Variety of healthy foods with text overlay: Good Foods? Bad Foods? What Am I Supposed to Eat?

Good Foods? Bad Foods? What Am I Supposed to Eat?

“Carbs are bad, proteins are good.” How many times have you heard people say that — or something similar — over the past few years? I’m guessing probably about a bazillion. We look at foods like vegetables, fish, lean meat, legumes, and whole grains as “good” while we consider things like chips, sweets, crackers, fruit, white bread and other highly processed food to be “bad.”

Could I tell you something? Foods aren’t good or bad; they’re just food. Maybe it’s time to look at our food in a different way.

Now before you stop reading, let me clarify something: There are nutritional differences in foods, especially between those we tend to put in the “good” and “bad” groups. The foods we tend to put in the “bad” group, in high amounts can raise our risk for health issues, and they can be incredibly hard to resist.

The problem with these categories for food is that they can set us up for failure long-term. When we rigidly eat only “good” foods and never eat “bad” foods, we can sustain it for a while, but if we slip up and eat something “bad,” we feel we’ve failed. When that happens, we may feel guilty, figure we’ve already messed up so we might as well eat more, then when that happens, we may decide we might as well stop trying.

Now, there’s a difference between what we’re talking about here and simply abstaining from some foods because we know we tend to overeat them. We’ll talk a little more about that in next week’s post. For now, though, let’s take a look at a way to look at foods that may be more helpful in meeting our wellness goals.

Rather than looking at foods as “good” or “bad” it can be more useful to look at them as a continuum of ‘eat more,’ ‘eat some,’ and ‘eat less.’

The ‘Eat More,’ ‘Eat Some,’ ‘Eat Less’ Continuum

Looking at foods on a continuum rather than as foods that are/are not allowed helps us get away from the “all or nothing” mindset that so often trips us up in our wellness journey. It can reduce some of the stress we can feel around our food choices, and give us a tool to make healthier choices most of the time (and not feel bad when we occasionally choose something less healthy).

According to Precision Nutrition Master Coach Dominic Matteo, “Unlike lists of bad foods, which tend to be universally rigid, a continuum ‘allows everything to be contextual and personalized.’ ” (1) The example that Matteo gives is that if he’s trying to gain muscle, his continuum will look different than if his goal is fat loss.

Our wellness goals will determine our continuum, but there are some general guidelines for the types of foods that fall into each area. Let’s take a look at them.

Eat More

Vegetables and Fruits

Eating a variety of veggies and fruit provides a range of different nutrients, which can also mean a range of health benefits. Whole fruits and vegetables also add fiber to our diets, which can help us feel full longer, improve our gut health and aid digestion. Remember to “eat the rainbow” to take advantage of the variety of nutrients these gems provide. Here are just a few examples of the different color veggies we can choose from:

  • Green. Leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, celery, green beans, asparagus, green peppers
  • Red. Tomatoes, beets, rhubarb, radishes, red peppers, radicchio, red cabbage
  • Yellow. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, orange and yellow peppers, butternut squash, carrots, summer squash, acorn squash
  • Purple. Eggplant, purple cabbage, purple carrots, purple cauliflower, rutabaga, purple peppers
  • White. Cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, shallots, garlic

Again, these are just some of the colorful vegetables we can eat to support our goal of healthy eating.

Lean proteins - salmon, eggs, aged cheese, lean beef

Lean Proteins

“Proteins are a major component of all plant and animal tissues, second only to water.” (2) We often think of them as the building blocks of tissue, including our muscles. When we don’t eat enough protein, our body will break down tissue like our muscles and use that as a protein source. That means it’s important for us to get enough protein in our diets.

When we think of the proteins we want on our ‘eat more’ part of the continuum, we may want to include things such as lean, minimally processed protein sources. This might include things such as chicken, eggs, fish, turkey, lean beef, bison, and lean cuts of pork. We might also include plain Greek yogurt, cultured cottage cheese and other low-fat dairy products, and tempeh.

Beans and lentils often serve as primary protein sources for vegetarians, and can be the main source of protein for meatless meals for those of us who eat meat. They can also fall under the category of carbohydrates, as they’re actually great sources of both.

Minimally-Processed Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, and quality carbohydrate sources can fuel our bodies for all the things we need to get done throughout our busy days.

The ones that best support our good health are the ones that are whole or minimally-processed. These are the ones that are packed with the nutrients and fiber our bodies need.

Some of the things we may want to include on the ‘eat more’ part of our continuum when it comes to carbs are things like quinoa, steel-cut, rolled, or old-fashioned oats, buckwheat, potatoes, brown, black or wild rice, whole-grain pastas, and whole-grain or sprouted-grain breads.

Healthy Fats

Fat is required for normal bodily functions, including proper functioning of the brain, nerves, heart, lungs, and liver. (3) Getting proper amounts of healthy fats in our diets will help us meet our wellness goals and makes our bodies healthier.

