animals. It’s also often the focal point of two very different diet approaches; the carnivore diet and the vegetarian/vegan diets.

What does it do in the body?

Meat breaks down into proteins and amino acids. It also provides a source of iron and B-Vitamins. Creatine is also a substance found almost exclusively in meat sources (less in eggs and dairy) and is valuable in performance.  Meat is very dense in protein and protein contains 4 calories per gram. A lot of meat products also contain fat which has 9 calories per gram. With protein and fat, meat can be a dense source of energy.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

Make no mistake about it, most everybody has an emotional connection to meat at some level. Vegans and vegetarians are often vehemently against the consumption of meat products.  Other people that enjoy the flavors of steaks or burgers tend to have an oppositely extreme preference for the consumption of meat products. You can hear arguments going both ways, and both sides tend to be supported with very biased and often exaggerated research claims.

For the anti-meat camp, there are studies that link high meat consumption with increased cancer rates, cardiovascular disease, and instances of strokes. There’s also some connections between meat consumption and hormonal regulation particularly in pre-adolescent and post-menopausal women. There are also a lot of anecdotal claims that switching to plant-based diets has given the individual more energy levels and feelings of generally improved wellbeing. For the pro-meat camp, there are the listed health benefits of increased protein intake, iron, creatine, and B-Vitamins. There is also an increasing trend of anecdotal evidence of individuals having improved cholesterol, blood pressure, and other health markers when switching to an all-meat diet.  There are also studies of more indigenous cultures, particularly the Masai people, who eat high quantities of meat and have healthier biomarkers than the average western diet eater.  The proteins in meat products are also more digestible and bioavailable than plant source proteins.

So what is it really?

This one is tough. Both sides of the argument produce contradictory studies and evidence. However, all the studies that create a strong determination one way or another have some very strong weaknesses which makes a definitive claim more dubious. They’re most often observational and epidemiological studies meaning the results are determined after-the-fact through observations or surveys. These kinds of studies are valuable in determining connections to investigate further, but leave too many variables at play to give a definitive answer.

How can two exactly opposite diets, all-meat and no meat, both produce healthy outcomes when people switch to it? Any dietary approach that goes from an unfocused and free to eat junk food with too many calories approach to a focused, deliberate, and restricted approach will give positive health outcomes. That’s the difference between eating with intention and not caring about nutrition more than it is plants vs meats.

That all being said, there are more studies showing an increased health risk with the high consumption of meat. This probably isn’t due to the meat itself, but other lifestyle habits that are common among those that consume high amounts of meat. Avoiding overconsumption of calories in general, cooking meats gently so as to not burn the flesh, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables through the day, and drinking plenty of water will reduce the health risks that have been associated with high-meat intake. It’s also probably not a bad idea to reduce overall meat intake either, but meat won’t kill you.

Meat is FINE WITH A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE

Organic Foods

What is it?

Organic foods are either foods that are grown with traditional farming methods low in pesticides and chemical fertilizers or organic foods can also be considered foods made with ingredients that are organically farmed.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

The general consensus is that organic foods are good for you. Because it starts with a more natural farming approach versus a more industrialized chemical approach, it must be easier and less toxic on the human body. Also, there are claims that organic foods have more nutrients.

So what is it really?

There hasn’t been any real evidence showing organic foods to be more nutritious than conventionally farmed counterparts. There also hasn’t been a strong or definitive connection between the pesticides and fertilizers and negative health outcomes. That being said, organic produce tends to ripen a little more and for some people (myself included), this gives a more flavorful experience. If you notice a taste preference between organic and conventional, and it fits your price budget, feel free to have more organic foods. Overall, there’s no reason to believe organic is otherwise better than conventional. And there is zero reason to believe processed snacks with an organic label are inherently healthy. Those are still junk food with too much energy and too few nutrients.

It’s also worth noting that the definition of organic farming practices is constantly changing and what’s permissible in organic practices continues to expand which dilutes the organic label if that’s a label you want to care about.

Organic Foods are OVERRATED

Fruits and Vegetables

What is it?

