Don't fall into the "is this food healthy or unhealthy?" trap

The term "healthy" is overused when it comes to foods and diets. Individual reactions vary widely, and there are still many open questions in need of research.

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People often ask me questions like “Is milk healthy?”, “Is low-carb healthy?”, etc etc. The word itself isn’t much of an issue, as it simply connotes health-promoting qualities. Rather, it’s the dichotomous outcomes that are often assumed: either a food is healthy, or it’s unhealthy. Or sometimes an intrepid conversationalist will point out “everything in moderation!”, whereupon everyone nods their collective heads in agreement.

This makes misleading headlines even more misleading. If people read anything about red meat, they’ll take it as “red meat will kill you” or “red meat is amazing”, and not much in between.

But beyond that, academic research agendas have become amazingly dichotomized. Few major labs delve into exploratory analyses, or comparative analyses between multiple common foods/diets/nutrients. Rather, the almost explicit aims seem to be finding new benefits of Food X, finding new detriments of demonized Food Y, or reconfirming previous findings but in new populations or circumstances.

So how does one combat the “Is this healthy? Is that bad for you?” kind of mentality? Baby steps.

You don’t control public health policy, nor do you run large research studies (well, there is a small chance you might). But you have dozens of friends and family members who know less than you about nutrition, and possibly a small number of those may be open to suggestion.

A good example food group to start with is dairy. Humans have been eating dairy and raising dairy animals for eons. But a sizable number of humans don’t digest lactose well, and others have non-lactose issues such as worsening of acne. Eggs are a somewhat common allergen, and can also cause digestive distress outside of allergic responses.

But none of that means dairy products can’t be healthy. Both eggs and milk can provide a variety of nutrients, including some that aren’t widely available at high levels in other foods (such as vitamin K2 and choline).

The pro and con list for different foods can be quite long, and is also typically incomplete. Nobody knows the health impacts of spicy foods, for example, in different people and different disease states. Beans are a staple food for many, but cause digestive havoc for others. Some people absolutely love kombucha, while others feel mildly sick from drinking it.

The unfortunate truth (or is it fortunate?) is that very few if any foods are “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Humans don’t eat acutely toxic foods much in modern times, like unprocessed cassava or improperly prepared fava beans. The foods we do eat tend to have a variety of health-promoting and health-detracting properties, which can vary based on health status, genetics, and too many other variables to count. This message might not be simple enough to spread to the masses, but if it spreads to a few people around you, that’s a useful baby step.

The term "healthy" is overused when it comes to foods and diets. Individual reactions vary widely, and there are still many open questions in need of research.