The Relative Healthfulness of Foods
I wrote this article in 2005
There are many claims in the media and the marketplace that various foods are “healthy.”
What is considered to be healthy is determined by a wide variety of viewpoints, some of which are leading to such odd conclusions as completely manufactured foods devoid of nutrients being “healthy” because they do not contain whatever offending ingredient is fashionable at the moment.
When I look around and see my local natural food stores selling low-carb processed foods containing artificial sweeteners as “healthy,” I think we need to have some rational way to determine what really is a healthy food.
Foods, Desserts and Condiments
First, we need to understand what a food is. Food is NOT simply anything that is edible (though it’s not surprising that we think this is the definition–the legal and federal definition of food is “articles used for food or drink for man”). According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, food is
1 a : material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy.
Note that the definition says a food provides means to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and calories to burn for energy. It must provide both to be a food. The purpose of food biologically is to deliver the raw materials needed to repair the body and the fuel for the body to burn for energy. Both functions are needed for health, not just one.
I used to think that everything edible was food until I looked up the definition of food. Then I looked around at what we call food and found that a lot of it wasn’t real food at all. Many edibles that we think of as “food” provide little or no nutrition that can be used by the body to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes.
In modern America, much of what we eat is actually dessert. A dessert is “a usually sweet course or dish (as of pastry or ice cream) served at the end of a meal.” It comes from the Middle French desservir, which means “to clear the table”–literally from the Latin des + servire, meaning “to undo the serving.” The purpose of dessert is to balance out the savory flavors of the meal. It is meant to be a few bites.
Many common dishes we think of as “food” are actually desserts in disguise. We call cookies and cakes and candies “dessert” yet, we call donuts and pastries and pancakes drenched in artificial maple-flavored sugar syrup and sugared cereal “breakfast.” Soft drinks are considered beverages, but typically they contain more sugar than most desserts!
Foods that provide energy, but negligible nutrition–like candy, potato chips, soft drinks, and others–are appropriately-named “junk foods.” They may be fun to eat and they may be highly profitable for their manufacturers, but they don’t contribute to health when eaten on a regular basis. They do provide carbohydrate fuel for our bodies to burn as energy, but little of the vital nutrients needed to repair the body and sustain vital functions.
It really helps me personally to distinguish actual food (such as chicken and brown rice) from non-foods (such as candy and potato chips). Making this distinction just helps me organize my choices so I can make healthy ones.
A condiment is a preparation used to enhance the flavor or enjoyment of food. It can be sweet, savory, spicy or salty accompaniment to food, and usually awakens the taste buds. Condiments range from sugar, salt, herbs, and spices, to cooked relishes and sauces such as mustard or ketchup, to raw preparations such a fresh salsa. Their purpose is not to nourish–it is to make the eating of actual food more enjoyable.
Sugar and salt are condiments, not foods. Refined white sugar is a carbohydrate that furnishes energy, but has no nutritional value. Salt, particularly unrefined sea salt, does add important minerals to our food that may be lacking due to growing food in depleted soil, but supplies no energy. Both unrefined salt and unrefined natural sweeteners can be used in small amounts to enhance the flavor of real foods.
Choosing Foods for Health
In the grand design of Nature, food exists to sustain the life of the physical organism. Indeed, every organism needs food of some sort and all life forms are constantly eating each other directly or indirectly in order to survive. So food, then, could be evaluated according to its ability to contribute to both sustaining our bodies and the larger environment that supplies our sustenance.
In our culture we tend to choose foods primarily by taste. This is instinctual–if we were choosing foods out in the wild, those that tasted good would be good for us to eat, and those that tasted bad would be rotten or poisonous.
The problem today is that many foods that are processed and manufactured and laden with pesticides and additives smell and taste good to us, yet have little food value. So we need to step in and use our intellect to evaluate the healthfulness of foods.
Factors of Healthfulness
Determining the healthfulness of food has several factors.
First, there is the inherent healthfulness of the food itself. This would include how the food was grown or raised, the presence of pesticides and additives, the amount of nutrients, and the nature of the food itself (some foods can be toxic and others have benefits that go beyond nutrition and energy).
Then we also need to look at how the food contributes to the health of the individual. Depending on the constitution of individual bodies, certain foods can cause the body to be stronger or weaker, or result in allergies, high blood sugar, or other conditions. Foods can be both healing and harmful. The same food can act in either manner in two different bodies, and the same food processed in different ways can act differently in a body. My body, for example, doesn’t like organic homogenized milk, but gains health and nutrition and energy from organic milk that has not been homogenized. Others may need to avoid milk altogether.
Ultimately, one needs to know the healthfulness of each food relative to one’s own individual body.
