One day eggs are good for you, the next they’re bad. Same with salt. And butter. And red meat. And saturated fat. And dairy. And carbs. And bread. And… you name it.
It goes on and on. Every year the media flip-flops on last year’s dietary recommendations and vilifications.
Two ways people deal with this: a) they cling to their own cherished nutrition views, or b) they throw their hands up, declare the whole idea of “eating healthy” to be sham and hunker up to a flat of sugar-glazed donuts.
Why not? They’re probably gonna be “good for you” next year.
If there’s one pervasive idea that confuses nearly everyone when it comes to nutrition it’s the idea that certain foods are inherently “good” or inherently “bad”. It’s a premise that gets foisted on us over and over again in the media to the point where repetition makes it true.
Today, we’re going to destroy that premise.
You won’t believe the clarity that awaits on the other side. There’s a concept so simple, so common sense, and clarifies so much about nutrition you’ll probably kick yourself for not acknowledging it sooner. It’ll end your reliance on any number of “approved” and “unapproved” food lists you have been force-fed over the years.
Oh, and it pretty much ends all nutrition debate.
Of course, the media will go on spouting their “good for you’s” and “bad for you’s”. And the gurus will go on publishing their approved and unapproved food lists. And people will go on buying them, doing incalculable harm to their bank accounts and bodies in the process.
But you, at least, will be the wiser.
Let’s start with a simple observation, obvious, if you give it two seconds of thought…
ANYTHING Can Be Overconsumed
Yep, I mean anything. Take the “healthiest” food you can think of.
Carrots can be overconsumed (it’s called carotenosis – think orange skin). Fruit can be overconsumed (insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, inflammation, oxidative stress). Nuts can be overconsumed (too much Omega 6 and inflammation). Lean meat can be overconsumed (it’s called protein poisoning or “rabbit starvation”). Kale can be overconsumed (hypothyroidism).
Even water can overconsumed. (It’s called hyponatremia, aka. drowning.)
Anything can be consumed to excess.
Think about food sensitivities. You can develop a sensitivity to pretty much anything if you overconsume it for long enough. It’s why food allergy sufferers always say something like: “I don’t get it! I’ve consumed buckets of strawberries for years. All of a sudden I can’t eat them!”
Well… exactly. Enough already, says your body. Eat something else, for cripes sakes.
There’s no nutrient, mineral, or macronutrient that we can’t OD on. Bad stuff happens when we do.
As soon as we acknowledge this basic fact, the idea of inherently “good for you” is on shaky ground.
Nothing is “good for you” in unlimited quantities.
Remember this word: DOSAGE.
It’s a mathematical relation a fifth-grader can understand: quantity over time.
We can only handle so much of a given food, any food, in a certain amount of time. After that dosage, the same food, the very same apple, or egg, or piece of fish, or water, or whatever you might be consuming, goes from being “good for you” to “bad for you”.
Ever come across an apple tree or a berry bush as a kid? You started scarfing them down like the apocalypse was tomorrow, didn’t you? Of course you did. They were delicious. For a while. But then you learned an important life lesson: you learned about dosage. You learned that once you get to the fifth or sixth serving, things don’t feel so good anymore, do they? Maybe you even hurked them up.
What happened? You overdosed. In exactly the same way an addict overdoses on pills or dope.
Your body has built-in rejection features for when we have too much of something.
It tells you (if you’ll only listen) what the universe has been trying to tell us all along when it comes to food: a certain amount, good. After that, BAD.
It Takes a Village: No Food is “Good for You” All By its Lonesome.
The flip side of this is that there’s no nutrient that can be skimped on, either.
When we read about things being “good for us” we tend to go hog-wild and consume the crap out of that one thing, broccoli let’s say, and we get lots of nice, I don’t know… manganese.
Well, see how long you live (or how well) by only eating broccoli.
Here’s a hint: you cannot be healthy by eating only manganese.
It takes dozens of minerals and nutrients to make the body go. And it takes the right combinations.
