Length: »2000 Words
Reading Time: 8-10 Minutes
Target Audience: Trainers, Coaches, Educators
DON'T LIKE READING? LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION HERE
Nutrition may be the only science by which people self-identify and become emotionally invested in. No other domain of science causes such schism and heated debate between people. All but outright military conflict has occurred due to difference of opinions regarding the food we put in our mouths. Nutrition trends have, and will continue to come and go, with scales tipping from declaring fat as the enemy, only to turn around and then embrace it as the holy grail of longevity. Almost anybody can rhyme off countless nutrition trends without thinking; Atkins, Paleo, Keto, IIFYM etc.
All these fads share some common elements:
1. They all can work for an individual
2. They all have zealot like followers who belittle any other approach
3. They all have people bastardize the approach and advocate extremes
Where we can see these different approaches diverge is in their view of the type of foods we should be eating. I do empathize with people in our modern world as we are bombarded with conflicting information on a daily basis. We are told that saturated fat is clogging our arteries, while someone else proclaims sugar as the devil and says we need to heap butter into our morning coffees and that calories are irrelevant once we are eating “clean” & “healthy” foods. You believe processed foods are killing you, but then your trainer tells you that calories and protein is all we should worry about, and whether that comes from fruit or fruit loops doesn’t matter at all.
While all these trails of thought have their unique pros and cons, they mainly just lead to greater confusion. Most of us fall into one of two camps. Some of us believe that certain types of food are innately “bad” or “unhealthy” and should be avoided at all costs. Conversely you could end up on the other end of the spectrum thinking that calories are all that matter, and food quality isn’t all that important. This labeling of foods into little boxes of good and bad is misguided and doesn’t really help anyone.
With this article, I hope to do two things:
1. Show you why the concept of healthy & unhealthy foods is naïve and flawed
2. Introduce you to a new way to view food that appreciates the intertwined nuances of energy balance and food quality.
If you only take two key messages away from this article, let it be these:
There is no such thing as a “Good” or “Bad” food! It is how these foods are consumed in the context of the overall diet which determines whether they contribute in either a positive or negative way to an individual’s health or body composition goals.
Calorie intake & food quality are not mutually exclusive concepts. It is not a case of focusing on one or the other. Calorie intake AND food quality are important.
“Good” & “Bad” Foods Do Not Exist, Context is Key!
The idea that certain foods are bad for us can easily lead to a distorted or even orthorexic relationship with food, followed by a list of acute and chronic negative consquences.
Ask yourself whether you think the following two foods are healthy or unhealthy:
· Nuts (almonds, cashews etc.)
· Fruit Loops (American sugar coated, highly processed breakfast cereal)
The majority of people will classify nuts as healthy and fruit loops as unhealthy.
Now let me put two scenarios to you.
It is true that nuts provide quality sources of fat and minerals, but if someone overconsumes on nuts due to their high calorie density and this leads to increases of bodyfat to overweight or obese levels, are nuts a healthy or unhealthy component of the diet in this context?
Fruit loops offer little in the way of vitamins and minerals and are very calorie dense. Yet, if someone who is obese finds it easier to adhere to a sustained calorie deficit when they consume a small bowl of fruit loops every day, and this facilitates their long-term weight loss goals, are fruit loops a healthy or unhealthy component of the diet in this context?
Hopefully by now you are beginning to see why looking at individual food items and categorizing them as good or bad is short-sighted unless you view them in the context of the overall diet for that given individual.
Foods can be a Schrödinger’s cat depending on how they fit into the overall quality of the diet. This is why in my opinion adopting a more flexible principle-based approach (bottom-up) is a superior and more sustainable method to adopt, rather than a restrictive methods-based approach (top-down). If you have a good understanding of energy balance and protein intake you can achieve impressive results while still eating the “bad” foods you’ve been warned about on a regular basis.
This is the premise of the “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) approach to flexible dieting. The overarching message of this approach is that if you are consistently hitting appropriate calorie and protein levels, eating ice-cream or cookies is perfectly fine and won’t have a negative effect on your body composition.
Why a flexible dieting approach can sometimes be misrepresented is mainly because a trend emerged where people adopted the concept that calories and protein is all that matters, and food quality is not that important. This led to people basically attempting to cram as much ice-cream, cookies, pizza and all kinds of crap into their daily diet while still being able to hit their calorie and protein targets. Plenty of these individuals achieved impressive physiques by doing this and became targets of clean-eating advocates who declared flexible dieting as merely cramming in junk food with no regard for health.
This is why we find our modern-day schism in which one side professes that we should pay little attention to food quality and simply hit calorie and protein targets, while the opposing sides proclaims that we should just eat good quality foods and pay no heed to calories.
As with most debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Both sides are correct,while also being wrong. Calories and food quality are not mutually exclusive concepts.
The truth is:
Energy balance is very important!
Food Quality is very important!
This is why I want to introduce you to a new concept I’ve devised to think about food.
The Calorie-Quality Continuum:
I showed my friend Danny Lennon the below graph a few months back and he coined the title, so credit for its name must go to him.
