The ‘good food’, ‘bad food’, ‘clean food’ debacle


Food and diets are trendy – Instagram can confirm that. There are so many diets, fads and conflicting messages out there it is difficult to know where to start. The ‘instastars’ of the world aren’t helping either. Avocados are so good for you, but no – isn’t fat bad for losing weight? I need to do a juice cleanse, but hang on, isn’t juice full of sugar? And sugar is addictive – I will stick with a green juice, but then I bought it from the shop – is that ‘clean’ because it’s packaged and ready made?  Bloody hell – the whole thing is getting a bit ridiculous…

Good and bad food

In my mind, there aren’t such things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.  Sure, there are more nutritionally dense and micronutrient rich foods but should we be using the labels ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – I don’t think we should and here’s why.

It sends out the wrong message

Labelling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ completely demonises foods and food groups – this isn’t healthy or helpful to anyone.  Putting things in rigid boxes is setting us up for failure, especially when a lot of the yummy, comfort foods and things that bring people happiness are in the ‘bad’ box.  There shouldn’t be a singular blanket approach to food and saying things are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ does just that.  It is all about moderation – even a ‘good’ food can be ‘bad’ for certain people or if not eaten as part of a balanced diet.  It also allows judgement to be passed based on first impressions which isn’t something we should be advocating.  It is more about education and giving people the tools they need to make well informed decisions – for themselves, for their situation and for their goals.

It messes up how we see food emotionally

Eating is a really emotional thing.  If we set things up as being ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – we start to attach emotions which can manifest in unhealthy ways.  It gives us permission to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, advocates an all or nothing mentality and drives the whole on or off the bandwagon idea – see next point…

It advocates non sustainable diet and weight loss plans

How many quick fat loss diets are out there which totally ban foods or food groups and label them as ‘bad’?  Lets be honest, some of them do work in the short term– and why – they put you in calorie deficit – often done by ruling out foods and labelling them as ‘bad’.  This is all well and good in the short term, but what happens in the long run?

(a)  You cut out foods you crave for too long and then end up binging on them when you’ve had a bad day and ‘fall off the wagon’

(b) You complete the plan and wahey – you have lost weight.  But then as soon as you go back to normal you put all the weight it back on and more because you have deprived yourself for so long.  85% of people regain the weight they’ve lost after a diet.

(c) You complete the plan, lose weight but then have developed a really unhealthy relationship with food where you are left afraid of ‘bad’ foods which actually used to make you happy or you punish yourself when you do eat them.

None of these are healthy – but guess what, this makes money and the health and fitness industry is driven by people constantly looking for the next trend, superfood or ‘food to ban to make you healthy’!

Everyone has different goals and challenges

Avocado on toast is the go to ‘healthy’ breakfast at the mo.  Is that a ‘good’ food choice?  It is full of healthy fats, vitamins and nutrients but also extremely calorific.  For someone specifically looking to sustainably lose fat this can be a large portion of your daily calories so may not always work.  For someone looking to build muscle and in a calorie surplus this can be a perfect healthy addition.  The point here is its neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’, its just whether it works for your specific goals at that time.

A burger and chips – generally labelled a ‘bad’ food choice,  it does however contain plenty of protein and potentially micronutrients from salad, tomato and slaw.  It can though include a fair amount of fat and additional calories from sauces and dips which may spike calories and mean managing levels for the rest of the day is difficult if you are on a calorie controlled plan.

People have different goals so is it right to just call things ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – surely this is totally individual.

And what about clean foods and ‘clean eating’

What even is a ‘clean food’?  People use the term very freely and Instagram has made it a real trend.  When you get back to basics, a ‘clean eating’ lifestyle essentially means eating ‘real’ foods or ‘whole’ foods – unrefined foods that are minimally processed with a watch out for things like pesticides, additives and refined sugars.  When I say whole foods, I mean things like fruit, veg, healthy proteins and fats and wholegrains.  This in theory is a great idea and there are some proven health benefits to eating in this way.  Consuming foods as they were meant to be full of all the macro and micronutrients your body needs.   However, is it sustainable to only eat this way?  For some – yes, and that’s great.  For most of us – maybe not.  If you don’t have time to pre prep everything if you are on the go, enjoy eating out wherever you like and having the occasional treat (that isn’t made from dates, coconut and hemp protein) – it may not be for you.  That said, do you have to label yourself as a ‘clean eater’?  Is it all or nothing?  I try and eat whole foods as much as possible, I like them and I know they fuel my body to make sure I get the most out of it.  That said, I enjoy some ‘more’ processed foods from time to time and love a drink with friends and work.  In theory I have nothing against this approach but we shouldn’t be preachy about it – it’s becoming almost a cult in my eyes – back to my points on labelling ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.

So what does all this mean?

As far as I see it, food is fuel.  It is also a source of enjoyment and happiness.  So many social occasions revolve around it – dinner parties at friends, date nights eating out, a cinema trip with all the treats or a picnic in the park in the summer.  Why then restrict ourselves and make rigid rules and boundaries which ultimately will be setting us up for failure in the long term.  If you genuinely want to ‘eat clean’ or cut refined sugars or processed foods because it makes you feel good and it works for you – go for it.  For most of us though, that isn’t sustainable long term.  If you genuinely get joy from having a McDonalds on the weekend or enjoy a cup of tea and cake in the afternoon – do that – it isn’t ‘bad food’.  Sure, if you did that for every meal you would be missing out on some key micronutrients and fibre but I really think if we just spoke about more and less nutritionally dense foods we would be in a much better place rather than putting things in a box.  It is all about moderation whichever approach you take and we should be empowering people to making decisions for themselves not having to label yourselves as one thing or the other.  Rant over!

Enter flexible dieting

Flexible dieting is an approach which allows you to eat wholefoods 80% of the time and whatever you like the other 20% providing you are hitting your calorie and macro targets.  It is an approach I use with all my clients – one that I feel is sustainable, works around a hectic lifestyle and can be introduced as a healthy habit for the foreseeable future.  We aren’t labelling foods ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘clean’ or labelling ourselves as ‘clean eaters’ or ‘gluten free’ just categorising foods that are wholefoods or not i.e. real foods.  Nothing is banned or put in a box and everything is on the menu in moderation.  Keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming article explaining more to see if it could be for you.

Get in touch if you have any questions about this or the way I work with clients.  

All views are my own.