Is this a healthy food?
Is the number one question I get from those that I coach and the L365 Community. Some other variations of this question go a little something like this:
- Is this good to eat?
- This foods ok right?
- I’m allowed to eat this right?
Trying to figure out if a food is healthy, good for you, or will help you get closer to your goals can be pretty confusing, and all the research bombs that are dropped on us are not making it any easier. One day eggs are bad for you and the next they’re good. Red meat is going to kill you today and save your life tomorrow. Fruit sugar is great for you but bad for you if you eat this type and this amount.
In the words of Kanye West, all that information is “enough to drive a sane man berserk.”
Well Kanye, I’m about to help you get your sane back brother. Today’s article is about developing a simple system for deciding whether a food is “healthy” or not.
So grab your joe, green tea, or other favorite zero calorie bev and put on your thinking cap. Lets jump into this bad boy.
WHAT DOES A HEALTHY FOOD LOOK LIKE TO YOU?
One of the most frustrating things to me about trying to eat healthier is that if feels like you have to belong to a nutrition camp. There’s this pressure to side with one nutritional approach over another and to believe that it is the ONLY way to eat if you want to be healthy.
You either have to follow Paleo, Vegan, Vegetarian, Low-Carb, Dash Diet, South Beach, Mediterranean, Zone Diet, or some other specific nutritional approach. Everywhere you turn some “expert” is touting why their approach is better than others and if you want to live a long and healthy life this is the way to have to eat.
So be careful you who ask what a healthy food is and what it’s not. Personal biases will come into play and what has worked for them will be told to you. Ask someone who’s Paleo if oatmeal is healthy and they may tell you no and then reference some study as to why it isn’t. Now go ask a Vegan and they may tell you that it is and reference another study explaining this.
L365 believes that there are a thousand and one ways to eat nutritious foods and live a happy and healthy life, and your approach to choosing healthy foods may change depending on a variety of factors. For example, the type of foods and amounts that you eat will vary depending on whether your goal is to lose body fat or improve sport performance. You may also change your approach if you are dealing with specific health concerns. Your approach to nutrition may even change with your age, gender, personal finances, or time commitments.
In all honesty to answer to the question “is this food healthy” will change depending on you and how what your definition of healthy is.
So take a moment and define what healthy food means to you. How will healthy foods make you feel? How will healthy foods make you NOT feel? What are different characteristics of healthy foods (look like, smell like, taste like, feel like). Where can you find healthy foods (grocery store, Whole Foods, Farmers markets).
If you’re totally lost and have no idea, don’t worry, this article should help you out.
DOES IT TASTE “TOO GOOD”
One way I like to decide whether a food is healthy or not is by using the “Too Good” method. Hat tip to Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition for bringing this to my attention a few years back.
If a food tastes so good that it is hard to control yourself around, stop eating, stop thinking about, or causes you to start drooling the minute you smell, see, or think about it then it’s probably not that healthy.
If you “crave” it it’s probably not that healthy.
The other night my roommate (sorry Shane, throwing you under the bus) got up in the middle of the basketball playoff game we were watching. I asked him where the heck he was going and he said, “I’m going to grab a milkshake. I’m really craving one bro.”
I don’t blame him. Milkshakes are undeniably delicious and I love, and sometimes crave a good one. However, I also love a good roasted butternut squash but I never crave it in the traditional sense. Nor have I got up during the middle of basketball game to go buy one because I was needed it.
So when trying to decide whether a food is healthy ask yourself if it tastes “too good.” If you’re not sure you can use the Thanksgiving day dinner method.
some of us all of us stuff ourselves to the point where we sweat, need to put on sweat pants, and get pretty darn close to inducing a food related coma. We’ll say things like, “I’ve never eaten that much in my life. I am so stuffed. There is no way I could eat anymore.” Then it happens.
Grandma whips out her homemade pumpkin pie and magically you’ve somehow found a spot in your stomach to fit it in. There’s no way you could eat another serving of green beans, but somehow the pumpkin pie can find a little crevice inside your belly. It’s because it tastes too good.
IF IT CONTAINS A TON OF INGREDIENTS THAN IT’S PROBABLY NOT THAT HEALTHY
Food companies, restaurants, and fast food places don’t want us to get fat and unhealthy. McDonald’s could care less if you took a bite out of a Big Mac and threw the rest away as long as you come back and buy another one.
They want us to buy their products and then keep buying them. They know that we’ll do this if they taste good. So many of them have turned to science to help.