You must get all of them, and get them in synergistic proportions. (The right ratio of copper to zinc, for example). Getting only most of them doesn’t count, and doesn’t make you “mostly healthy”.
Miss out on one essential element and things go bad. Miss out on zinc, for example, all by itself, and you’re asking for growth retardation, hypogonadism, impaired immune function, hair loss, delayed sexual maturation, impotence, skin lesions, and diarrhea.
Yeesh. Kinda makes you want to take some zinc, doesn’t it?
Except don’t OD on it, because yep, there’s such a thing as zinc toxicity, which gives you… diarrhea (again), fever/chills, raises your cholesterol, prevents the absorption of other minerals, etc.
Getting the point? Zinc is neither “good for you” nor “bad for you”. SOME is essential. But not too much.
So for any nutrient, mineral, macronutrient, or food.
The only thing “good for you” is the exact right dose, in the right proportion with everything else.
But aren’t there some things that we should NEVER eat?
Sure, and here we need to make a distinction.
We have these things in our modern food supply called toxins. There are known poisons, even carcinogens, mixed in with actual food ingredients and nutrients. Obviously the desired dosage for these is somewhere close to ZERO.
Also, there are naturally occurring toxins that we don’t want to consume: out-and-out poisons, but also slower, more insidious things like gluten, phytates, sugar, etc.
Part of the problem here is our too-inclusive notion of “food”. Sure, modern agriculture and science have whipped up plenty of “food” for us to eat, but much of it is probably better thought of as “edible food proxies” or “frankenfood”. It may have some caloric and nutrient value, yes, but bought at a hefty price of massive amounts of toxicity.
When we refer to “food” then, we really are better served by narrowing our definition to stuff that walked, swam, flew, skittered, or grew on it’s own, in nature. Even then, not every edible that occurs in nature is food, since there are many naturally occurring toxins.
In The Primal Blueprint, Mark Sisson gives us the simple guideline: “Don’t eat poisonous things.”
We could clarify matters even further by stating the flip side: “Don’t refer to poisonous things as “food””.
Also, there are some circumstances we might conceive of where it would be a good idea, even “good for you” to eat toxic substances (Shocking, I know! Read on).
Finally, nearly everything has a little toxicity. If we become truly obsessive about avoiding toxicity we should just stop ingesting food altogether. Our bodies, our digestive system and immune function are designed to handle a little toxicity, just as they are designed to handle a little radiation. If they weren’t we wouldn’t have made it much further than the delivery room.
The real question when it comes to food is not “Is it toxic at all?” but: “How much nutrition are we getting vs. how much toxicity?”
Consider fruit. A little toxicity (fructose) sure, but also quite a bit of beneficial nutrients. Probably worth it, in moderate amounts.
So it goes with any food. If the toxicity is negligible and the beneficial nutrients high, go for it. If the toxicity is high and the benefit low, avoid.
When we throw out absolutes we arrive at Common Sense.
So, the simple concept of dosage makes the whole idea of foods that are inherently “good for you” silly.
Let’s talk about another one: context.
Good For You? Good for Whom?
When people refer to certain foods as being “good for you” chances are they’re not using “you” in the personal sense, but the general—as in “good for anyone, at any time, in any quantity, in any circumstance”.
Well, let’s apply our common sense to this, too.
Everyone’s nutritional requirements are different. Everyone’s. This is why blanket pronouncements in nutrition are bound to be mostly true… except when they’re not.
Are Michael Phelps’s nutritional requirements the same as your granny’s? Obviously not. Yet, both can be healthy, even though what’s good for Michael Phelps might end poor granny. Really think about the logic, here. If foods were “healthy” regardless of individual requirements, it must be that granny should pound back three fried egg sandwiches with cheese, tomatoes, fried onions and mayo, a five egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast and three pancakes with chocolate chips… for breakfast. Which is, of course, absurd. This breakfast would kill most people – fatal tearing of the stomach lining alone, never mind the aforementioned nutrient and calorie overdosing. But Phelps is not most people. His training and life demand extraordinary amounts of nutrients and calories.
