Eric Helms-The Myth of “Good” and “Bad” Foods

Posted: September 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

Eric Helms, Coach at Team 3DMJ


  • California University of Pennsylvania
    • BS Sports Management: Fitness and Wellness (3.93 GPA)
    • MS Exercise Science & Health Promotion: Performance Enhancement & Injury Prevention (4.0 GPA)
  • Auckland University of Technology
    • MPhil:  “Exploring protein and macronutrient intakes in lean bodybuilders during caloric restriction”
    • PhD in Strength & Conditioning: Researching auto-regulation in resistance training (in progress)

The Myth of “Good” and “Bad” Foods
“I think one of the most pervasive, and possibly detrimental mind sets is that of seeing foods as either “good” or “bad”. This is a rather seductive way of looking at foods because it is simplistic. Look at a food, identify it as friend or foe, and then go with the “good” option not the “bad” option and you’ll be healthy, fit, lean and sexy! It’s that easy! But of course, that’s not the case.
One of the problems with this mindset is that it fits perfectly into the behavioral paradigm that leads to obesity in the first place; the all or nothing mindset. One thing I find to be a commonality among folks who struggle with weight gain and permanent weight loss, is that they lose the middle ground. They bounce between being “on the diet” and falling off the band wagon and lapsing into cycles of overeating. We have no problem losing weight, we have trouble keeping the weight off. We crash diet and lose 20-30lbs in a few months, and then it all comes back on when we can’t maintain the crash diet approach.
All or nothing Black and white mindsets ignore the concepts of magnitude and frequency which are all important when it comes to long term change. Of course 1g of sugar eaten every 2 weeks will not have the same effect as 100g of sugar eaten daily, but we love to label sugar as “bad”. Even water consumed in massive excess can lead to hyponatremia and death. Sugar is not good or bad, and neither is water, they just are what they are and without attention to magnitude or frequency, labels like “good” or “bad” are misleading.
We tend to be overly reductionist in our approach to nutrition. Originally, we believed fat was the singular cause of the obesity epidemic. When the low fat craze had no impact on preventing the worsening of the obesity epidemic, we went the way of the low carb craze, and folks started consuming fat with abandon. When this didn’t turn the trend of waist expansion around, we decided that it’s not just fat or carbs, the causes are specific types of carbs and fat; specifically sugar, high fructose corn syrup and trans fat are the culprits!
The need to blame singular nutrients highlights the all or nothing, black or white attitude that is in and of itself one of the roots of unhealthy eating behavior and consequently obesity. Again, it comes down to seeking balance. The concept of balance in nutrition is inclusive of the concepts of magnitude and frequency that are needed for long term lifestyle change. Balance recognizes that it is not the small piece of chocolate that you had that wasn’t on your diet plan that was the problem, it was the carton of ice cream you had afterward!
The meal plan foods are “good”, and a piece of chocolate is “bad” and once you’d crossed over from “good” to “bad”, you said: “Screw it! I already blew it, I might as well just have cookie dough ice cream until I puke!” That is the all too common result of the all or nothing mindset in action. On the other hand, a balanced approach realizes that a small piece of chocolate is only ~100 calories, and will make a minuscule difference in terms of weight loss over time. In fact, a balanced meal plan might even allow for a daily range of calories, so that the following day could be reduced by 100 calories. Even more shockingly, a balanced meal plan might even include a piece of chocolate (blasphemy I know)!
There are truly VERY few foods that are actively bad for you. Most of the foods that we identify as “bad”, are simply low or devoid of micro-nutrients, minerals, fiber and other things like phytochemicals and protein that can be beneficial for you. These foods only become a problem when they occur frequently and with enough magnitude (frequency and magnitude!) to replace a significant enough portion of your diet that you become deficient in beneficial nutrients.
Once our nutrient needs are met, we don’t get extra credit for eating more nutritious food! It’s not as though we have a health food critic living in our esophagus that has a control box that he switches from “get leaner and healthier” to “get fatter and unhealthier” every time he spots “good” or “bad” food. Thus, a healthy diet should be inclusionary vs. exclusionary; focused around including healthy foods, not excluding “unhealthy” foods. Meet your nutrient needs, and feel free to eat things that you may have traditionally seen as “bad” in moderation; so that you are still meeting your allotted caloric intake for your weight loss goals. Don’t make the mistake of looking at foods as “good” or “bad!” Good diets can include “bad” foods and bad diets can include “good” foods. Don’t get too caught up with what you have for lunch, because it is not a singular choice that will determine the success of your health and fitness goals, it is the balanced lifestyle you commit to long term!”

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