Are There Any Foods You SHOULDN'T Eat?
The intuitive eating discussion often comes back, in some form or another, to the ultimate question of “Okay, but surely there are some things we don’t want to be eating all the time in our diets, right?” This brings up an interesting line of discussion I hope to put to rest today.
So, are there any foods that should indefinitely be off-limits in a sensible diet? Is there any logical rationale behind the idea of banishing certain foods in certain cases? Can you achieve Food Freedom if you ban foods from your diet?
Today I will bring up a few points of why someone might restrict foods from their diet, touch on all these points specifically, and then leave you with an answer moving forward. But make sure to read through all of this (or, if you prefer the multimedia medium, check out the accompanying video above), so that you truly understand why we’ve arrived at the answer we have. It’s a bit more nuanced than some might make it out to be, so pay close attention!
There are five big reasons I can think of regarding justification for cutting out certain foods or food groups from a diet wholesale. Surely there are other possible reasons out there, but I believe these five cover our bases sufficiently for the purposes of today’s talk. Let’s go into those now.
Reason 1: High in calories
The most obvious reason for banning a food from your diet is its caloric load. We are so conditioned to associate “high in calories” with “bad” that it almost seems preposterous to posit a high-calorie food could ever serve a purpose.
But hold on just a second. What if you’re running low on calories? What if you haven’t eaten much that day? What if you’re in recovery from an eating disorder and need to put on weight? What if you’re going on a hike or going somewhere where you can’t afford to carry a bunch of stuff? Certainly in these cases, it makes sense to specifically seek out higher calorie foods. This is why foods like Cliff bars and nutritional supplements like Boost and Ensure exist in the first place.
But beyond that (and you’ll see this as a constant theme as we move on through the next four reasons), you never really need to have an excuse or justification for why you’re eating anything. Part of the joy of eating is that certain foods are just pleasurable. The whole “eat for fuel” maxim is highly misguided and steeped in orthorexia. Food has more than just a biological function for hunger-cessation; it also has a hedonic benefit, meaning that eating is just an enjoyable experience.
Reason 2: “Empty calories”
When we say “empty calories,” what we mean is that per calories you get from a food, you’re getting a limited amount of micronutrients or phyto-/zoo-/mycochemicals (though I’d hazard to guess people aren’t usually thinking of these when they say this). In other words, you’re not getting much health-wise from these calories.
But this makes very little sense when we stop to think about it. Calories don’t always need to be giving you anything else. Of course, I’d never argue that you shouldn’t strive to include more fruits/vegetables in your diet. But it would be a silly prerequisite that everything you eat has to provide some other nutrient benefit to you.
Like I said in the previous reason, foods (and, by extension, calories) don’t always need to provide you with all sorts of health benefits. Eating to quell a hungry stomach is itself a nutritional benefit, so this already starts to degrade the argument that every single calorie needs to carry with it a myriad of metabolic benefits. Indeed, the idea that empty calories are bad exists on the premise that the only role of food is to deliver macro- and micronutrients to your body.
This simply isn’t a sound reason to banish a food entirely.
Reason 3: High in sugar
READ: Is Sugar Addiction Real?
Unless you’re a Type 1 (or, to some degree, Type 2) diabetic,* sugar really isn’t a problem until it’s eaten in huge excess and without balancing factors (like fiber and water). But really we’re talking about extremes here and trends over time. I’d go as far as to say that even having a huge bolus of refined sugar in one sitting isn’t that bad for you, even acutely.
It just doesn’t make sense that a food being high in sugar should render it off-limits. That singular instance of high sugar intake and insulin secretion sets off no appreciable metabolic cascade in the first place. What will actually happen? Well, your pancreas will go, “Mama mia, that’s a lot o’ sugar!” and its beta cells will start pumping out the storage hormone insulin. Insulin receptors on glucose-dependent target cells (like skeletal muscle and adipose tissue) will bind this insulin and start letting in glucose.
Of course, there will be a point where no more glucose can be accepted. Where this point is depends on a variety of factors: your body’s nutrient partitioning capabilities (i.e. do you exercise intensely on a regular basis?), your current state of glycogen stores (are you totally depleted after not having eaten much that day or are you totally full, or somewhere in between?), the other nutrients ingested around that time (are there dietary fats in there being metabolized simultaneously?), and much, much more.
