“Carbs are bad, proteins are good.” How many times have you heard people say that — or something similar — over the past few years? I’m guessing probably about a bazillion. We look at foods like vegetables, fish, lean meat, legumes, and whole grains as “good” while we consider things like chips, sweets, crackers, fruit, white bread and other highly processed food to be “bad.”
Could I tell you something? Foods aren’t good or bad; they’re just food. Maybe it’s time to look at our food in a different way.
Now before you stop reading, let me clarify something: There are nutritional differences in foods, especially between those we tend to put in the “good” and “bad” groups. The foods we tend to put in the “bad” group, in high amounts can raise our risk for health issues, and they can be incredibly hard to resist.
The problem with these categories for food is that they can set us up for failure long-term. When we rigidly eat only “good” foods and never eat what we term “bad” foods, we can sustain it for a while, but if we slip up and eat something “bad,” we feel we’ve failed. When that happens, we may feel guilty, figure we’ve already messed up so we might as well eat more. Next we may decide we might as well stop trying.
Now, there’s a difference between what we’re talking about here and simply abstaining from some foods because we know we tend to overeat them. We’ll talk a little more about that in our next post. For now, though, let’s take a look at a way to look at foods that may be more helpful in meeting our wellness goals.
Rather than looking at foods as “good” or “bad” it can be more useful to look at them as a continuum of ‘eat more,’ ‘eat some,’ and ‘eat less.’
The ‘Eat More,’ ‘Eat Some,’ ‘Eat Less’ Continuum
Looking at foods on a continuum rather than as foods that are/are not allowed helps us get away from the “all or nothing” mindset that so often trips us up in our wellness journey. It can reduce some of the stress we can feel around our food choices, and give us a tool to make healthier choices most of the time (and not feel bad when we occasionally choose something less healthy).
According to Precision Nutrition Master Coach Dominic Matteo, “Unlike lists of bad foods, which tend to be universally rigid, a continuum ‘allows everything to be contextual and personalized.’ “ (1) The example that Matteo gives is that if he’s trying to gain muscle, his continuum will look different than if his goal is fat loss.
Our wellness goals will determine our continuum, but there are some general guidelines for the types of foods that fall into each area. Let’s take a look at them.
Vegetables and Fruits
Eating a variety of veggies and fruits provides a range of different nutrients, which can also mean a range of health benefits. Whole fruits and vegetables also add fiber to our diets, which can help us feel full longer, improve our gut health and aid digestion. Remember to “eat the rainbow” to take advantage of the variety of nutrients these gems provide. Here are just a few examples of the different color veggies and fruits we can choose from:
- Green. Leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, celery, green beans, asparagus, green peppers, kiwi, green grapes
- Red. Tomatoes, beets, rhubarb, radishes, red peppers, radicchio, red cabbage, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon
- Yellow. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, orange and yellow peppers, butternut squash, carrots, summer squash, acorn squash, oranges, cantaloupe
- Purple. Eggplant, purple cabbage, purple carrots, purple cauliflower, rutabaga, purple peppers, blueberries, purple grapes
- White. Cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, shallots, garlic, bananas
Again, these are just some of the colorful vegetables we can eat to support our goal of healthy eating.
“Proteins are a major component of all plant and animal tissues, second only to water.” (2) We often think of them as the building blocks of tissue, including our muscles. When we don’t eat enough protein, our body will break down tissue like our muscles and use that as a protein source. That means it’s important for us to get enough protein in our diets.
When we think of the proteins we want on our ‘eat more’ part of the continuum, we may want to include things such as lean, minimally processed protein sources. This might include things such as chicken, eggs, fish, turkey, lean beef, bison, and lean cuts of pork. We might also include plain Greek yogurt, cultured cottage cheese and other low-fat dairy products, and tempeh.