They are edible plants not including grains or starches. You can find them in the produce section.

What does it do in the body?

Fruits and vegetables deliver a high amount of nutrients, a small amount of energy, and they can fill up a lot of space in the stomach preventing people from overeating other calorically dense foods.

Why do people think they’re good or bad?

Fruits and vegetables are the richest source of micronutrients. At the beginning of this article, we labeled food as a vessel of energy and nutrients. Few Fruits and Vegetables are going to be significant sources of energy like carbohydrates or meats will be, but they do come packed with far more nutrients. So people generally understand that Fruits and Vegetables are good for you.

Recently, there’s been concern about the amount of fructose that fruit has. Fructose is a type of sugar (which we already determined sugar is not inherently bad unless you eat too much), but it’s a little different than the processed sugar we talked about earlier (which is technically called Sucrose).

What is it really?

They are power bombs of nutrients, so we want to consume fruits and vegetables often throughout the day. They are low in energy, and lack a couple vital nutrients such as iron, so eating exclusively fruits and vegetables will be a bad idea for optimum health.

In regards to the fructose concern, researchers found that Fructose actually has positive health benefits when consumed in reasonable portions which is the opposite of what most people expect to hear when talking about a type of sugar. To find detrimental health benefits, a human needs to consume over 125grams per day. Most fruits have 5-15g, so you have a lot of wiggle room. Teenagers tend to consume the most fructose (more overall calories each day plus more likely to drink soda) and they still only average 70-80grams per day unless they drink excessive amounts of soda. In regards to fructose and fruit sugar content, you can eat freely and be fine.

Fruits and Vegetables are VERY GOOD FOR YOU

SUPER FOODS

What is a super food?

No, this is not a food born on Krypton and powered by a yellow sun like Superman, nor is it a berry irradiated with gamma energy to become the Incredible Hulking Berry. A “superfood” is a food which contains an inordinate amount of one or more particular nutrients, most commonly some form of exotic berry like acai berries or Himalayan goji berries. Because it has a “super” amount of a nutrient, it has been labeled as a “super food.”

What does it do in the body?

Each super food has a different nutrient that it is abundant in which would change its particular effect in the body. Most commonly they are touted as immunity boosters, anti-oxidants, or sometimes as fat burners depending on the nutrient.

Why do people think it’s good or bad?

Because it has extra nutrients, and nutrients help with normal healthy functions, people say that super foods are better for you. Logically, that makes a ton of sense. If Vitamin-E is good for your immune system, than more Vitamin-E is “gooder.”

So what is it actually?

We judge a food as good or bad based on its balance of energy and nutrients. With more nutrients, super foods may be good. However, they tend to only have elevated levels of one or two particular nutrients, yet can cost 2-3x the price of their less super alternatives. A diet that has a variety of different fruit and vegetable servings should give you a sufficient amount of the nutrients you need. Unless you’ve been tested for a particular deficiency and find a food that has more of that particular nutrient, super foods aren’t critical. If the price and the taste are appealing to you personally (such as my preference for black forbidden rice), then feel free to go for it.

Superfoods are OVERRATED

So what now?

If you go back 4000 words and just read the first section saying that we judge food as good or bad based on energy and nutrients, you’ll be fine. We examined a lot of different food categories that people either champion or vilify and determined that even commonly “bad” foods are fine for you if you balance energy and nutrients throughout your whole diet. If you eat cake, be aware that it has a lot of energy and not a lot of nutrients. You will have to balance that somewhere else in your day (maybe by having fruits and vegetables with lunch and dinner). If you eat Organic, be aware that there are no bonus nutrients there and you still have to balance the rest of your day based on energy and nutrients. If you eat carbs, ignore changes in water weight, know you’re consuming a lot of energy and balance that with nutrients somewhere else.

Unfortunately, there are very few foods that are inherently good or bad for you. Fortunately, that also means there are very few foods that are inherently bad for you.  If you eat balanced (balancing energy and nutrients) then you should be able to eat without fear or guilt.

If there are other foods you’re unsure about, feel free to drop a comment or send us a message of our FACEBOOK PAGE

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