We all differ in our energy (caloric) requirements, our protein requirements, the amount of glucose we burn, the amount of brain activity vs. muscle activity, etc. A thousand people might have a thousand different combinations of these factors, and all of them be nutritionally “healthy” in the sense of “fulfilling their nutritional requirements.”
One of the great, clarifying insights in health and nutrition is that there’s no cookie-cutter mold of “healthy human adult” we must all conform to, futile attempts at government recommendations notwithstanding. We may each pursue different careers, recreations, hobbies, sports, activities, and all be considered “healthy”, provided we’re doing what is optimal for us as individuals. Think about it: Does a teenaged gymnast have the same nutritional requirements as a power-lifter? Or someone training to climb mountains, or fly in outer space, or become a yoga instructor, or write a best-selling novel?
The answer to health is finding out what is “good for you”… using “you” very much in the personal sense.
Our individual nutritional needs are a context. And context is precisely what so much of nutrition literature tries to get you to ignore. “This is what is absolutely good, regardless of your specific needs and circumstances”, they say, which might as well be saying “decipher reality by ignoring a part of it.”
This is why so many people get frustrated and suffer poor results, even though they might be religiously following some nutritional regimen. “Religious” is a telling word, actually. It means following a set of prescriptions whether they make sense to you or not.
The antidote is to start figuring out what does make sense to you. Which means paying very close attention to your context.
Let’s consider some other contexts…
Food Availability Changes What is “Good For You”
Should someone “absolutely” eat coconuts and tropical fish in the steppes of Mongolia, or yak meat on the beach lagoon in Panama? Should I eat whale blubber while trekking across the desert? Or snake and cactus while trudging through the Arctic?
Again, the idea of inherently “good” food for everyone in all circumstances runs into an absurdity here. When we speak abut nutritional recommendations we are usually assuming the context of unlimited food variety and availability that exists in modern Western society.
This is not the context that most people in the world live in now, nor have they ever lived in.
Humans are opportunistic omnivores, meaning we adapt and survive by eating whatever we can in our environment. People who live by the ocean have adapted by eating fish and marine life. People living in harsher climes have adapted to live on all kinds of things that we might regard as “strange” like grasses, weeds, cacti, seal blubber, insects, or seaweed.
It is most certainly “good for us” to survive by fulfilling our nutritional needs, in whatever way we can, especially when food is scarce.
Let’s say you find yourself in a context of food scarcity – you’re visiting an impoverished country, for example, or you find yourself in an emergency survival situation, stranded in remote wilderness. I can almost guarantee your ordinary notions of “good for you” and “bad for you” will kill you.
If you don’t eat what calories are available to you, whether they’re on your “forbidden” foods list or not, you will perish, plain as a bad day.
If you have a candy bar to survive on, then that candy bar is absolutely “good for you” in that context. If all you have is some bread you were able to buy from some local farmer, then that bread is survival food, regardless of your prohibition on it.
In fact, researchers have shown that food prejudices are responsible for the collapse of entire societies. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond shows that a prejudice against fish and seafood contributed to the collapse of the Greenland Norse people.
The takeaway? Food scarcity makes any kind of food prohibitions absurd.
Scarcity is a context – it changes what is “good for us”.
Health Challenges Change What is “Good for You”
Here’s a context that’s not so uncommon. After all, who goes through life perfectly healthy, from their first day to their last? No one. Food allergies, sickness, viruses, disease, stress, recovery from an injury, or even a healthy pregnancy—all of these scenarios require a change in the types and amounts of nutrients we must take in.
Ever been so sick the very sight of food sent you running to the bathroom? Been there. But you still needed to take in nutrients. How did you do it? A thick porterhouse steak and a big salad? Probably not. A bowl of chicken broth? More likely. Your need for nutrients did not change, but, in that context, what was “good for you” changed.
One formulation of nutrients would have gone down for a whole three count before undergoing a rapid and spectacular rejection by the body. The other went down, stayed down, and made sure you got to go on living.