For the fats we include in this part of our continuum, we may want to focus on whole-food fats like nuts and seeds, blended whole foods such as nut butters, and pressed oils like olive oil and avocado oil.

Some of these fats might include Extra-Virgin olive oil, nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios, seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds, egg yolks, and aged cheeses.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the foods we may want to include on our ‘eat more’ part of our continuum, but I hope it will give you some ideas for what might work for you.

Now let’s take a look at what we might want to include on our ‘eat some’ portion of our continuum.

'Eat Some' Foods - croissants, muffins, juice, deli meat, cheese, fruit spreads

Eat Some

These are foods that can be part of a healthy diet, but ones that we might want to eat less often than the ones in the ‘eat more’ group. They may not support our wellness goals quite as well as the ones in the first group, but they can still have a place in our diet. They tend to be a little more processed, though they still have some good nutritional content.

Let’s just break these down into the same categories that we did above:

Proteins

The proteins in this group will include meats that are a little more fatty or processed such as medium-lean meats, minimally-processed lean deli meat, poultry sausage, and Canadian bacon.

They can also include tofu, uncultured cottage cheese, and protein powders.

Carbohydrates

Again, these are sources that may be a little more processed or contain more calories, but still contain nutrients. And they also can be a part of our healthy diets.

Some of the foods we might like to include here would be things like couscous, white rice, granola, instant or flavored oats, vegetable juices, pancakes and waffles, whole-grain crackers, white breads, pastas, and wraps.

Fats

These are fats that also have a place in our diets. They can help us feel full and satisfied. When eaten moderately, these fats can support our wellness goals while keeping us from feeling deprived.

The foods we may want to include for the ‘eat some’ part of our continuum are things like Virgin and light olive oil, sesame oil, flaxseed oil, dark chocolate, peanut butter, less-aged cheese, trail mix, and cream.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list — it’s just to give us an idea of some of the things we might want to include on our personal ‘eat some’ lists.

There’s one more part to our ‘eat more,’ ‘eat some,’ and ‘eat less’ continuum, but this post has already gotten a little (okay, a LOT) long, so we’re going to take a look at the last part next week. Also, as we talked about earlier, we’ll discuss a system for dealing with those foods with which we may have issues with moderation.

For now, let’s take a look at our Wellness Wednesday questions for this week.

Let’s Ask Ourselves:

Teal background with white conversation bubble that reads, "How do I feel about the idea of looking at foods on a continuum rather than as good or bad? Could this be helpful for me? If so, what foods do I want to include on the 'eat more' part of the continuum? How about the 'eat some' section?

Giving foods the human attributes of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can not only be unhelpful for helping us meet our wellness goals; it can actually make it harder.

Looking at our food on a continuum of things we want to eat more of, eat some of, and eat less of can empower us to move toward our goals in a way that works for us. It can also help us rid ourselves of the stress we often feel around eating and the guilt we experience when we eat something we’ve previously considered ‘bad.’

How do you feel about the idea of looking at foods as falling on a continuum rather than as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Do you think this could be helpful? Please share!

Blessings,

~Terri

Sharing is caring. If you found this helpful, I’d love it if you’d share!

Variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with text overlay: Good Foods? Bad Foods? What Am I Supposed to Eat?

Sources:

(1)  The Essential Guide to Food for Health, Nutrition, and Fitness Coaches, www.precisionnutrition.com

(2) Nutrition, 4th ed, 2013, Paul Insel, et. al, Jones & Bartlett Learning, Burlington, MA.

(3) Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals, 2015, Natalie Digate Muth, F.A. Davis Co., Philadelphia, PA.

(4) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-healthy-diet/art-20047702

(5) The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, 3rd ed, 2019, John Berardi, PhD,CSCS, et. al, Precision Nutrition, Inc.

21 comments

  1. You’ve done a fantastic job of breaking down the key areas of our diet and what to be looking for. Healthy fats are a really good one to explain as ‘fat’ has had such a bad rap over the years and yet fats are vital for bodily functions. Ditto carbs. Protein I think also gets a bit skewed as there’s this image of protein shakes for body builders when really we all need decent amounts of protein for the cells that are the building blocks of our bodies. I actually had a freezer full of Breyers ice cream – until they stopped selling here in the UK! – that was low in fat & calories yet so high in protein. Absolutely brilliant, better protein & vitamin content actually than the prescription nutrition shakes. Milk, for those that can drink or digest dairy products, can be really beneficial.

    Looking at food on a continuum is a fantastic idea. Much better than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food that’s very reductionistic and damaging to our mental health too when we end up torturing ourselves or berating ourselves for ‘slipping’ and eating something ‘bad’. All in moderation if possible is good. Easier said than done sometimes though when there’s chocolate in front of you 😉 xx

    1. Thanks so much Caz! I sure am sorry to hear they stopped selling Breyer’s ice cream there. Isn’t it amazing that ice cream outshone the so-called ‘nutrition’ shakes? That’s why reading the labels is so important. Sometimes we think we’re getting something healthy, but in reality, it’s far from it. You make such a great point about the milk. In fact, chocolate milk is recommended as a post-workout drink quite often because it has the perfect proportions of protein and carbs to refuel your body. I agree with you that labeling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be damaging to our mental health. Like you said, moderation in everything is great if we can do it. We’re going to talk about what to do when we can’t next week. I hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Sending hugs your way!

