Do Not Ask if it is Healthy

Do not ask if food is healthy. This is the wrong question for a multitude of reasons, a few of which I will cover here. First, you must either define a measurement of how healthy something is or assume what types of foods are health and what types of foods are not. For example we may assume that a pop-tart is not healthy, or way may look at its sugar content and conclude that it is not healthy based upon that measurement. However this is problematic, because every diet, nutritionist, or researcher will have different measurements which have to be applied in special ways for special circumstances. To illustrate this problem we can look to a conversation between Joe Rogan, Layne Norton, and Dom D'Agostino in episode #1176 of the Joe Rogan Experience.


In this discussion Layne Norton makes the bold claim that pop-tarts can be healthy. This is something of a surprise tactic to catch the listeners attention, and a useful one at that. The point is that when you define how healthy food is based upon your daily consumption of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, any food that fits into your daily budget can be considered healthy.

Under this scheme, it is hard to reject the conclusion. It becomes difficult to conclude that pop-tarts are not easy other than rejecting the objective measurement of Layne Norton with a subjective intuition that it is not healthy. To be clear, I think that Layne Norton's method nutrition is perfectly valid, albeit not the strategy that I take myself.

The problem here is not that Layne Norton has the right answer and Dom D'Agostino had the wrong answer or vice versa, the problem is that the implicit question that was being addressed was the wrong question. Implicitly we are all looking to answer the question of whether or not a given food is healthy or not healthy and we look to experts to help us come to the conclusion. We see the experts leading us into different conclusions, and we begin to doubt if experts really know anything at all about nutrition. A discussion between vegetarians and proponents of eating meat can lead us down this path of confusion. Similarly discussions between a proponent of counting macros vs a proponent of the paleo diet will leave us in the same confusion.

My proposition is that the reason for the difficulty in communication about nutrition is that the wrong implicit question is being answered. Instead of asking is a given food healthy, I propose we ask the following two questions:
  1. Can the food be incorporated into a healthy diet?
  2. Is the food ever optimal?
The first question easily helps us decipher the question about the pop-tart. If you are counting macros as your diet then a pop-tart can easily fit into that diet and be considered healthy, even though it might put some restrictions on what else you can eat that day and still stay within your macro budget. If you are eating a slow carb diet with a cheat day then the pop-tart easily fits into the cheat day. If you are eating a true paleo diet with no cheat day then in that context a pop-tart is never healthy.

For some people eating a pop-tart throws off their blood sugar levels, increases their appetite, and ruins their ability to stick their macro budget. For these people doing a slow carb diet with a cheat day may make more sense. Another person might struggle to make it all week without having some tasty treats, and so having a cheat day does not work but fitting a pop-tart into their macro budget on occasion does work. This same type of thinking can be applied to any food. Do not ask if it is healthy, ask if it can be incorporated into a healthy diet, and if so, in what way?

The second question is a bit different. Here we ask not what we can get away with eating but what we should be striving to eat. Is a pop-tart ever optimal? Is it ever the best thing you could have eaten? Here again you need a method of measuring this which usually comes down to having a basic understanding of insulin and blood sugar response to foods, the way in which fat is digested vs the way in which protein is digested, and the role of micronutrients. You still need to layer on some conclusions on top of this base knowledge, as people will disagree about this, such as in the case with the debate regarding cholesterol. However once you have a basic way of measuring this you can then fairly determine that a pop-tart is never optimal.

My method of determining this is fairly straight forward. Meat and leafy greens are optimal, oils, nuts, cheese, other non starchy vegetables can be incorporated into a healthy diet but are not optimal, all other foods can only be incorporated into a healthy diet on cheat day, and of course are never optimal. That is my method of answering the two questions, which in some ways is like a Keto diet, in other ways is like a slow carb or low carb diet, and in other ways is similar to a paleo diet. I'm not dogmatic about this, but for me cheat days work, fairly extreme intermittent fasting is a huge help, and this simple categorization of foods allows me easily to determine whether or not I should eat a given food, and if so, how and when do I allow myself to eat it.

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