There’s no such thing as “healthy food”

There’s no such thing as “healthy food”.

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

And repeat:

There’s no such thing as “healthy food”.

It’s true.

There is Health Food, as a cultural construct1, but, as a cultural construct, it is ever changing; currently we are undergoing a cultural shift from low-fat to low-carbohydrate food earning the appellation. But, aside from the fact that we simply cannot agree on what qualifies, there is so such thing as “healthy food”.

One of the most frustrating things about being a fat woman is: everyone is convinced they have The Perfect Diet, and if I would just follow it, the fat would just walk away2. Everyone. Everyone. The veg*ns. The Paleos. The Atkin adherents. The raw food peeps. Eat no fat; eat tons of fat. Eat no grains; eat soaked grains. Eat a fastfood turkey sandwich every day; eat nothing from a store. Everyone is convinced they have The Truth on what is Healthy Food, and what the other guy (or the fat chick) is eating ain’t it.

Or, maybe, for the super open minded and tolerant, they’ll say we’re not quite sure just what healthy food is (except you won’t find it at McDonald’s). But by all the saints and Starbucks, don’t question the idea that there is such a thing as Healthy Food, because surely, if we just apply Science/Prayer/Common Sense/Historical Analysis/Noble Savage Wisdom, we’ll figure it out. And no one will ever die.

What? That’s the logical conclusion to the idea of Healthy Food. If we eat right, we won’t get sick. If we eat right, we won’t get fat. If we eat right, we won’t become diabetic. If we eat right, our kids won’t get autism. (If we eat right, we won’t be infertile, and we’ll be able to have children, who will obviously be free of all illness and defect.) If we eat right, we won’t be crazy. If we eat right, we won’t die from heart attack or stroke or cancer or liver failure or kidney disease or AIDS — and, if we eat right when we’re pregnant, neither will our children.

These are all things believers in the myth of healthy food have said. Half of them to me.

Ok, but let’s say that’s a hyperbolic misrepresentation of the position of Healthy Food’s believers3. Let’s say that when you say “she got diabetes because she ate like crap” you don’t actually mean “she wouldn’t have gotten diabetes if she’d eaten right” which itself could only be true if “no one who eats right gets diabetes”, which is utter bollocks. Let’s say that, instead, you have amazing powers of sight into alternate dimensions and a perfect ability to predict outcomes of statistical likelihoods4 — because that what it comes down to, risk, with some eating patterns carrying, on a population scale, different risk profiles than other eating patterns. You’re just saying healthy food improves your odds, not actually calling healthy food a panacea. But there’s still healthy food and unhealthy food, right?

No.

If we are not claiming there is a food, or a way of eating, that brings perfect health (which is assuming we can even meaningfully define “perfect health” in the first place), then the best we can do with food is risk management. “Healthy” can only exist as a comparative, not absolute, value.

So, compared to what? Which is healthier, raw cultured butter from pastured cows, or cold-pressed organic olive oil? That depends on whether you’re vegan, or lactose intolerant, or live in a dessert without a means of keeping food chilled5, I’d say. Which is healthier, a plate of brown rice spaghetti in fat-free sauce made from tomatoes from your own garden, or a protein shake with artificial sugar substitutes — to a diabetic? Which is healthier, the home cooked meal a growth-delayed, sensory-averse child absolutely won’t touch, or the McDonald’s chicken nuggets they’ll scarf?

Food — all food — brings things that are “good” for us, and things that are “bad”; or, more accurately, things that we need in that moment and things that we can store for later and things we don’t need (right then or at all) and things that we have too much of and things that actively harm us. All foods have all of these — only the specifics and amounts of each change. And the specifics are variable depending on our needs, which not only are different from person to person but each person’s needs change all the damn time.

Given that no food can fill all needs simultaneously6, and eating is a practice in good enough balance over time, how can we call a food “healthy” as an absolute?7 Food is meant to meet our needs8, and can only be evaluated on its ability to do so. Even a Twinkie is “healthy” for a person starved for caloric energy.