If we take some time to examine the graph, it affords us a lens through which we can view food in a new way, placing food on a spectrum rather than trying to fit it into a distinct box. We have already shown how food is dynamic and that the same food can contribute in either a positive or negative way depending on the context of the overall diet.
The horizontal x-axis categorises foods along a scale of their calorie density (how many calories the food contains per gram of food weight), while the vertical y-axis rates foods on their quality, defined by their micronutrient density in this case.
If we get blinded by the bastardized IIFYM approach that calories are the only thing that matter, then we can fall into the trap of just consuming foods in the lower half of the graph and believing this is an optimal approach once we simply hit our calorie and protein targets. Long-term adherence and sustainability are potential major pitfalls of the "dirty" IIFYM approach. While it may initially sound attractive to consume mainly hyperpalatable "junk"and get shredded, we tend to see factors such as satiety and micronutrient intake becoming an issue with such an approach. Foods which are hyperpalatable, while also being high-calorie tend to be low in terms of their satiating properties, and this can easily result in over-eating. For example, most of us could easily consume 1000kcal from pizza (that's a little over three large pizza slices from Domino's) and not be satisfied from a hunger perspective, and then proceed to polish off another 1000kcal with ease.. Yet, if we were to consume 1000kcal through chicken, potatoes & vegetables, we would be far more satiated and less likely to over-eat. We certainly can achieve optimal body composition through the sole consumption of "dirty" foods, but that doesn't mean we should!
Contrastingly, we see others adopt the mindset that calories are irrelevant once we just “eat clean,” it can be very easy to over-consume on energy-dense foods, and even though you are solely eating “healthy” foods, you unconsciously slip calorie surplus, which brings with it excess fat gain, and the negative effects on performance and health.
It is important to note that there is more to health and performance than just calories and body composition. We know that higher intakes of fruit and vegetables are associated with better health outcomes and decreased risk of all-cause mortality and may lead to improved performance outcomes. So it is clear that both food quality and calorie balance are not mutually exclusive, but rather are intertwined components.
The Calorie-Quality Continuum divides food into five general groups:
A. Low-Calorie, Micronutrient Dense
B. High-Calorie, Micronutrient Dense
C. Low-Calorie, Micronutrient Poor
D. High-Calorie, Micronutrient Poor
E. Protein Sources – Generally Moderate Calorie & Micronutrient Density
Note that certain foods do not fall distinctly into one of the above groups but like all foods, are along a spectrum and may straddle between these groups.
In an ideal world, an argument could be made that we should exclusively eat from along the upper half of the continuum (group A,B & E) which would supply us with appropriate levels of calories, macronutrients and micronutrients for optimal health, composition and performance. But this is a one-dimensional view of food and disregards hedonic factors of nutrition. As humans, we eat for reasons other than to simply meet energy demands. We consume foods to fit with social norms and for the enjoyment of flavour and texture. If we agree that the ability to adhere to a diet for the long-term will be crucial in building a sustainable nutritional approach, neglecting these hedonic factors would be naïve.
The purpose of this continuum concept is not as a method on which to build a plan, but rather I hope it will aid people in their thoughts and attitudes towards food. Categorising foods as good or bad does not lead to a healthier relationship with food, but rather leads to more confusion and orthorexic attitudes. By visualising foods on this continuum, we can start to appreciate that no single food is innately healthy or unhealthy, but rather can contribute in either a positive or negative way depending on the context of the overall diet.
We are continually striving to improve our health, performance and recovery through the foods we eat. I believe most of us would agree that we do this best by consuming the vast amount of our diet from minimally processed, micronutrient-dense foods and high-quality protein sources (fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, fish etc.). Yet, this does not mean that we cannot consume lower quality, hyperpalatable “junk” foods on a regular (even daily) basis and still achieve our goals. In fact, I would argue inclusion of these foods will likely lead to greater progress overall if the result is greater adherence.
· No food is innately “good” or “bad”
· We must always view things in the context of the overall diet
· Calories or food quality are not mutually exclusive and both are important
· “Unhealthy” foods can contribute to the diet in a positive way through increased adherence
· “Healthy” foods can often be quite calorie-dense and can easily lead to over-consumption
· All foods can be rated on a continuum of their calorie density and quality
The aim of this article was to introduce and conceptualise the lens by which I believe people should view food. I hope for others, who are more intelligent than I to take this concept, adopt and improve upon it as a method of educating others and helping people to develop a more sustainable and healthy approach to nutrition. If you do choose to share or manipulate the graphic presented, all I ask is that you leave a credit to the original source within the graphic itself.
1. Nguyen, B., Bauman, A., Gale, J., Banks, E., Kritharides, L. and Ding, D. (2016). Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause mortality: evidence from a large Australian cohort study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 13(1).
2. Oyebode, O., Gordon-Dseagu, V., Walker, A. and Mindell, J. (2014). Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 68(9), pp.856-862.
3. Wang, X., Ouyang, Y., Liu, J., Zhu, M., Zhao, G., Bao, W. and Hu, F. (2014). Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ, 349(jul29 3), pp.g4490-g4490.
4. Van der Avoort, C., Van Loon, L., Hopman, M. and Verdijk, L. (2018). Increasing vegetable intake to obtain the health promoting and ergogenic effects of dietary nitrate. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.