Inherently good food in all circumstances? Again, the notion is absurd when we consider a context as common as being sick.
Recent Eating History, aka, What Have You Done for Me Lately?
What you’ve eaten recently determines what nutrients you need at this point (if any).
Think about it. Hunger is a context. It changes what’s “good for us”. Being full is a context. It means no food would be “good for us” right now.
Perhaps, owing to some stressful circumstances in our lives, a move say, or a vacation, or switching jobs, or an injury, or a relationship problem, or a death in the family, we have nutritionally suffered. It happens. Things fall out of whack sometimes, and we just eat whatever happens to be in front of us without thinking too hard about it, or we forget to eat altogether. This is a context. It changes what is good for us in the coming weeks and months, as we recover.
Perhaps we’ve been underconsuming some nutrient recently. That’s a context. Having overconsumed a nutrient is a context. Both determine what is “good for us” in the here and now. (Dosage again.)
The whole debate about “good vs. bad”, if you think about it, could really be reconstrued as “how much” and “how often”.
If we would learn to view nutrition like a line of fuel gauges – one for each micronutrient (zinc, sodium, copper, selenium, Vit A, etc.) one for each macronutrient (protein, carbs, fat) – and strive to fill those gauges, neither leaving them empty but also not exceeding them, we would be so further forward toward being a healthy, fit society that today’s disastrous healthcare situation would look like a distant, laughable memory.
The trick, of course, is to not use a cookie-cutter set of gauges that supposedly applies to everyone (as in “thou shalt not eat more than x grams of carbs!” or “everyone should consume at least y grams of protein!”) but figure out what works for each of us.
Forget RDAs. What levels do you need to set your gauges at to feel your most healthy, fit, and energetic?
We would do well to remember too, that there’s no such thing as a “perfect nutrition day”. What we’re really striving to do is get our averages over time in the right part of the gauges. This day perhaps we exceeded our desired carb intake, and that day we way underconsumed zinc… but we need not worry if our average zinc and carb intake is dialed-in over time.
Food Quality Changes What is “Good For You”
Here’s another context that makes the “good for you/bad for you” way of thinking about food a little silly.
How fresh is your food? Has it been sitting in a truck as it crossed the country? Was it wrapped in plastic or kept in a chemical bath in a warehouse somewhere? Or did you just pluck it out of the ground or off its naturally occurring vines? Or did you buy it from a farmer who did so the day before?
It might be precisely the same food with the same nutrients. But are they both “good for you”?
What about food-borne pathogens? What about fresh vs. sitting in your refrigerator for two weeks? Same food. Same nutrients. Much different health result.
What about organic vs. chemical-ridden? Far different contexts.
Farmed vs. wild-caught? Conventional feedlot vs. pasture-raised? Cooked vs. raw? Cultivated vs. wild? (Check out this infographic if you want to be shocked by how little nutrition is left in modern, cultivated fruits and veggies.)
What about seasonality? Do you really think we were ever genetically predisposed to eat blueberries all year round? Might seasonality account for so many food sensitivities and allergies that develop when we force-feed ourselves the same things all year round, regardless of our bodies’ needs?
You see, when we dump absolutes such as “good” and “bad” and focus on context, we start being able to make more sophisticated distinctions about food.
We end up with better quality and therefore better health.
A Concept to Clarify It All
The takeaway from all this…
“Good for you” DEPENDS.
On a lot of things.
So… that simple, common sense, clarifying concept that’s going to end all nutrition debate?
Think about the world for a second: it’s basically molecule soup. Your collection of molecules has specific and various requirements to make it go. One of those requirements is ingesting and bonding with other molecules, or else your molecules fall apart and you cease to be “you”. It’s an intricate, broiling chemistry that’s been going on for at least a billion years, since the first living cell “swallowed” something else.
Food does not exist in a vacuum, sitting out there in the universe independent of us, neatly divided into “good” and “bad” categories. Everything relates to everything.
Consider: would an apple even be “food” if there were no creatures to eat it?