So there it is. There absolutely are foods that have a better need-filling to harm ratio in any given situation9. There absolutely are reasons to aim for eating foods that better meet more of your nutritional needs more of the time (though you have no moral obligation to do so). There so absolutely are reasons to call for large corporations to take out unnecessary harmful components from the food they sell and for, at the least, factual labeling about those additives. I disagree with not a piece of that, nor with helping people, should they wish, learn how to feed themselves in a way that meets more of their needs more of the time with less harm. Please, if that’s your calling, keep at it.

But the fact remains: there is no such thing as “healthy food”.

  1. Whence we have the terms “crunchy” and “granola” to describe people — as many would describe me.
  2. SOMEONE BUY ME THIS.
  3. It isn’t.
  4. Remind me not to play craps with you.
  5. Helloooo rancid oils.
  6. For example: the presence of calcium inhibits the absorption of iron (and, pertinent to both me and the Boychick, oral thyroid hormone supplementation), and therefore we need to eat some foods high in calcium and deficient in iron, and others high in iron but lacking calcium.
  7. Even postulating the theoretical existence of a food that perfectly filled all of our nutritional needs simultaneously in a perfectly balanced way: would it be healthy to be bored out of our ever-loving gourds by eating the same exact thing all the time?
  8. Not just nutritional needs, but emotional, ritual, social, and so on — none of these is more or less important than others.
  9. A large apple may do as well for our theoretical Twinkie-eater — though only if they have the teeth to eat it.
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38 Responses to There’s no such thing as “healthy food”

  1. “Which is healthier, the home cooked meal a growth-delayed, sensory-averse child absolutely won’t touch, or the McDonald’s chicken nuggets they’ll scarf?”
    Or the ramen and Mac & Cheese? He eats – I try to focus on that <3

    Sure, I wish he ate more veg but he can not tolerate the texture. In truth, he eats more veg than I was able to at his age.

    It is, to me, far more important to honor his sensory and emotional needs than to force him to eat something that is more than his senses are ready to process. I choose to honor and love him where he is.

    And speaking of loving and honoring him: he just came into my room saying "I just wanted to say hi", hugged me and then happily went back to his game.

  2. *Excellent* post, so very right on!

  3. Lovely post! Thank you!

  4. I really wish we could use “healthy” as a synonym for “positive, desirable, wise” without stigmatizing things that are not necessarily healthy (even “unhealthy” sounds so bad). In both mental health and nutritional contexts, actually.
    You are right that an enormous amounts depends on context… but within a particular context (say USian families with a SES status sufficient to eat pretty much any foods they want), some generalities really are possible- “don’t eat only McDonalds” is sound advice. Yes, it’s “only” risk management type advice, but so is “don’t smoke tobacco”, and I really see arguments against that stance as mostly qualifying as 1) ridiculous nitpickery or 2) willful denialism.

    So, in an absolute sense, you might be right… but I’m still probably going to use the term ‘healthy food’, because it’s handy. But I do think it’s well-worth re-evaluating how I think about the utility(s) of different foods.

    Also, your “no one will ever die” comment has me giggling. Because of this: http://www.lyricsmania.com/still_gonna_die_lyrics_shel_silverstein.html

    • becca — I don’t disagree that some generalities are possible, such as, “a meal from McDonald’s has, on average, a lower helpful-harmful nutritional ratio than a similar meal made at home from mostly whole/basic/primary ingredients”. And sure, we could use “healthy” as short-hand for this generality — but we lose the emphasis on the function of food, on the intricacies and complexities, on the ways in which ALL food is “nutritious” in that it has some nutritional value (even if not much more than calories and sodium and macronutrients of saturated fats and carbohydrates), and, given our current cultural climate, we risk being understood not as short-hand for the above quote, but as a synonym for “morally good”. My point is primarily that we have taken what should be short-hand for a complex comparative, and turned it into a mythical absolute. And when we do, we lose so, so much.

