Healthy Foods – How Do You Know?

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The other day, I was bored and scrolling down my Facebook the other day (as 99% of all millennials do nowadays) and came upon a post about “healthy foods”, shared by one of my friends:

Wow, this seems like a really helpful post! If only I could just download all of these images, I’d know exactly when and where to eat Banana-Peanut Butter Toast and Yogurt With Whole Grain Cereal! I should frame them up on my wall, too. And my refrigerator. And save them to my phone, so I can have them handy every single time I go out for food.

Except… food doesn’t work like that. Especially in the context of dieting. You hear people all the time say things like “Is Chipotle healthy?” or “are avocados good for you?”

Stop. Stop asking those questions. Food is not black and white. Food is not yes or no.

There are no foods that you should NEVER eat on a diet. On the other hand, there are no foods you should ALWAYS eat on a diet.

In fact, technically, you can eat literally anything you want. Let me explain.

How do you define “healthy foods”?

First off, when you ask whether a food is a “healthy food” or “good for you”, what do you mean?

  • Do you mean whether it makes your health numbers better (cholesterol, blood pressure, etc.)?
  • Do you mean whether it helps you avoid diseases, such as cancer?
  • Do you mean whether it contains a good amount of nutrients?
  • Do you mean whether it’s organic or natural?
  • Do you mean whether the food is whole grain and contains fiber?
  • Do you mean whether it helps you lose weight?

For the purposes of this post and for this blog, we’re mainly gonna focus on the last definition. This is a dieting blog, after all.

BUT, this obviously doesn’t mean you should neglect the other definitions. If you’re at a healthy weight, but your cholesterol levels are through the roof, you have a bigger problem and you should probably focus on that.

Plus, the other definitions can still help you on your diet – just not directly. For example, foods high in fiber will keep you satisfied for longer  which, in turn, will help you eat less calories overall.

What foods help you lose weight?

Again, it’s not black and white. One person could lose weight eating nothing but ice cream and pizza. Another person could gain weight eating nothing but salads.

What ultimately matters is that the person is eating at a calorie deficit. All food contains energy, in the form of calories. If you are eating less energy than your body is expending, then your body will have no choice but to give up some energy in the form of fat (or muscle, in some cases).

So if your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is 2800 calories, and your diet each day consists of 2300 calories of pizza, then you WILL lose weight, at about one pound per week.

However… that doesn’t mean it’s the best idea.

Take a look at these two calorie logs:

Person A:

The pizza eater.

Person B:

The sensible eater.

Both of the above diets contain approximately 2300 calories. Technically, they have the same amount of energy. But let’s take a look at other aspects at work here:

  1. Satiety – yes, Person A will be SUPER full after he eats that pizza. Stuffed. Bloated. Food-baby status. But will it keep him satisfied for the whole day? Let’s say he ate the pizza in the morning. How likely is it that he won’t eat another piece of food for the rest of the day? Probably not very. Now let’s consider Person B. He’s eating a huge breakfast, a huge lunch, an afternoon snack, and a nicely sized dinner. Because his diet contains so many different items and doesn’t spend all his calories on any one food, he’s much less likely to overeat the rest of the day.
  2. Protein – Person B is getting way more protein than Person A. Protein is arguably the most important macronutrient (out of carbs, fat, and protein) in any diet. Look at the Keto diet. Look at the Atkins diet. Look at the classic bodybuilding diet (chicken and vegetables). All of these diets have one common theme: high protein. Why? Because protein serves multiple purposes: it builds muscle, it helps preserve muscle on a diet, and it helps you stay satisfied.
  3. Micronutrients – Person B is getting way more fruit and vegetables in their diet. Nutrients may not directly cut fat, but they do help you function like a healthy adult.
  4. Fiber – Person B is going to have an easier time pooping.

So, is pizza bad for dieting? Did Person A eat a bad food? Did Person B eat good foods?

No, not necessarily. They’re both going to lose weight at the same rate. It’s just a matter of who will have an easier time following that diet.

So how do I choose what foods to eat?

The key is being realistic in choosing which foods are going to help you stick to your diet. And in our case, our diet is decided by how many calories we eat. So yes, you CAN eat a whole pizza on your diet. But if that’s going to cause you to become hungry later in the day and go over your calories, it’s not going to work. Therefore, a whole pizza is probably not a good choice. It’s not because pizza isn’t on some specific list of “healthy foods”.

Everyone has different tastes and different bodies. There could be someone in the world who eats nothing but bacon and eggs, and still loses weight.

The only way to really find what foods would work best for you is to try different foods yourself. Try greek yogurt. Try salads. Try chicken stir fry. At the end of every day, look at your calorie log and give it an honest analysis:

  • What meals left you hungry? Which meals left you the most satisfied?
  • Where could you have saved some calories? (soda and soft drinks are a big one)
  • How was your macronutrient intake? (protein and fiber, for example)

Eventually, you’ll find that some foods just work better than others. They’ll keep you full. They’ll be fairly low in calories. They’ll taste good to you and you’ll be able to eat them often, without getting tired of them. For me, these foods typically include low-fat waffles, greek yogurt, and grilled chicken sandwiches.

After a lot of trials and experimenting, you’ll have your own list of “healthy foods” to follow. And you won’t need some silly infographic from Facebook.

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