Things only become “food” when they enter into a relationship with other things called “eaters”. And things only become “good” or “bad” food when we consider the nutritional requirements of that eater. How could we say anything about the food’s “goodness” or “badness” until we know whether it would contribute to, or detract from, the eater’s health?
Everything exists in a spectrum and the value of the food changes relative to whoever is contemplating eating it.
In other words, “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t describe an inherent property of the food itself; it describes a relationship between the food and eater.
It’s the antidote to absolutism.
Absolutism is where we think the universe corresponds to the neat categories that we’ve invented in our heads, like “good” and “bad” or “mind” and “body” or “conservative” and “liberal”. When the absolutist runs up against something or someone that does not fit his categories, or creates problems or absurdities, rather than throw out the categories he simply disregards the facts (or the people).
In college philosophy we learned all about various clashes of viewpoints throughout the centuries, most of which hinged on some philosopher or movement clinging to one absolute or another, and someone else pointing out the absurdities that this led to. Then a new set of absolutes came along to unhinge the old ones, and so on.
Sound a little bit like our public nutrition debate?
It’s an endless, flip-flopping mess. And no, it’s not just semantics.
Words matter. People go to war and slaughter other people over their absolutes. In the present context, they go to war with their own bodies and urge others to do the same. Others profit, not the least of which are the insurance and medical industries. Entire societies undergo health epidemics and rampant disease because of their food beliefs. Governments and taxpayers go into billions of debt trying to remove themselves from these medical quagmires. And some societies actually perish for their food beliefs.
All owing to words—stories about what we’re supposed to eat because it is supposedly “good for us”.
The Absolute Good/Bad Viewpoint vs. The Relativity Viewpoint: What’s Your Food Philosophy?
Never mind society, for a moment. Let’s just consider how we are to go about our nutritional lives as individuals.
If certain foods are absolutely “good for you” or “bad for you”, how and what are we to eat?
Well, first of all, we can’t possibly know this for ourselves. We must follow whatever some nutrition authority tells us is good or not. If they say “salt is bad” then we are to stop consuming salt, no questions asked. However, we soon find out that consuming no sodium at all is fatal. It’s the sixth most abundant chemical element on the planet and an essential chemical part of us. We remove it from our diets at our own peril. And to the benefit of the hospital which we must pay to pump essential electrolytes back into us… hopefully before we die.
In short, by accepting absolutes, we end up with a series of unfollowable commandments, which change from year to year… assuming we survive them.
If, on the other hand, we acknowledge relativity in all matters nutrition, we immediately start with a smarter (healthier) set of questions:
- What are my sodium requirements?
- How much sodium do I need in my diet to make me go, and to make me feel good?
- How much is naturally present in the food I eat, and how much do I need to add to hit my requirements?
- How much do I lose through sweat during my physical activities and basic metabolism?
- How much do I have to eat to replenish it, over what amount of time?
- Have I overconsumed sodium lately? Have I underconsumed it?
- Have I struck a synergistic balance between my water consumption and my sodium requirements?
- Between my sodium and my potassium requirements?
- What kind of salt should I buy? Is sea salt better than plain white table salt? Etc.
See the difference? One of these approaches puts us and our health at the mercy of someone else’s dictates, or whatever dietary prohibition is fashionable in the media at the time. “Nutrition” is a perpetual mystery to us, but at least we have some authority to tell us what to do. And they’re never wrong… until they change their minds.
The other approach puts us in control, and makes us more intelligent, discerning eaters.
The Absolute approach leads to absurdities in which we cannot be healthy in all contexts. The Relativity approach leaves us flexible to change our approach if our context changes.
The Good/Bad approach fails to account for several simple truths that we know about food—we must defy common sense to make it stand. The Relativity approach, on the other hand, explains several apparent “paradoxes”, clears up the confusion about what to eat, and fully agrees with our common sense understanding of food.
The Good/Bad approach mystifies, confuses, and harms. The Relativity approach clarifies and makes us healthier (by directing us towards our bodies’ actual requirements.)
Do you see how this simple idea of relativity ends all nutrition debate?