      • I had a sudden self-awareness last summer when I was wracked with guilt over whether I should have bought those half-dozen large olives at my grocery olive bar (I love olives). I realized that I had a dysfunctional view of food as a moral issue. “They’re only olives! What is wrong with you!” I wanted to scream at myself, but still the voice whispered “if you eat those fatty olives with the way your thighs are looking, you are a bad person.” And soon I wasn’t just feeling bad, I was feeling bad about feeling bad.
        It’s so difficult to move forward with my personal relationship with food, in this society. I’m so tired of my stomach being a moral battle ground. I don’t want to repress or indulge, I don’t want to need to ask permission or else to defy it. I look for healthy role models to help me heal my broken attitudes, and it seems everyone else is just as broken as I.

  5. Thank you so much for this – food is one of the areas around which I struggle most uselessly as a parent, because I have somehow got it in my head that the only “real” food is food that has been cooked from scratch, or at least mostly from scratch. I am usually rational enough to remember that this is a false construction, but the guilt accrues anyway.

    Weirdly, the comparison that springs to mind for me is the difference between “safe sex “and “safer sex.” It makes complete sense to me in that framework, that there are some foods that are healthier than others, but that there is likely no food that is absolutely healthy for everyone, period the end.

  6. Psst, typo – “live in a dessert”. Dunes of cinnamon struesel? :P (That sounds tasty. Much tastier than the cactus-studded dirt desert I live in.)

    • Shiyaya — Ah, what I get for typing in manic spurts between nursing and pottying a baby! One day, I’ll be able to go back to my usual three hours of copyediting and angsting.

  7. As the mother to an underweight extreme picky eater this is something I grapple with daily. As your example about the growth delayed sensory adverse child pointed out sometimes just getting food into the child is far more important than the type of food. The point at which my daughter now 6 (and with an almost 20 yo son, I have dealt with a picky eater in my times) when she reached the point she would actually eat a Happy Meal, we were thrilled beyond belief. Yet at the same time hearing judgments about “bad foods” got under my skin and frankly at a certain point I want to tell well intentioned people STFU.

    Great piece!

  8. You know I’m not fat, and likely never will be, but my mom is; and I’m grateful that I grew up around the ideas of HAES, even if we didn’t call it that. I guess I’m a fat ally? Anyway, I have no time for people who moan about being fat, or for their get-thin-quick fad. I personally believe that with a moderate diet (of more “real” food than highly processed) and moderate exercise (according your physical ability), your body will settle at its optimal weight. For many people, that’s much heavier and softer than our current fashion of rail thin and corded with muscles.

    Um. I had a point, I think. But then I had to change a poopy diaper, and forgot it.

    Anyway. Arwyn, you’re so articulate! I love reading your posts.

  9. Love this post! I used to think of myself as being into “healthy food” but people I know have taken it so far I’ve had to secede from the health nut nation. I don’t understand how otherwise smart, rational people can fail to see that they are just following trends… it used to be that soy was a healthy food hippies ate, now it’s the devil and you must eat grass fed beef and drink almond milk (which is NOT milk and barely contains any almonds!). All these Paleo People make me crazy because HOW IN THE WORLD could this possibly be a sustainable diet for large numbers of people? Can you imagine the environmental devastation of 7 billion people eating nothing but meat and low carb veggies? GAH!

    I thought that Michael Pollan (I think it was he) made a great point about our preconceived notions of food with a pop quiz about the best food for a person stranded on a desert island – hold on, I found the source and it’s not Pollan – the answer of course is HOT DOGS.
    http://psych-your-mind.blogspot.com/2011/10/good-food-bad-food-psychology-of.html

  10. I agree with you more than I disagree, and I don’t know how to disagree without coming across as derailing. So there’s that… I’ll have to write my own “post” so I can get my thoughts on this subject straight, as opposed to the rats’ nest they now resemble. I do think this is an excellent post and you are, of course, brilliant and safe for me in a way that most people who have written on this subject (ever or lately) aren’t. Thank you!

    And FWIW, I’d like to join Shiyiya in her typo-fantasy and live in a dessert full of dunes of cinnamon streusel…

    • Micaela — I really look forward to hearing your disagreements. I so often admire your thoughtful critiques.