Beans and lentils often serve as primary protein sources for vegetarians, and can be the main source of protein for meatless meals for those of us who eat meat. They can also fall under the category of carbohydrates, as they’re actually great sources of both.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, and quality carbohydrate sources can fuel our bodies for all the things we need to get done throughout our busy days.
The ones that best support our good health are the ones that are whole or minimally-processed. These are the ones that are packed with the nutrients and fiber our bodies need.
Some of the things we may want to include on the ‘eat more’ part of our continuum when it comes to carbs are things like quinoa, steel-cut, rolled, or old-fashioned oats, buckwheat, potatoes, brown, black or wild rice, whole-grain pastas, and whole-grain or sprouted-grain breads.
Fat is required for normal bodily functions, including proper functioning of the brain, nerves, heart, lungs, and liver. (3) Getting proper amounts of healthy fats in our diets will help us meet our wellness goals and makes our bodies healthier.
For the fats we include in this part of our continuum, we may want to focus on whole-food fats like nuts and seeds, blended whole foods such as nut butters, and pressed oils like olive oil and avocado oil.
Some of these fats might include Extra-Virgin olive oil, nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios, seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds, egg yolks, and aged cheeses.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the foods we may want to include on our ‘eat more’ part of our continuum, but I hope it will give you some ideas for what might work for you.
Now let’s take a look at what we might want to include on our ‘eat some’ portion of our continuum.
These are foods that can be part of a healthy diet, but ones that we might want to eat less often than the ones in the ‘eat more’ group. They may not support our wellness goals quite as well as the ones in the first group, but they can still have a place in our diet. They tend to be a little more processed, though they still have some good nutritional content.
Let’s just break these down into the same categories that we did above:
The proteins in this group will include meats that are a little more fatty or processed such as medium-lean meats, minimally-processed lean deli meat, poultry sausage, and Canadian bacon.
They can also include tofu, uncultured cottage cheese, and protein powders.
Again, these are sources that may be a little more processed or contain more calories, but still contain nutrients. And they also can be a part of our healthy diets.
Some of the foods we might like to include here would be things like couscous, white rice, granola, instant or flavored oats, vegetable juices, pancakes and waffles, whole-grain crackers, white breads, pastas, and wraps.
These are fats that also have a place in our diets. They can help us feel full and satisfied. When eaten moderately, these fats can support our wellness goals while keeping us from feeling deprived.
The foods we may want to include for the ‘eat some’ part of our continuum are things like Virgin and light olive oil, sesame oil, flaxseed oil, dark chocolate, peanut butter, less-aged cheese, trail mix, and cream.
Again, this is not an exhaustive list — it’s just to give us an idea of some of the things we might want to include on our personal ‘eat some’ lists.
There’s one more part to our ‘eat more,’ ‘eat some,’ and ‘eat less’ continuum, but this post has already gotten a little (okay, a LOT) long, so we’re going to take a look at the last part next in our next post.
Also in the next post — As we talked about earlier, we’ll discuss a system for dealing with those foods with which we may have issues with moderation.
Giving foods the human attributes of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can not only be unhelpful for helping us meet our wellness goals; it can actually make it harder.
Looking at our food on a continuum of things we want to eat more of, eat some of, and eat less of can empower us to move toward our goals in a way that works for us. It can also help us rid ourselves of the stress we often feel around eating and the guilt we experience when we eat something we’ve previously considered ‘bad.’
How do you feel about the idea of looking at foods as falling on a continuum rather than as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Do you think this could be helpful? Please share!
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(1) The Essential Guide to Food for Health, Nutrition, and Fitness Coaches, www.precisionnutrition.com
(2) Nutrition,4th ed, 2013, Paul Insel, et. al, Jones & Bartlett Learning, Burlington, MA.
(3) Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals, 2015, Natalie Digate Muth, F.A. Davis Co., Philadelphia, PA.
(5) The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, 3rd ed, 2019, John Berardi, PhD, CSCS, et. al, Precision Nutrition, Inc.