Foods are being chemically engineered so that when we eat them they hit what is called the “bliss point,” The bliss point of food is where it creates the greatest amount of “crave.” See, tastes too good above.
Yup, food companies actually hire people to scientifically manufacture foods so that you crave them. They want to know exactly how much extra sugar they should add to Lemonade to hide the acidity and make you want more.
They alter sugar, salt, and fat so that it provides a specific mouth feel, hits your taste buds in a specific way, and creates “flavor bursts.”
All I have to say here is Hot Cheetos and Taki’s. Watch and enjoy!
“(Hot Cheetos)…is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.” –Nextnature.net
Three ingredients are used to hit bliss points; sugar, salt, and fat. When purchasing a food ask yourself if sugar, salt, or fat was added to it. If it was, there is a good chance that it’s not that healthy.
- Raw nuts and seeds morphed into flavored nuts and seeds. Maple sugar cashews anyone? Oh sweets not your thing? How about Habanero flavored almonds?
- Air popped popcorn? Forgetta bout about! Lets add cheddar cheese, salt, and some vegetable oil.
A few ingredients to be on the lookout for:
Trans fats (partially unsaturated fats that are chemically altered to resemble saturated fats): Look for terms like hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated. Usually found in coffee creamer, baked goods, battered and fried foods, fast food, refrigerated dough products, vegetable shortening and margarine, and snack foods.
Added sugars: Sucrose, fructose, agave, brown sugar, cane crystal, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, invert sugar, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and syrup.
Usually found in candy, baked goods, fruit drinks and juices, dried fruit, dressings, sauces, yogurt, sports drinks, milk, granola, “health/protein” bars, condiments, coffee drinks, smoothies, instant oatmeal, mixed adult beverages, any flavored items.
Artificial flavors: Here is how the FDA defines artificial flavors.
“A natural flavor is the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Artificial flavors are those that are made from components that do not meet this definition.”
Uhhhhh… so basically artifical flavors could be anything. Petrolium for example.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG): This stuff is in everything from frozen dinners to dressings and potato chips. It can be hard to tell if food contains MSG so your best bet is to avoid man-made processed foods.
Here are a few ingredients that may contain MSG:
- Autolyzed yeast
- Calcium caseinate
- Glutamic acid
- Hydrolyzed corn gluten
- Monopotassium glutamate
- Monosodium glutamate
- Hydrolyzed protein
- Sodium caseinate
- Textured protein
- Yeast extract
Here’s an interesting look at MSG and what it is. Also, check out my buddies over at Examine.com who break down MSG, what it is, what it isn’t, and what it does to your body.
IS IT TRYING TO CONVINCE YOU HOW HEALTHY IT IS?
If a food has to use buzz words to try to convince you that it’s healthy than it’s probably not. Most of us already have a pretty good idea of what a healthy food is and what isn’t but sometimes we get caught up in hoping that a food is healthy or healthier so badly that we get influenced by buzzwords.
- Pop Tarts are not a healthy food. But organic ones are healthier right?
- Cereal is generally loaded with sugar and not very healthy but what about those that contain “heart healthy whole grains?”
- Haagan Dazs vanilla ice cream not so healthy. But what if it’s all-natural?
- Cheerios with added protein… that’s healthy right?
Words like those above help us to rationalize eating unhealthy foods that we really wish were healthy. So the next time you pick up a box of cookies and think to yourself, “they’re all-natural and organic, can’t be that bad.” Pause for a moment and ask yourself If you are trying to rationalize the purchase.
Long story short if a food is trying to convince you that it’s healthy, good for you, or can help you achieve something – than it’s probably not.
IS IT PROCESSED?
There’s not to many experts, diets, or people I know that promote eating more processed food. But what is processed food? Foodinsight.org defines it like this:
“Food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. It can be as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients.”
Now-a-days most of the food that we eat is somehow altered in one way or another, making it “processed,” if using the definition above. However, they are processed in different degrees.
A few examples of processed foods include: Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, packaged foods event those labeled “natural” or “organic” such as; cereals, fresh meat and poultry, and jarred baby foods.
Here’s a simple way to decide if a food is processed or not:
- Foods with health and nutrition claims on the label, such as “may reduce risk of heart disease,”
“low in fat” or “high in calcium”
- Foods fortified with nutrients such as fiber, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids
- Foods prepared in quick-service and fine-dining restaurants, cafeterias and food courts, sports arenas,
coffee shops and other locations
To make this a little easier to understand if food comes in a box, bag, wrapper, can, or container than it probably has been processed.