      • you’re always such a sweet & thoughtful friend and I went off to really think & ponder about how to clearly express my thoughts on this and then… *squirrel!!!*… a hundred other things crowded in my brain for attention. (how do you do it? I can barely focus on anything long enough to think it through, much less write about it?) Just wanted to come back and tell you that one of these days I will put fingers-to-keyboard in an attempt to continue this interesting, complex & often difficult conversation with you and with myself (and anyone else who cares to join us respectfully, ha!).

  11. omigosh, if this doesn’t sound like something written by an addict in the ‘bargaining’ stage, i don’t know what does. sorry to be harsh -and trust me, i do the same thing when in denial and dealing w/ yet another food allergy in my hyperallergic child, so YES while i’m pointing the finger at you, three ARE pointing back at me! we all have an issue that drags us kicking and screaming toward reluctant enlightenment. welcome to yours.

    – i also find it very telling when you have the freudian slip, “if you live in a dessert” when you mean, “if you live in a desert”. kinda like when my hubby’s gram tells me to go get the african off her bed when she’s cold. things that make you go ‘hmmm’…

    and a twinkie is not “healthy” for a starving person, it is just keeping them alive w/ pure empty calories, -much like formula keeps babies alive – while they continue to starve for true, living nutrition that heals and prevents gut damage.

    i do not claim to know what is the “perfect health food” – i’m so confused b/t my vegetarian background, allergic children, vegan idealism and paleo leanings that i just couldn’t say – but i know for damn sure it isn’t GMO food that is chemically processed to be a molecule away from plastic injected w/ saturated fats! i suspect true health food can be different for different ppl and we need to look at our individual body types and listen to our bodies – but there still are some universal truths and eating fake food that even animals or insects won’t touch has got to be one! not healthy, in fact not even really a food!

    ps – love that you had a home breech birth, so did i. :-)

    • jack — So, just to clarify: you not only know what and how I eat based on approximately 1000 words in which I do not, in any way, discuss my own diet, you also have diagnosed me with an “addiction” (to what, exactly?) based on the same 1000 words and one misspelling, AND compared infant formula milk to Twinkies and declared both unhealthy? OK then.

      Thanks for playing: you win hilariously offensive and misguided comment of the day.

    • Who Would Freud Diagnose On The Internet?

    • I started reading this post from my android phone while scooping chef boyardee from a can and couldnt help but smile at the irony. I decided to peruse the comments and got a little stuck on this one. Arwyn already gave a rather succinct reply but I couldnt help but add my two cents.

      First that you are implying any type of addiction in response to this post I feel misses the biggest point of it. We (everyone) need to stop pushing our ideals of what is ‘healthy’ (right) or what is ‘unhealthy’ (wrong) and focus more on what we as an individual feels is best for us.

      Second to say that anything is universal is short sighted. Have you ever dropped a ‘plastic’ twinkie on the ground? Every come back to it a few hours later. Some of the foods that get termed as unhealthy is the first to get carried away by the critters because it fulfils natures most base desire, loads of calories with little work.

      And finally, the item that totally derailed me here was your out of hand comment on formula. Yes breast is best, yes there are a lot of very nice antibodies that benefits a child but NO a mother who gives her child formula should not feel as if they are STARVING said infant and to state this implies that those who are unable to produce milk for their child are unfit and even harming their child.

      Alright enough ranting, I am going to go throw my podium off a cliff now.

      • TW for rape

        I hate to see this shaming of mothers who bottle feed by choice. I chose to bottlefeed my two daughters because I knew even attempting to breastfeed would trigger me beyond belief, no one listened to me during my pregnancies and all medical personnel (my midwife most of all) quite literally bullied me for it. Even if I didn’t have a history of rape, every woman should be able to make this choice freely without the “breast is best! BUT i guess it’s ok to bottlefeed as long as you’ve tried to breastfeed and just can’t.”

        it’s my body my choice unless it’s my breasts apparently.