Whether vegan or vegetarian or flexitarian or raw foodist or paleo or fruitarian or pick your label… all of them are arguing over absolutes. Over “approved” vs. “unapproved” foods.
Regardless of your needs. Regardless of your circumstances.
The answer is to thank them for their input, suggest a long walk, indicate the closest short pier, and then start paying very close attention to your needs and your circumstances.
When you read dietary recommendations on this or any other site, remember this implicit proviso: we’re saying “make sure you’re eating this, IF it fills requirements you are not currently filling” or “make sure you avoid that, IF you have been consuming it to excess”. No one but you can say whether the recommendation applies to you or not.
We’re really asking you to consider: what are your nutritional needs?
Here’s the problem: people love absolutes. They love being told what to do.
They also love defending their absolutes. It makes them feel important, like they’re on a crusade.
And the media feeds into this.
Here’s how it goes. First, some researcher does a study on some micronutrient, say, cystine. It is essential to consume a certain amount of cystine, they say, since cystine acts as an important antioxidant that protects us from harmful free radicals and toxins, and is required for vitamin b6 absorption.
Okay, sounds good. What’s a good source of cystine? Eggs.
“Great!” says the media. “That means eggs are “good for you”!”
Oh wait, but eggs are a big source of omega-6s, which, when overconsumed, increase inflammation and heart disease.
“Hmm… Did we say “good”? We meant “bad”!”
And so on.
Get it? It’s a potentially a never-ending paradox. It applies to every food. Everything can be overconsumed and underconsumed. In the clamor to make headlines that shock you (“Everything you’re eating is KILLING YOU!”) the science and your body’s actual requirements get forgotten.
What may have started off as a mild recommendation to get enough of a certain nutrient (or not to overconsume it) becomes the sudden catalyst for a whole new generation of nutrition gurus to beat pulpits and hurl condemnations over foods, and even entire food groups.
“Thou shalt eat this for it has been deemed Good. Thou shalt NOT eat that for it is the spawn of Satan!”
An understanding of the simple (and in medicine, well-known) concept of dosage resolves the so-called “paradox” and makes the pulpit-pounding look kind of ridiculous.
But, ridiculous or not, people, even intelligent people, fall for it. It feels nice to be told what to do. Less work. And boy, the pulpit-beaters sure seem certain about it…
We like simple. We like being told what to do. When someone tells us to “eat this, not that” it’s easier to blindly follow and accept rather than figure out dosage and context to find out what works for us.
But consider: do you feel like you’re at war with your own body? Do you sense that you are overconsuming something your guru says is “good”, and tragically underconsuming something else? Is all your “healthiness” paying off? Is it really making you feel healthier?
Perhaps relativity – giving careful consideration to your context and dialing in the right dosage – is the insight you’ve been waiting for. Perhaps this is what will take you from “somewhat healthy” to being a paragon of health—the envy of your friends, family, and co-workers.
The real question you have to ask yourself is this: do you want to cast your lot with the nutrition authorities and just hope they’re right? Or do you want to be in control, doing a little more work, yes, but ultimately enjoying more optimal health?
It’s a challenge to stay focused on your own health amidst the doom and gloom pronouncements of the moment.
It’s a challenge to experiment and figure out nutrients and macronutrients and calories.
It’s a challenge to abandon your dearly-held beliefs when they’re not working out for you.
But hell, isn’t anything worth doing a challenge? Isn’t the prize of enjoying a healthy, energetic, fit, hospital-free life worth it?
Plus, there’s clarity in figuring things out for yourself. It’s real knowledge, not just someone else’s prescriptions (or proscriptions) for you.
But honestly, though it may sound overwhelming at first, what we’ve been talking about here is simple: change the way you think about food. Instead of: “is it good or bad?” think: “does my body need it?”
A simple mental shift with powerful consequences for your health and life.
The rest is just a commitment: read, think, research, experiment, question, and be open to change when your context changes, or when your body just flat out rejects what you’ve been doing.
Maybe these are the only things that really are “good for you”.