In our diet-focused society, we’re often accustom to labeling food in black and white terms, ie “good” vs “bad; “healthy” vs “unhealthy”; and “clean” vs “junk”. There’s even the idea that certain foods have “empty calories”, meaning they have no nutritional value. This black and white thinking unfortunately creates a lot of pressure on people’s decisions with food and creates a lot of self-judgment and shame if we choose foods that are labeled as “unhealthy”. Food, however, is much too colorful to be categorized in black and white terms.
Let’s begin by reviewing some nutrition basics – all foods contain one or more of the three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Macronutrients are the nutrients that provide our bodies with energy as well as the means to help our body perform all its functions. Micronutrients, on the other hand, do not provide any energy; they consist of vitamins and minerals that we need in much smaller amounts than macronutrients. Examples of micronutrients includes sodium, iron, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin D, and various B vitamins to name a few. Each vitamin and mineral play different roles in our bodies, for instance, sodium and potassium are electrolytes that help regulate fluid balance which plays a role in blood pressure and vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps prevent damage to our cells caused by free radicals in our environment.
Eating is the primary way we receive the macro and micronutrients we need, and at times, we may need to take vitamins or minerals as a supplement when things are out of balance or when we’re not consuming adequate amounts of foods that contains these nutrients. Every type of food contains varying amounts and concentrations of macro and micronutrients; for example ice cream contains protein, fat, and carbohydrates as well as calcium, vitamin A, potassium, sodium, vitamin D, and calcium. Tomatoes contains carbohydrates and protein as well as vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K, and folate. Most vegetables, specifically the non-starchy kind, contain low amounts of macronutrients (ie calories) although are often packed with micronutrients. So as tomatoes do have carbohydrates and protein, the amounts are very small compared to the same volume of other foods, such as ice cream.
As we’re emphasizing, all foods are different but to label each of these foods as either good or bad is quite silly because they each provide nutrition that the other does not which is why we rely on dietary variety to get our nutritional needs met. This black and white thinking also misses so much important nuance, for example, it doesn’t regard what other kinds of food a person is eating, how much they are eating, nor what their relationship is like with food or their body. As a dietitian who supports folks in eating disorder recovery, I see on a regular basis how our society’s over emphasis on “healthy eating” ironically causes people to engage in unhealthy behaviors with food, such as not eating enough, excluding certain foods and food groups, avoiding eating foods that a person enjoys, and exercising to “earn” food.
So what’s the alternative?
Letting go of our black and white thinking with food and accepting an all foods fit philosophy is an important step towards eating intuitively. This is because we’re likely going to continue making external vs intuitive choices about food if we’re basing it off of society’s “healthy” and “unhealthy” standards. Intuitive eating does recognize that all foods are different which can help us build meals and snacks that have protein, fat, and carbohydrate as well as foods with varying micronutrients. Naturally some meals and snacks will have more or less of different macro and micronutrients so we don’t need to overthink and obsess about how balanced are food is every time we eat. This is because we will get different amounts of nutrients the next time we eat, and so on and so forth.
We can’t talk about the all foods fit philosophy without noting that food is so much more than the nutrition it offers. Food is an integral part of our every day lives so it plays a large role in our pleasure and enjoyment on a daily basis. Essentially, by not eating foods we enjoy and stressing out about food, we’re depriving ourselves of pleasure which is also an important part of wellbeing and living a fulfilling and satisfying life.
So yes, you can enjoy ice cream and tomatoes and every food in between and support your overall well-being. With all that said, I would encourage you to see food in more color and see what it’s like to move away from black and white labels with food.