Some studies and research reviews show that eating more unprocessed food is important because our bodies process it differently than it does processed foods.
THE L365 HEALTHY FOOD PHILOSOPHY
The L365 is it healthy philosophy isn’t a very sexy one. Healthy food to me is real food.
Real food has one ingredient, hasn’t been processed, and it satisfies my appetite without making me want to eat more when I’m full. Healthy food typically has one ingredient – Whatever it is and that’s it.
A few examples of what I mean by real food.
- Grass-fed beef (1-ingredient…beef)
- Wild Salmon
- Broccoli (1-ingredient… broccoli)
- Sweet Potato
Now this one gets a bit tricky because most of the extra healthy fats you can consume are typically manufactured and packaged with a label on them. It’s best to avoid oils with modifiers like “interesterified,” “hydrogenated,” “modified,” “partially hydrogenated on the label.
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Avocado (1-ingredient…avocado)
- Loose leaf tea
Healthy foods are nutrient dense and should help to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiencies. To find out what you are deficient in I highly recommend getting blood work done but in general most people are deficient in the following.
- Vitamin D
If it’s human made, if it comes in a box, bag, wrapper, given to you through a window, or has a list of ingredients longer than the Nile and is filled with words you can not pronounce – it’s probably not that healthy.
If it has the word diet in it or uses other words to let me know how “healthy” it is, I stay away. If it offers a quick fix, 14 days until I see my abs, or requires me to eat it at specific times I stay away.
Healthy food doesn’t have any of this.
- High fructose corn syrup
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Sodium benzoate
- Titanium dioxide
- Interesterified fat
- Red #3, Red #40, or some other color and number
Still need a little help? Check out the Limitless365 Real Food Chart.
HEALTHY FOODS IN HEALTHY AMOUNTS
Choosing more healthy food is a great start but you’ve got to get the portions right as well. Eating a banana is better than eating some Taki’s but eating banana’s all day long might not be.
Once you’ve built the choosing healthy foods habit it’s time to start creating healthier meals.
If losing body fat while adding a bit of lean muscle is your primary goal than the majority of your meals should be made up of:
- Serving of protein: Male- 2 palm sized servings, Females-1 palm sized serving
- Serving of veggies: Male – 2 fist sized servings, Females -1 to 2 fist sized servings
- Serving of healthy fats: Male – 2 thumb sized servings, Females – 1 thumb sized serving
- Zero calorie beverage: Water, black coffee, unsweetened tea
- Optional, serving of low sugar fruit (berries): Male – 1 fist sized serving, Females – 1 fist sized serving
- If you just had a hard workout you can add a serving of starchy carbohydrate: Male – 1 fist sized serving, Female – 1 fist sized serving
I wrote a very detailed article about serving sizes for my friends over at Ultimate Paleo Guide if you’re interested.
STILL NOT SURE IF IT’S HEALTHY? WHEN IN DOUBT…
It’s time to stop listening to everyone else and to start listening to yourself. When in doubt, what does your gut instinct tell you? Most of the time you probably already know the answer to whether or not a food is healthy.
This isn’t about being perfect, it’s about getting better, and building healthier habits. What is one small step you can make today to help you choose healthier foods? Are you capable of adding veggies with all of you meals today? What about including a serving of protein with each meal. Or how swapping out some of those not so great fats with some healthier options?
Just pick one small change you feel confident you can make over the next 2 to 4 weeks. Prove to yourself that you can consistently practice that one healthy habit and after you do – start practicing another one. And if you do slip up be solutions focused. What can you do to help you be become better prepared to make healthier choices in the future?
What really matters is the quality and quantity of what you’re eating. The more consistently you choose real food with one ingredient that hasn’t been processed or refined the better. The foods you choose should be ones that you enjoy eating, fulfill you appetite – not stimulate it, and have one ingredient – whatever the heck it is and that’s it.
Lastly, healthy eating should be simple. I shouldn’t have to calculate my macronutrients, add up how much sodium I just ate, or look up how many calories are in a particular food. Those things won’t matter because I’ll already know that I’m eating a healthy food – because it’s real.
Still confused about what’s healthy and what’s not? Want to ask about a particular food? Post to the comments below and lets get the conversation started. I’m happy to help in any way.
P.S. Whether you’re Paleo, Vegan, on Weight Watchers, or in some other nutrition camp there is one thing we can all agree on. Veggies are awesome! 🙂
Header Image – Shy Tomato – Light Mayo Ingredients – Vegetables – Green Smoothie Ingredients