  12. Had to come out of lurkdom and say that I adore this post. No, seriously, I cannot thank you enough and I’m going to print this and start handing it out to everyone who tells me that if only I eat [insert food here] all of my health problems will magically disappear. I do not eat “healthy” compared to many people that I see. Because not only am I severely underweight due to a combination of factors, I also have GI issues that prevent me from eating so-called “healthy food” and also many so-called “junk foods.” I eat what is going to prevent me from feeling sick, what will allow me to keep my calorie intake high enough where I don’t become a skeleton with skin, and what will meet whatever nutrition need I have in that moment. Am I doing it the way the raw/vegan/paleo/organic/locavore food-bloggers want? The FDA and their food pyramid? My Standard-American-Diet “It didn’t hurt me one bit, now pass me a stick of butter” family? No. Will my diet work for everyone (or even anyone) else? Probably not. This post is my new manifesto. Thank you!
    Sorry for the overly long comment.

  13. Thank you for this. I am at risk of becoming fanatical about ‘healthy’ food, though my ideas about what is healthy are not mainstream. Even so, I should be very aware that what works for one person in one situation is very variable – as my interest in nutrition started due to my son’s health and digestive issues – his needs are quite specific. But I really value a search for health at an individual level and I value sharing what works with other people. I still appreciate the views of many ‘healthy food’ fanatics, as I’ve learnt so much from them. And I appreciate campaigns to make food focused on nutrition rather than longer shelf life and corporate profits. But yes, ultimately, there is no such thing as ‘healthy food’. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. Yes. Miles is getting better about eating, but I would rather walk to McDonalds where I know he will eat his apples and chicken nuggets than waste food I know he won’t eat.

    My biggest beef with the judgment regarding healthy food is that it comes with the assumption that I can afford the healthy food. I make by hand what I can — mostly breads and pastas, which apparently don’t count right now. Otherwise its boxes, cans, and frozen to maximize what we get for our money. Telling people who can barely afford the food they do have that they ought to buy “healthy” food that costs twice as much is insulting and cruel.

  15. Yes. This. So much so.

  16. Yes! It frustrates me that some people want to make an ontological argument – health is “in itself” in certain kinds of food – rather than recognising that you’re talking about is a contextual relation between food and person in which “health” emerges as a result of certain conditions about what fosters a good life for that particular person (or group of people)

    This is, to me, far more philosophically convincing an argument than some Platonic ideal of Good and Bad Foods.

  17. This is timely.

    I was just reading an article about why Paleo is the way to go. Meats and veggies only, no dairy or grains (as far as I can tell). From an anthropological standpoint I can sympathize with the theory.

    But – I have some kind of GERD thing going on and if I’m not careful not only do I get very nasty heartburn but my body often decides to purge itself of the offending food as fast as possible. It’s nasty. Guess what makes it worse. Meat and many vegetables. Grains and dairy don’t upset my stomach and I try to squeeze in as much meat and veg as I can without getting sick. So, I’m totally on board with what’s healthy for one is not healthy for all.

    (as an aside, I believe I was told once that food isn’t “healthy”. It’s “healthful”. Healthy food would still be mooing ;) )

  18. (which is assuming we can even meaningfully define “perfect health” in the first place)

    ay, there’s the rub. if “healthy” or “healthful” food is supposed to keep us “healthy”, what does it mean to be “healthy” anyway? free of known physical diseases, conditions or disorders? (because the way those are defined is in no way problematic?) free of dental caries? what? it’s hard to find a universally-agreed-upon concept of “eating for optimal health” when “health” itself, as you point out, is a bit of a moving target.

    personally, i let my morals dictate many of my food choices. this is because i am in a position of socioeconomic, educational, and able-bodied privilege, and thus consider it my responsibility to send a message to producers via my consumption habits (which include, but are not at all limited to, food consumption) because i can. but a) i recognize that it’s because of my privilege that i’m able to live this way and b) i try not to harbor illusions that my choices are “healthier” on some absolute level and will somehow shelter me from all physical harm or adversity.

    another brilliant, thought-provoking post. *applause*

  19. Awesome post!

  20. This has to be said (that healthy is relative to context), because public health and other decisions are being made on the basis of either vague notions of what “healthy/healthful” is or on one, universalizing idea. I was just complaining about this to DH, who pointed out an article in the US Today about companies selling systems for measuring and labeling how “healthy” foods on grocery store shelves are; I also understand the Institute of Medicine wants to develop a similar metric. “But what is ‘healthy’?” I exclaimed to DH. He agreed the article was silent, and that it was different for different individuals.

