What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “healthy?” Some may visualize a person with ripped abs, or huge muscles. Others conjure up images of perceived healthy foods, like broccoli, chicken, Greek yogurt, nuts, and kale.
Mmmmm, all that kale…
But if you’re like me, you may have trouble narrowing down what exactly constitutes “healthy.”
Now, let’s turn that around. What comes to mind when you hear the term “unhealthy?” I think it’s easier to narrow down what unhealthy foods are; at least for us personally. For some of you reading this, I’d venture to guess your list contains some or all of the following: fast food, carbs, trans fats, processed foods, sugar, artificial sweeteners, soda, and so on.
Regardless of what you pictured when you thought about each word, you are right…and wrong…and now, probably confused.
Let me explain…
I hate the terms healthy/unhealthy. Well, hate may be too strong a word. I dislike them. I also dislike the terms good/bad/evil, and best/worst, in the context of diet or exercise.
And that’s exactly why I hate dislike these terms. More often than not, they’re used without proper context. Just thrown into headlines as click-bait by editors so you’ll read their article.
Now, I am not saying we should stop using these words or be afraid of them. My man John Romaniello has a great write-up here about why we shouldn’t be afraid of words. In it he discusses that by fearing words, we give them power over us, our decisions, and our lives.
But part of not fearing words is understanding not only what they mean, but also what they mean in the context with which they’re used. The problem with words like “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “good” or “bad,” is that they’re thrown around with little thought given to context or understanding. They’re used to scare or force you into making decisions without fully thinking it through.
One of the most common diet approaches when it comes to fat loss is just “eating healthy.” And while this approach is undertaken with the best of intentions, it often sets the dieter up for failure; for a number of reasons.
Like we discussed above, no one can really tell you what the hell “eating healthy” is. Everyone and their mother will tell you that McDonalds is unhealthy, but ask a hundred different people to name a “healthy” fat, and you will likely get a hundred different answers.
(No hate McDonalds, I luv you…Egg McMuffins are my everything)
The problem with labeling foods as healthy and unhealthy is that it forces people to see them as either good or bad. And that can create a dangerous relationship with food. When you limit what you can eat while dieting, you greatly increase the chances that the diet will fail. The more severely we restrict our food choices, the greater stress we place on ourselves, and the harder the fat loss process will be.
Yes we should limit our consumption of certain foods. But notice I said limit, not eliminate. There is room in everyone’s diet for a reasonable amount of “unhealthy” foods, even when fat loss is the goal.
The important thing is not classifying foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “good” or “bad,” but rather being able to identify which foods you should limit, which ones you should eat more often, and which foods will move you closer to your goals.
Another problem is the big “health food” push by food companies. They know that people are becoming more conscious about what they’re putting in their bodies, and are producing new products as a response.
But trust me, they do not have your best interests at heart.
Large food companies know that a vast majority of the population fall into the trap of “Eat healthy; lose weight.” And they take advantage of this.
For almost every food item available, there is at least one (if not more) “healthy” alternative. And most – not all – but most aren’t that much different than the “unhealthy” version. They usually will contain about the same amount of calories, less fat or carbs, more sodium, more sugar or artificial sweeteners, and of course, cost more.
These companies bank on the fact that a majority of people don’t read food labels or serving sizes, and that they’ll see the fancy packaging with the words “Healthy,” “Low-fat,” “Low-carb,” “All-Natural,” or some other meaningless marketing nonsense, and purchase it because it’s supposedly better for them.
More often than not, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these foods. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from purchasing them if that’s what they want. But what I don’t want, are people purchasing them because they think it will help with fat loss. Because then you are just wasting your money.
When classifying foods, context is king.
And in what context do we classify these foods? You guessed it: calories.
“Healthy” food – just like “unhealthy” food – has calories. And regardless of what type of food you’re eating, if you eat more calories than you burn, you’re not going to lose fat.
3,000 calories from chicken, brown rice, nuts, and yogurt is the same to the body from an energy-in standpoint as 3,000 calories from pizza, beer, and ice cream. It’s still 3,000 calories.
No one would probably consider those first food options unhealthy right? But if your goal is fat loss and you’re eating so much of these foods that you are gaining weight, would that really be “healthy?”
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, at least from an energy-in/energy-out point of view. You cannot lose fat if you’re not in a caloric deficit, no matter how “healthy” you’re eating. If you are only burning 2,000 calories a day, but are consuming 3,000 from one of the options above, you’re not going to lose fat; no matter which foods you are eating.
Don’t get me wrong; the quality of your food does play a role in reaching your fat loss goals.
Yes, eating the right quantity of food will allow you to lose fat. But in order to have a well-rounded diet – one that is rich in vitamins and minerals, will help your body function properly, help you recover from workouts, and leaves you satiated and satisfied – it will have to mostly be made up of “healthy,” high quality foods.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for “unhealthy” foods either. If you’re flexible with your diet, work these things into your macros for the day – or a free meal – you can enjoy the occasional treat or indulgence if that’s what you want.
And if you don’t enjoy these foods, or they don’t agree with you, then stick with the higher quality foods. There’s nothing wrong with either approach as long as at the end of the day, you are moving closer towards your goals.
As much as we’d like to put things into neat little packages, like “healthy” and “unhealthy”, fitness doesn’t work like that. Everything must be viewed in the context of the goal that’s trying to be achieved.
It’s about finding the right combination of moderation and balance. In the wrong amount any food, regardless of how you classify it, can be detrimental to your fat loss efforts. So know that if you are looking to lose fat, or struggling with your current efforts, just ‘eating healthy’ probably isn’t enough.
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