There’s No Such Thing as an “Unhealthy” Food

Every night before bed, I eat 3 pretzels and 9 chocolate chips.

It sounds neurotic, but it’s actually not.

I put one chocolate chip in each hole of the pretzel, and enjoy what tastes just like a chocolate covered pretzel (ok, maybe that part is a little neurotic). I could probably go out and buy chocolate covered pretzels, but then how would I use up the 10 gallon sized Costco bag of pretzels that my son started refusing halfway through the bag?

You see, I eat dinner SUPER early, at 5:30, because that’s what works in my son’s toddler schedule. Then I typically start feeling hunger not too long before bed. But I also don’t love going to bed on a full stomach, so I’ve found that three pretzels and nine chocolate chips, enjoyed slowly, is just about perfect.

A few years ago this type of daily indulgence would have been impossible for me. I would have had to eat ALL THE CHOCOLATE then spent all night feeling guilty about it, or spent the evening trying to avoid thinking about chocolate, or limiting myself to a certain number, only to binge later. Fast forward to now: three pretzels and their accompanying chocolate chips satisfy me perfectly so that I don’t even want more.

It’s moderation at its finest.

But this isn’t the only example of moderation in my eating. I can enjoy a couple slices of pizza without guilt, wanting more, or derailing my fitness goals.

I can bring home a pint of Ben and Jerry’s without devouring it in one sitting… in fact, one pint usually lasts in my freezer for about a month.

I can eat out at any restaurant, any food truck, any party or friend’s house without feeling guilt and stress about what and how to eat.

Now this wasn’t always the case for me. There have been many times in my past where the thought of pizza or unfamiliar eating situations literally brought me to tears (I’ll tell you that story sometime), and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s might as well be an atom bomb.

What’s changed for me, and what makes this type of moderation possible, is a very crucial mindset shift about food. I dropped the labels of “healthy” and “unhealthy” and stopped thinking in terms of black and white about food.

There’s really no such thing as an unhealthy food

We human really have a hard time thinking in shades of grey. Everything either has to be black or white, good or bad, strong or weak, healthy or unhealthy.

An example of this came up in my nutrition coaching group recently. Right now, as a group, we are working on adding in more satisfying foods to our meals (for example, protein and veggies).

Here’s what happened-

A member of our coaching group checked in on her progress:

I didn’t do so well with dinner…I had planned a good dinner but just didn’t want to cook so I made quesadillas (it’s one quick thing the kids will eat). So my husband I were just talking about what kinds of things he would like to eat that I can make quickly [that are in line with our habit goal]

Along with my reply I wrote back:

Quesadillas with protein and veggies. Boom!

Her reply:

Ashley, here’s what I was thinking — well I’m not eating “healthy” so I may as well not have veggies and protein and even try to have anything healthy. I just had cheese and tortilla. Learning!

This is a perfect example of black and white thinking that sets us up for a super unhealthy relationship with food, and I’m so glad she A) Recognized it B) is learning from it, and C) gave me permission to write about this. Because I think this is a problem that affects many people.

So first, let’s get real here… what is really “unhealthy” about a tortilla. And cheese.

Because I don’t actually keep thousands of food nutrition facts in my head, I consulted the tortilla and cheese in my fridge for this next part.

Tortilla — provides 13% of your daily iron requirement

Cheese — provides 20% of your daily calcium requirement…

Tortilla — Preferred by me over sandwiches because I can stuff a TON of veggies into it

Cheese — Generally makes everything taste better… and the dairy fat keeps the meal a little more satisfying so you’re less likely to overeat later.

What exactly is unhealthy about these foods?

Now, if all you ate were tortillas and cheese would it be healthy? No, not at all. Our bodies need a variety of nutrients, and no single food (or food group) can fit the bill.

If we ate fifty quesadillas a day would it be healthy? No, that’s way more food than our bodies need.

If we ate nothing but one quesadilla a day would it be healthy? Well, once again, no. Our bodies need a variety of food, and honestly that is just plain starving yourself.

