Is This Food Healthy?
As a coach and nutritionist this is probably the question that I’m asked the most, and it’s not too hard to understand why. There are more documentaries and TV shows about food and health than ever before, and that’s not to mention the rise to prominence of various healthy eating bloggers and Instagrammers, all who are more than willing to give you their tips, advice and opinion on what foods are and are not good to eat.
Looking at the question a little more closely, however, we see that it could theoretically be re-worded a little. The question ‘is this food healthy?’ is usually a stand-in for any of the below alternatives:
Am I allowed to eat this?
If I eat this, will I gain fat?
If I eat this, will I lose fat?
If I eat this, will I become sick?
The first question is relatively easy – yes, you are allowed to eat any food you choose to. You are a grown-up and you’re able to make that decision for yourself. I don’t mean that in a patronising manner – rather, I mean to say that you are free to decide to eat anything you want provided you are happy to accept any consequences of doing so.
If eating something is going to derail your fat loss progress but the cost:reward ratio works out in your opinion, that’s great and you should carry on.
But then, of course, for you to know whether a food is going to derail you or not we need to answer the other questions, don’t we? We’ll start with the first one.
Can a food cause fat loss or gain?
Years of use of the word ‘fattening’ to describe foods or ‘slimming’ to describe others has many of us thinking that foods have an ability to cause or reduce bodyfat gain, but this isn’t quite true. When we are thinking of weight loss or gain we are thinking of shifts in stored amounts of energy in the body (acute waterweight fluctuations notwithstanding – that’s a topic for another time).
Bodyfat and muscle mass are two energy stores (though muscle has many other purposes and fat does do some useful things, too) and so an increase in stored energy leads to an increase in scale weight, logically.
That energy comes from the food that we eat, and thanks to the second law of thermodynamics which states that energy in a closed system cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form into another, we can see that for us to store additional energy, we must consume more than we use. More must enter the system than leaves.
Yes, of course, we could go into further detail about nutrient partitioning i.e. relative gains and losses in muscle and fat but assuming you are performing some form of resistance training and eating sufficient protein, that’s not really a concern for today’s piece as partitioning is not impacted upon by food choice outside of protein quantity and quality.
So we know that weight gain (so, fat gain) is dictated by an energy surplus and weight loss (fat loss) is dictated by an energy deficit. Where do foods play in to this? Well, outside of their caloric value specific foods are unable to override this system.
While the insulin hypothesus tells us that increased insulin spikes lead to weight gain, outside of an energy surplus this isn’t true because again – that stored energy needs to come from somewhere and if your intake balances out over the course of a day (or it’s negative) then fat cannot physically be gained. There are fine arguments that highly processed foods are often:
More calorically dense, meaning more energy per mouthful
More hyperpalatable, meaning you want to eat more
Less filling, amplifying the above
But that can all be mediated by proper portion control. The simple fact is that (in terms of nutrition) the ONLY thing that causes weight loss and gain is energy balance, and your specific food choices don’t really impact upon that with one clear caveat:
Protein needs to be adequate. Research indicates that provided protein is matched, high carbohydrate and low carbohydrate have equal outcomes in terms of body composition, and it also shows that the degree of processing within the diet has no baring on composition outcomes provided calories and protein are matched.
1000 calories of chicken will not have the same impact as 1000 calories of cake, but two meals containing 500 calories, 40g of protein, 40g of carbs and 20g of fat will, regardless of the food choices therein.
So what about health?
This is a good question. There are numerous claims made regarding sugar and certain fats which would suggest that consuming highly processed foods is harmful, but some context is needed here.
First of all, the ‘problem’ with sugar is that it fits into the three bullet points listed above for highly processed foods very, very well. It’s delicious, and because it’s soluble you can fit a lot of it into a very small amount of food – resulting in a really high calorie mouthful. Truth be told, however, while Type 2 Diabetes, certain cancers and Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease correlate with high sugar diets this is missing one piece of the puzzle:
High sugar diets also correlate very well with low vegetable intake, overeating in general, obesity and low protein intake. Once all of these things are taken into account the relationship between sugar and ill health disappears.
None of the ill health states associated with sugar appear outside of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive energy intake so provided you don’t fit those two categories, sugar is not to be avoided other than for the purpose of calorie control.
Next we can look at fats, and here there is a very good argument to be made. Independent of exercise, overweightness and overeating, trans fatty acids are associated with an increased risk of CVD and some cancers.
These hydrogenated oils should be avoided as much as possible, though it’s worthy of note that they are very, very rarely in foods in the modern world because this information is so widely known, and so they are easy to avoid – check labels for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and just leave these things alone. Of course, if you were to eat some hydrogenated oil here and there it would make zero long term difference – as with anything, the dose makes the poison.
Aside from that, however? Beyond specific, unusual digestive problems (lactose intolerance, celiac disease, etc) there is no food that should be blanket avoided for health purposes. Indeed, dairy is an exceptionally healthful food rich in calcium and protein, while many gluten containing products are a rich source of B vitamins and fibre, let alone cheap and convenient.
If you do not personally experience gastric upset upon eating small to moderate amounts of these foods, you have no reason to fear them.
As a final example, aspartame (the controversial non nutritive sweetener in diet coke) is completely harmless.
(Interjection from Richard - See I told you aspartame isn't bad!)
Despite widespread fear mongering, the digestive process for it is the same as for all other proteins (which it is) namely, it’s broken down into smaller things and absorbed – in this case aspartame is broken into aspartic acid which is contained in meat, phenylalanine which is also in meat and methanol, found in tomatoes.
The safe upper limit for aspartame is equal to around 4 litres of diet coke, and even this is 50x lower than the theoretical toxic dose. There is no reason to avoid this at all.
With all of this comes one caveat, however – here I am not saying that these foods should be emphasised in your diet. Rather, I am saying that pre-packaged and even extremely highly processed foods do not cause harm per se. They are not wholly nutritious either, though. Food is more than calories and macronutrients, it’s micronutrients, fibre and phytonutrients as well and these things need to come from unprocessed, whole foods including a wide array of fruits and vegetables.
And that’s the point. Asking if a food is healthy is asking the wrong question – the correct question to ask yourself is if your diet is geared towards promoting health or not. That means it needs to contain a wide array of fruits and vegetables as well as lean meats, dairy and eggs (if you eat these), whole grains, whole grain products like bread, legumes, nuts and seeds.
It needs to be calorie appropriate with sufficient protein and essential omega-3 fats, and you need to stay hydrated. Beyond that, however, the rest is up to you. An intake of 80-90% whole, unprocessed foods is a good place to aim for and if you’re there or there about and you fancy some baked beans on toast, then you should have no concern at all for the ‘cleanness’ of the meal.
After all, the term ‘clean’ as it relates to food is a nebulous term used primarily to guilt people into doing what some guru wants them to and to sell detox books. There are no clean foods, there are just foods. There are no healthy or unhealthy foods, only healthy and unhealthy diets, and foods that do or do not fit into your energy needs.
Never forget to look at the bigger picture.
Tom Bainbridge is the Academy Manager at Body Type Nutrition, the UK’s first completely online Nutrition Course aimed at Personal Trainers and the General Public.
He Co-Hosts the #1 rated Ben Coomber Radio Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts, and he writes for both www.bodytypenutrition.co.uk and www.awesomesupplements.co.uk, where he has helped formulate some of the most effective, evidence based supplements on the market.
Find him on Instagram @tombainbridge1990 and if you’d like to ask him a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org