Dietary patterns also affect how a particular food contributes to health or not. A steady diet of foods containing refined white sugar, for example, does not lead to health, but an occasional dessert as part of an otherwise healthful diet causes little harm. So the quantity of food is eaten and how frequently it is eaten makes a big difference in health.
The Scale of Healthfulness
Like all things in Life, the relative healthfulness of foods is a scale that runs in infinite increments from the most healthy possible to completely unhealthy foods that could lead to illness and even immediate death.
Looking only at the aspect of healthfulness inherent in a food itself, we can create a scale of relative healthfulness, based on how well a food would sustain the health of a body and its environment.
Though we might desire to eat 100% healthiest foods all the time, in reality, most of us are not going to do that. Some people do, to the extent of carrying all their own food with them wherever they go. But most of us will choose from the foods that are available or affordable, we will eat in restaurants and in the homes of family and friends, we will travel and enjoy local cuisines, we will indulge occasionally. I’ve found that what is most important regarding food and health is what we eat most of the time, not what we eat occasionally.
This scale can be helpful in identifying which foods and eating plans move in the direction of health and environmental sustainability, and which move away from these goals. The more often you eat at the upper end of the scale rather than the lower end, the healthier you will be.
The healthiest foods would be those that result in a sustaining health and the environment to a degree where life and function can be continuously maintained.
These would be foods that are the purest, with the greatest concentration of nutrients that contribute to sustaining growth, repair, and vital processes as well as supplying calories for energy.
Considering that our bodies need high quality proteins, fats, and carbohydrates and their associated vitamins and minerals and other nutrients, these would be foods like organically- and biodynamically-grown fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, animal proteins, and high-quality fats. It would also include dietary plans designed for the ongoing maintenance of good health.
In addition to their vitality for our bodies, organically grown foods also sustain the ecosystems in which they are grown and rebuild topsoil. All the soil nutrients in organic farming come from putting natural plant and animal materials back into the soil. Seeds from healthy plants are saved from year to year and replanted to maintain natural strains. This growing practice ensures that the land can continue to have the fertility needed to continue to grow food in the future, ensuring the continuation of our food supply. In addition, the most sustainable foods would be local and seasonal.
I would also include here that these foods would be purchased fresh and whole and prepared deliciously at home with minimal processing. The skill of knowing how to prepare your own food in a healthful manner is important to the healthfulness of food. I find that it doesn’t take much time at all to prepare delicious food for myself and my husband from fresh, whole organic ingredients…if you keep things simple, have some basic cooking skill, can work efficiently, and have the equipment and ingredients you need on hand and well organized. The time it takes is a minimal investment for the resulting health produced.
At the very top of this category would be foods that are grown or raised organically from your own backyard or nearby farm. Foods contain the most vitality when they are alive. Eggs freshly laid or an apple or tomato freshly picked is very different from an egg or apple or tomato that has been stored and shipped. Most of the foods we eat lack this quality of freshness. If you can’t grow your own, look for a local farmer’s market, where produce is sold that was often picked that morning or the day before.
At the bottom of this category would be prepared food products made from organically-grown ingredients. Since in our consumer culture there is a huge market for prepared foods, I applaud those companies who are offering packaged foods with organically-grown ingredients, but in the context of looking at healthfulness, they can’t compare with the vitality of foods made at home from fresh ingredient. Still, they are a more healthful choice than packaged foods made with foods containing pesticides and additives.
The healthiest foods, prepared well and presented beautifully, maintain the health of our bodies, delight our senses, and satisfy our souls.
The next healthiest foods, in my view, are those foods that can quickly bring the body back to health. These may or may not be appropriate for long-term consumption. This might include going on a juice fast, or an all-raw vegan diet, or any other program that cleanses the body to remove impurities quickly. Of course, they would be organically grown.
Coming down the scale are foods that can give enough nutrition to allow the body to merely stay alive, plus a little more. The body operates by building reserves of nutrients. When it needs vitamins or minerals or fat or glucose, it pulls from its reserves, which are replenished by food. So whatever foods we eat need to have enough nutrition to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes, fuel our activities, plus provide a little extra for those reserves.
I call these average foods, because they are the average foods we eat in our culture. They are the same whole foods that are on the Optimum Foods list, but not organically grown. Still, whole fresh foods with nutrients, but lacking the vitality that organically grown foods have because of their contamination with life-endangering pesticides. Our bodies can get by on these foods, but not achieve their optimum health.
Foods grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may give our bodies some nutrition, but do not sustain the land on which they are grown. Yield is dependent on the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides because the fertility of the land itself is spent. Patented hybrid seeds must be purchased anew every year because the plants themselves do not reproduce. So with these practices, our food supply can be imperiled.
In the middle of the scale is no food. Not eating food does not contribute to sustenance, but neither does it cause harm.