  2. A really nice article Terri! So many foods have been demonized, including bread which has kept the inhabitants of this planet alive for thousands of years (I’m not talking about Wonder Bread here). I also believe that our individual bodies handle different nutrients in a variety of ways, so what is good for Alice may not be good for Jerry.

    1. Thank you so much Dorothy!! You bring up a fabulous point about how our bodies all handle nutrients differently. We’re each so unique, and our bodies DO handle things differently. That’s why I think it’s so vital that people figure out what works for them rather than trying to use some rigid plan that worked for someone else… Hope you’re doing well and staying safe sweet friend. Hugs!

  3. The food game is so complicated, especially with specialty diets that seem to counter one another. My son-in-law puts butter in his coffee! How can that be good for you? I ate vegan for many years, until I became ill and couldn’t cook for myself. Hubby is big on meat; I prefer legumes. Now, facing osteoporosis, it’s all changed again. Apparently legumes are not good for bone. Who knew! Your post helps me breathe. Avoid extremes and use common sense.

    1. Ugh…. I’ve heard of people putting butter in their coffee…. I guess it’s a kind of popular thing to do now. My question is, why would you want to ruin a perfectly good cup of coffee? Ha Ha! I was really interested to see your comment about legumes not being good for bones. I don’t think I knew that, and since I have osteoporosis also, that’s something I definitely need to know. I just bought lentils too! I’m glad you find this idea of looking at the foods on a continuum helpful. I certainly do. You put it perfectly – “Avoid extremes and use common sense.” Oh, BTW, my Hubby finally got to see some snow last weekend. None of it stuck to the ground, but at least we got to watch it come down for a couple of hours. Sending hugs your way!

      1. Falling snow is wondrous. We are being warned of squalls, which makes driving treacherous. Not so good. There are a list of dos and don’ts for osteoporosis – my sister keeps me informed. I’d say eat those lentils. So good.

  4. Loved this post Terri. You talk about a topic that a lot of us tackle on a daily basis. I think that it’s one of the most difficult one to take on. In most people’s cases, it’s a drastic change in lifestyle…if I may be so bold to say. For me, when I found out about my Barret’s Esophagus condition, I really had to adjust the way I ate as well as what I ate. It took a long time, one that I’m still trying to work on to this day. But it is something that we can accomplish with time and in increments that are achievable.

    1. Thanks so much Mark! Making changes to the way we eat can be so difficult. There are so many different “moving parts” when it comes to eating, since it’s not always just about nourishing our bodies. For a lot of us (my family included) food plays a big part in our get-togethers, our celebrations, etc…. I’m glad you have been able to make the changes you needed to for your condition. I think you hit the nail on the head with what it takes to make permanent changes – “it’s something we can accomplish with time and in increments that are achievable.” Blessings to you dear friend!!

  5. Hi Terri, I am really glad I came across your post. I have been on a personal get healthy/lose weight journey for the last eight months and have written about it in a series of “Cookie posts”, the most recent is included in this week’s Seni-Sal. Ifind your post helpful and interesting and I signed up to follow your blog. I do not write primarily about weight loss, but have written several posts to share my personal experience in the hope that it gives encouragement to others. I like the idea of a continuum, and that is basically what I have been doing. Balancing what I am eating, leaving some foods out, even understanding that I can eat anything. You have been doing this for a while, have you written about sugar or sugar addictions? Do you think there is such a thing as sugar addiction? I’d be interested in what you have to say on those topics. ..Thanks and blessings, Michele Somerville,, The Beach Girl Chronicles

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, and for following Michele! I followed you back. I loved your ‘Still Stronger Than the Cookie’ post. It seems you’ve really found your rhythm with what works for you and what doesn’t. Each individual is so unique, and finding what works for us can be a lot of trial and error. I haven’t written about sugar specifically, and I’m not really qualified to say if there’s such a thing as a sugar addiction since I’m not a psychologist. I do know it’s one of those foods that can really be problematic for a lot of people. That’s partly because it does affect the ‘rewards center’ of the brain. I’m currently working on a Weight Loss Specialist certification, so that may be one of the things discussed somewhere in the course. I’m always sharing information I’m learning from research and my continuing education courses, so I’ll definitely share some of the information I’m learning now. Thanks again for following – I look forward to getting to know you. Blessings to you!

      1. You are welcome and thanks for reading the post, it is the “granddaughter” of several other posts. I have written about one a month. Thank you for following me too. I look forward to reading more of your work and learning from you. Blessings back, Michele

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