Black and white labeling of food doesn’t work

Labeling food as “healthy” or “unhealthy” not only isn’t true, it doesn’t work int he long run either. Like the example above, many people will go all-or-noting and miss a great opportunity to nourish themselves.

There are no unhealthy foods, just unhealthy diets

As I am illustrating from the example above, there really is no just thing as an “unhealthy” food… just unhealthy diets.

And by “diets,” I don’t mean the thing you go on to lose 20 pounds before your high school reunion… I mean “diet” as in a regular pattern of food intake… meaning how you eat every day.

Let’s look at a few theoretical examples of healthy and unhealthy diets

Healthy diet:

  • Eating meals packed with protein and veggies,
  • A few tortillas here and there (not low carb tortillas… they taste like poop)
  • Some pasta from time to time,
  • Fruit and cottage cheese for a quick meal,
  • A couple slices of pizza with a big salad once a week…
  • Enjoying a few pretzels and chocolate chips nightly

Whoops… this is not so theoretical. This is a pretty good description of how I eat.

And I’m not saying that how I eat is how everyone should eat, but that there are some commonalities between the example above, and a healthy, balanced diet.

  1. I eat the right amount for my body
  2. I’m getting plenty of nutrients by not limiting or avoiding food groups
  3. I have a healthy relationship with food

Here’s what unhealthy diets look like:

  • Avoiding entire food groups. This is a recipe for malnutrition and bad health. The fact is, our bodies are designed to run on a variety of foods, and limiting yourself to just a few options (like… only beans and veggies) is really really unhealthy, no matter how “healthy” you think the food is.
  • Mono eating — Most people would argue that almonds are healthy… but if all you ate were almonds would that be healthy? Not at all!
  • Eating too much — you could be eating nothing but kale and quinoa, but if you eat more than your body needs it’s just not good for you. (plus you’re probably missing some major nutrients if that’s all you eat… but that’s a different point)
  • Not eating enough — Once again, you could eat nothing but the “healthy” foods and be damaging your body.
  • Not eating fruits, veggies, and protein. Once again… this is about cutting out entire food groups, although not intentionally this time, if you think you can subsist on Little Debbie snacks and be healthy, you’re sorely mistaken.
  • Having an unhealthy relationship with food — Working in the fitness industry, I see this a lot. You see beautiful meals posted on instagram, and smiling faces and assume they have it all figured out. Or maybe it’s your friend down the street who lost a ton of weight… while they may look like they have it together on the outside, their way of eating is tearing them apart inside, overrunning their life and threatening their mental health. And if this is you, I urge you to get support in developing a healthier relationship with food.

All food is neutral

As you can see, it’s not about the food, it’s about the overall pattern of consumption, the relationship with food, and having balance.

Labeling food as “unhealthy” gives it too much power. It sets that food up on a pedestal of “forbidden fruit” and keeps us from making the best decision for ourselves.

There is no one food that can make you healthy or unhealthy when taken in the context of moderation.

The truth is, all foods can fit into a healthy balanced diet, which makes the labels of healthy or unhealthy completely and totally obsolete. That’s like calling a dime good but a quarter bad… a five dollar bill unhealthy and a twenty dollar bill healthy… they can all be used in our monetary system.

You don’t have to cut out certain foods, you don’t have to only eat protein and veggies… or avoid refined grains. You actually can get healthy and fit while eating all of the foods that the nutrition media tells you is “unhealthy.”

Sound crazy?

Actually, it’s not. And today I want to challenge you to prove it to yourself.

The moderation challenge

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, will help you to create a more moderate mindset about food.

Here it is:

Take a food that you currently feel is in the “unhealthy” category and create a healthy balanced meal using that food item.

Now, I probably don’t have to tell you… please, don’t use a food that you are allergic to and can’t actually eat. That would actually be unhealthy.

If you’re not sure how to do that, start by finding a way to incorporate protein and veggies into that dish, like I do with my pasta dish here.

Want to take it to the next level? Enjoy your meal mindfully, and listen to your body for when you’ve had enough.