Fasting can even be beneficial for a time. Though fasting does not provide nutrition, fasting can be better than eating a food that could cause harm, and can benefit the body in other ways.
A friend of mine just told me about a study where three groups of mice were fed sugared breakfast cereal, the box the cereal came in, and no food at all. The mice fed the sugared cereal died first, then those who ate the box died, and the longest-lived were the mice who ate neither the cereal or the box [source: Weston A Price Foundation: Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry]
All we need to do is look around to see that the general state of health in our nation is declining. And this decline can largely be related to diet.
What are we eating? Mostly packaged, processed, dead foods, devoid of nutrition and without much taste.
These packaged products are made from:
- highly refined foods that have been stripped of their abundance of natural nutrients during processing and then “fortified” with only a handful of synthetic nutrients.
- artificial additives–such as artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and other additives such as MSG.
I call them “dangerous” foods because they endanger our health. A steady diet of them results in illness.
Then there are foods about which you are in doubt. They make you question whether or not you want to eat it. This could be food that has been sitting too long in the refrigerator or that contains ingredients or additives that you aren’t sure about.
When faced with a food about which you are in doubt, there is a simple question that will solve your dilemma. Ask yourself, “Will this food result in good health for my body?” If not, don’t eat it.
These are foods that will cause harm to the health of most bodies. These foods could be
- microbiologically unsafe, such as spoiled mayonnaise that can cause food poisoning
- contaminated, such as fish contaminated with mercury from tainted waters
- harmful by design, such as alcoholic beverages.
Eating these foods are likely to cause short or long-term illness.
Imposter foods are manufactured substances marketed and sold as being some kind of food (especially sugar or fat). Often they are presented as being a “healthy” alternative to a whole, natural food that has been publicized as being unhealthy.
But in fact, these substitutes are not even food at all. Our bodies don’t recognize them and cannot process them. Many have negative health effects that are not well-publicized.
Imposter foods include all fake foods, such as artificial sweeteners, artificial fats, and even, to me, synthetic vitamins, which we take instead of getting them from their natural source in whole foods.
At the very bottom of the scale are genetically engineered foods.
The purpose of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is to make the plant or animal as useful and productive as possible, for the needs of agribusiness, not for our health. Features such as higher yield or improved quality, pest or disease resistance, or tolerance to heat, cold and drought are all benefits that can come from altering the genetic structure of plants and animals.
Virtually all plants and animals we current grow, raise, and consume have been modified in some way by man. Only a very small percentage of available food is in its wild state. But in the past, these modifications have been made by domestication, selection and controlled breeding over long periods of time. These methods utilize natural processes to improve plants and animals.
With GMOs, scientists insert genes from various organisms–human, plant, animal, bacteria or virus–into crop plants and farm animals. It is fundamentally different from traditional breeding because it forces the exchange of genes across species barriers, which does not occur in nature. It creates “mutant” varieties that would not develop on their own through natural processes.
Tomatoes have been modified with viral and fish genes, goats with spider genes, potatoes with jellyfish and chicken genes. Scientists have even modified rice with human genes.
As Homo sapiens, we live in a system that provides everything we need for our health–clean air, abundant water, and nourishing food. GMO food tampers with the very building blocks of our health. Though we may not feel any effects when we eat this food, it is genetically strange and may very well affect our own genetic makeup. Other-species genes can also produce toxic and carcinogenic effects in our cells. In the ten years or so that GMOs have been used, already they have shown to irreversibly contaminate the genetic makeup of wild and cultivated plants and animals. There is no reason why they would not affect our bodies in the same way.
Here is a chart you can put up on your refrigerator to remind you how healthy various foods are when you are making food choices.
THE RELATIVE HEALTHFULNESS OF FOODS
by Debra Lynn Dad
|OPTIMUM FOODS||Organically-grown fresh fruits and
vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, animal
proteins, and high-quality fats
|HEALING FOODS||Foods that can quickly bring the body back
to health. These may or may not be appropriate for
|AVERAGE FOODS||Foods that can give enough nutrition to
allow the body to stay alive, plus a little more…the
same as Optimum Foods, but not organically grown. Whole
fresh foods with nutrients, but lacking the vitality that
organically grown foods.
|NO FOOD||No food. Fasting.|
|DANGEROUS FOODS||Packaged, processed, dead foods, devoid of
nutrition. Made from highly refined ingredients with
|DOUBTFUL FOODS||Foods that make you question whether or
not you want to eat them.
|HARMFUL FOODS||Foods that cause short- or long-term
illness. Could be microbiologically unsafe, contaminated,
or harmful by design.
|IMPOSTER FOODS||All fake foods, such as artificial
sweeteners, artificial fats, and even, to me, synthetic
|MUTANT FOODS||Genetically engineered foods.|
Print this chart here