  21. I only have a quick second but wanted to let you know that this was a GREAT post! Really insightful. Thanks! Sharing like crazy!

  22. Thank you. Having a bad day trying to provide food for the tiny human in my life. Reading your post has helped me relax. Perhaps sandwiches for lunch, again, isn’t such a bad thing after all.

  23. I think a lot of it is about choices. Can you make a “healthier” choice given your circumstances? And when you do make the healthier choice for you, then that could be health food for you as an individual or family.

    We’re vegetarians and eat a lot of natural, organic products. But I may have to make a different choice soon, because my 2 year old doesn’t like any of the protein options we have. He’s still breastfeeding, so I have the luxury to take time to evaluate my choices. Others are not so lucky.

    For whatever it’s worth, we could be making even better choices given certain allergies and reactions to some of the things we eat, but those better choices require more time and energy which is not something I can provide at the moment.

  24. Pingback: Links of Great Interest: The radio out here blows — The Hathor Legacy

  25. For whatever it’s worth, we could be making even better choices given certain allergies and reactions to some of the things we eat, but those better choices require more time and energy which is not something I can provide at the moment.

    I think this is a very important part of why there’s no one “healthy” food. Every choice has pros and cons, and sometimes the things that are better in one respect take more than you have to give somewhere else. Stressing yourself out isn’t healthy, so even food that’s perfect for you in and of itself (not that any food is really “all good”), but that causes you stress to get on the table stops being perfect.

    A happy family dinner of take-out pizza might be a better choice than a miserable family dinner because the parent who cooked is exhausted and the picky kid wants nothing to do with the food. Breast is best, well, yeah, unless breastfeeding is so painful that it’s damaging your relationship with your kid, or you have to go off the meds that keep you healthy because they’d be passed along in breastmilk.

  26. You know why we eat the way we do? Because it’s what we choose. Eating is so intimate, the choice of what to put into your body – how it feels in your own mouth, how it tastes, smells, how your body digests it and uses it, and spits it out – it’s entirely personal, and no one else’s business but the eater (except of course in the case of children who need parents to provide food for them… but, parents can educate children whilst providing for them.)

    I believe eating vegetarian is the most healthy and conscious-pleasing decision for ME and my family (and yay, my family agrees! I do expect at some point, the youngest members may disagree, but for now, they agree and are fully educated about the why’s in our food choices). However, I would not presume my choices are the best for everyone. I get VERY uncomfortable when reading blogs which are so food-strict as to presume NOT adhering to their diets (whether they are based on the bible or some health guru or whatever) would cause health harm to people whose circumstances they have NO IDEA about. I don’t even know how to respond to someone telling ME how to eat. It’s just so intensely personal.

    I do believe there are certain ways of planting and processing food that are healthier overall for our environment and inhabitants – there is enough research to show that clear cutting & burning forests in order to plant palm oil isn’t good for the forests, or the animals living there (just one example), or spraying crops with DDT (another example), but again, that’s more about overall responsibility of earthlings to the health of their planet, not to personal health via what specific things you choose to eat.

  27. I just wanted to say that if you are iron-deficient then you need to know how iron absorption works. There are various factors that can help: vitamin C and A and also copper. There are fascinating Wikipedia articles under ‘Iron deficiency anemia’ and ‘Human iron metabolism’.
    I had a bit of a hard time taking iron supplements, they made me nauseous, so I changed the iron product I was taking and made sure to get enough vitamin C. Seems to have sorted it all beautifully.

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