What Are Good and Bad Foods?

As dietitians, we often say there are no good and bad foods – only good or bad diets.  And our mantra has typically been “all foods fit.”   For the most part, I buy that.   It’s the total diet that really counts, not the specific nutritional profile of a single food.  Yet increasingly there are attempts to put foods in good and bad categories.  It’s a trend called “nutrient profiling.”  

I like the idea of flexibility and knowing that even the most fat-laden food with tons of nutritional baggage can be savored in moderation.  But there are benefits of giving people guidance on specific foods that should be eaten more frequently than others. 

That’s why there’s been an increase of front-of-pack nutrition labeling systems to help define what’s “healthy.” Various scoring systems are in place — or will soon be launched — to help define these  better-for-you choices.  You’ll find a range of approaches, from symbols and stars to ratings.

Now the Strategic Alliance  of the Prevention Institute has created  its own definition of a healthful food in the report Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food.

The group has identified three major guiding principles of a healthful food:  

  • wholesome
  • produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources
  • available, accessible, and affordable

“Wholesome” is defined as minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives. Instead of simply focusing on the nutrients a food contains, the group is putting emphasis on a “food system where food is produced, processed, transported and marketed in ways that are environmentally sound, sustainable and just.”


Basically, it all comes down to “slow food,”  a principle that renowned restaurateur Alice Waters has been championing for years.  The Berkeley chef and “mother of slow food” has been on quite a roll recently — she was gloriously featured in an in-depth article on the “new food revolution” in the New York Times  and profiled by Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes.”

alice-waters-60-min2All of this attention has sparked a bit of a blogosphere backlash, with critics complaining about her out-of-touch elitist approach given the current economic situation and her “inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness.”  

Don’t get me wrong, I adore Alice Waters and I appreciate all that she stands for.  I admire her dedication and enthusiasm for sustainable, locally grown food and gardens in school yards, backyards and even the White House lawn!  I like a back to basics approach and agree that food should be a source of pleasure.  And no doubt, we need to keep in mind both personal and planetary health when it comes to the foods we choose.  But I must admit, I also agree with some of the points made by Eat Me Daily:

“Having the opportunity of being on prime-time television, you’d think Alice Waters would show America how to prepare a quick and affordable, sustainable and organic meal, but no.  Waters cooks up Leslie Stahl an incredibly time-consuming luxurious breakfast with heirloom tomatoes (likely $5/lb) and an egg cooked in a long metal spoon that has to be hand-held over the fireplace in her kitchen.”

In these tough economic times, it’s critical that we’re offering people attainable solutions.  The reality is that people are struggling every day to make ends meet.  We need to inspire, not alienate.  Sometimes such a lofty ideal seems so out of reach that people feel defeated and simply throw in the towel.

You can feel good that you’re feeding your family well without buying fresh-picked heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ market.  Waters is aghast at microwaves and food processing, but I disagree that frozen vegetables and canned beans are “bad” foods.  Yes, now we need to merge frugal, nutritious and “green,” but we also need to make it seem achievable to all.

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