Once it gets to that point, things will back up, but the body is primed to handle this. It will send some of this glucose off to be converted to other metabolic byproducts, it will keep some of it around in the blood, and it will try using up some of it immediately to fuel activity. As the day moves on, and the glucose is used up, insulin will eventually drop back down and the process will start over. No one dies, no natural disasters break out, and we all live happily ever after! Trust me, the body knows what it’s doing. One session of over-eaten sugar is not going to leave much of a scratch.
When does that session leave a scratch? When we freak out over it, adding stress and panic into the mix (which means inappropriate cortisol and catecholamine secretion), and then make ill-informed decisions (for more, see 11 Things NOT to Do After a Binge).
*Even then, totaly restriction of high-sugar foods is not necessarily the best way to treat Type 2 diabetes from a nutritional standpoint. For more, check out Christy Harrison’s article The Best Foods for Diabetics and People With Diabetes.
Reason 4: Overly processed
To adequately address this point, we need to get an important operational definition out of the way. What do we even mean by processed? Most foods are processed to some degree, whether that means adding sodium or a partially hydrogenated oil or cooking and re-freezing or using a certain chemical, etc. So what type of processing, and content of processing, are we actually talking about?
Most of the foods you eat have been treated with some degree of pesticides or chemicals. Unless you’re growing all your foods in your backyard and raising and killing all of your own livestock, this is fairly unavoidable. And even then, you’ll quickly start to realize why processing is such a good thing.
The reality is, processing in and of itself simply means we’re allowing for these foods to be produced in mass quantities so more people can have access to them. In many cases, that’s an incredibly important thing, so anyone rattling off about how unhealthy “processed foods” are really does need to first clarify what exactly they mean by this.
Even then, you’d be hard pressed to make a case for banishing foods on this premise. A food being high in sodium just means we’ll have to rely on our body’s handy renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) to regulate and adjust accordingly. Unless we’re chowing down on salt pills, chances are we’re going to be just fine.
Reason 5. Binge / Trigger food
If there’s anything on this list that might actually have some credibility to it, it would be this. By “binge” or “trigger food,” we mean any food or foods that threaten to set off a potential binge, or just foods you feel like you can’t control your consumption of. Surely if whenever you’re around brownies you feel powerful binge urges emerge, this is reason to cut them out, right?
Well, even with foods like these, pure exclusion of any type of food is almost always a recipe for disaster. The problem is that when you restrict a food, you inherently put it on a pedestal. You tell yourself “If I’m ever tempted to eat a food that’s sugary and sweet (or salty/sour/etc.), this will be that food.”
Creating these hard and fast rules about what you can and can’t eat leads to inevitably breaking your “food rules,” which just spurs on this binge cycle and worsens the problem.
So, instead of banishing these foods, try normalizing the consumption of them. I’ll give you an example, which revolves around the way I’d work on this with a client.
Let’s say brownies are a binge food. First, try not eating brownies in the “toxic” place you normally do. Sounds simple, but this alone is usually an immeasurably powerful step. Then, try eating them in more normal settings; for example, in the presence of others or after eating a filling meal. Then, working with a therapist or dietitian, work on a behavior chain analysis to decipher where along the line the issue is arising with this food.
So, what’s the verdict?
Unless you’re allergic, or heavily intolerant, to a certain food, banishing foods entirely from your diet is almost never called for.
I often hear people talking about the “bad” foods they ate and how they need to cut these out. What happens with this is that we start tying the morality of our eating patterns to our own value as people, and this is a dangerous path to go down. This is the concept I teach all my clients, called Cognitive Dietary Restraint (CDR).
I can’t tell you enough, if you’re in this type of a restrictive place, how amazing it feels to escape this paradigm. In the place I’m in now, I have a much healthier relationship with these foods, so I can eat all sorts of “fun foods” without guilt or shame. Wondering what that looks like? I made a video on this just last week that should help you understand what Food Freedom, and intuitive eating, looks like in practice:
For more: Check out my book, 100 Days of Food Freedom!