There’s no such thing as “healthy food”.
I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.
There’s no such thing as “healthy food”.
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?
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”.
- Whence we have the terms “crunchy” and “granola” to describe people — as many would describe me. ↩
- SOMEONE BUY ME THIS. ↩
- It isn’t. ↩
- Remind me not to play craps with you. ↩
- Helloooo rancid oils. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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? ↩
- Not just nutritional needs, but emotional, ritual, social, and so on — none of these is more or less important than others. ↩
- A large apple may do as well for our theoretical Twinkie-eater — though only if they have the teeth to eat it. ↩