Are There “Bad” Foods?

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Grocery shopping with my three-year-old, we walked down the cereal aisle and alongside the colorful display of boxes. Daniel pointed to the Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops and stated rather gravely, “Those are bad cereals.” (And since he’s never actually tried them, he can’t be referring to their taste!)

Rather, it seems as though he has internalized a message that I often present to my kids when it comes to food choices: In most food categories, like cereals, there are choices between good foods and bad foods. And it’s up to us to learn to tell the difference between the two. But is it as easy as saying that high calorie/ high fat/ low nutrient foods are “bad,” and nutrient-dense, healthy foods are “good?” I don’t think so.

To judge foods by this one standard alone is too simplistic, and ignores an important criteria in the way that most people pick the foods they eat: the way they taste. Unfortunately, however, the more black and white version is the way that most of us are conditioned to think.

Consider this: A little cupcake or dessert, made by someone who really knows how to bake. Or a single piece of top quality chocolate. A favorite wine. A spread of a rich Brie cheese on a piece of baguette. Yum. Now those are good foods – not by the standards of nutrition, perhaps, but because they are top quality, full of real flavor, and bring us so much pleasure when we eat them.

But you can also easily find the flip side – the bad food version of these same items. This is the one that offers nothing in the way of interesting flavor, let alone nutrition. A pre-packaged, store bought cupcake or dessert – stale, flavorless, dry. Cheap candy, made of nothing but sugar and artificial color. Soda or other beverages on sweetness overload, due to high fructose corn syrup or artificial chemical sweeteners. Bland, plastic wrapped cheese sticks.

Which version do you eat? Which do you feed your kids?

My mother has an expression about food choice, particularly when it comes to desserts. She will take a bite of something, think about it for a moment, and announce that it is “not worth the calories.” In other words, not all brownies are created equally. There are fabulous, homemade brownies, prepared with fresh ingredients. They are meant to be savored and enjoyed and, because every bite is so delicious, a small quantity can suffice. And then there are the off-the-shelf, packaged, chemical-laden store-bought varieties that are neither truly enjoyable nor satisfying.

I believe that a major problem with modern Americans’ eating style is that we are too afraid to make judgment calls about foods. We’re simply not discerning enough when it comes to the quality of the food we eat, especially what we give our kids. And unfortunately, we have not been well-served on this issue by government, health professional and some food industry groups that like to claim that “there are no bad foods, only bad diets.”

That simply is not true. There are plenty of “bad” foods, and until we start – here’s that word – judging them as such, we are going to continue to have serious problems with our nation’s health.

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