Good food, bad foods
When my eldest son was about seven years old, he came to me distressed about a school project on food. He had learned from his teacher that brightly coloured vegetables and fruit were good foods. He had also learned fatty snacks such as crisps, and confectionery were bad foods. His distress was that he didn’t know how to classify many of the foods our family were eating. He wanted to know whether we ate good or bad foods.
There was a background to his question. His younger brother had suffered chronic health problems from the introduction of solid foods. At age three he was diagnosed by a specialist paediatrician as having a sensitivity to natural salicylates, amines; and some food additives. Thus, adapting to his sensitivities; the family diet at the time was devoid of brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables high in salicylates (such as citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, pumpkin) often regarded as good foods; and it was also devoid of foods often thought of as bad (soft drinks and confectionery with added colours and preservatives). As my father had had a heart attack at age 45 and died of a stroke at age 49, I was also particular at restricting fatty snacks and deep-fried food, foods sometimes considered bad.
What did we eat?
Our family diet centred around bread, cereals, pasta and potatoes. These foods were the mainstay of my children’s diet; plus moderate amounts of green vegetables, pears; and legumes, chicken, eggs, meat, milk or alternatives; foods not mentioned by his teacher.
Indeed, when I went to the school two days later and viewed his classmates’ projects; their posters depicted supposed good foods (fruits, vegetables) firmly on the left and supposed bad foods (snack foods, confectionery) firmly on the right. Completely absent and seemingly floating about in the children’s minds uncategorized; were bread, cereals, starchy vegetables, meat, milk, fish, nuts, legumes and eggs. It is worthy to note those missing foods are actually the most crucial to a child’s growth and development; foods with adequate protein and energy (kilojoules, or calories).
As a society we have become so concerned about non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes; that we have lost sight of fundamental nutritional requirements.
Thus continually there is this division of foods into two categories –
- those foods that reportedly have some protective element such as containing phytonutrients and anti-oxidants (contained within the brightly colored fruits and vegetables); yet these foods are actually low in protein and kilojoules, vital requirements for growth in a child; that is, “good foods”; and
- those foods with seemingly negative consequences (added fats and sugars; and ultra-processed foods) high in empty calories and fat; so-called “bad foods”.
While those aspects are important, we sometimes forget about the most fundamental reason for food; to sustain us.
Healthy Eating Pyramid
Thankfully, back in the 1980s, before the nutrient wars evolved, some sensible person developed the healthy eating pyramid that was based on a hierarchy of foods; none good or bad, but rather a proportional representation for inclusion in a balanced diet.
I showed my son a copy of this pyramid and explained we followed a diet based on that.
I explained there were no good foods and no bad foods. I do in fact loathe the categorisation of either foods or nutrients into good and bad.
The foods my children filled up on – bread, potatoes and cereals – plus selected vegetables and fruits; were at the base of that pyramid. Eggs, chicken, meat, and /or legumes; and milk (or substitutes); could be eaten in moderation. Small amounts of fats, oils and sugars; we could use in baking or to make occasional treats. It was the overall diet that was important, not individual foods. I assured him that we ate a healthy diet. He seemed happy with that explanation.
With that approach, following the concepts of that dietary pyramid of inclusion of core foods within that hierarchical balance, but also avoiding ultra-processed foods and fast-food except for occasional celebrations; all my four children remained generally healthy and free of major illnesses throughout their entire childhood. They left home in their late teens fit, healthy and lean. Despite limitations due to food sensitivities and added restrictions due to my own healthy-food beliefs, none of them developed a concerning relationship with food or had any eating disorders. Moreover, and most importantly, they did not fear any of the common staple foods as being part of a healthy diet.
Fast- forward to 2018.
So if the diet-pyramid is so healthy, which I believe it is, what is all this fear in the press about foods high in carbohydrates supposedly making us gain weight; and supposedly the root cause of obesity; and a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease?
Exactly … what is this fear?
Is it justified?
Is eating bread, potatoes, pasta and cereals harmful?
Is eating brightly coloured fruits and vegetables protective and therefore essential?
If bread, pasta, potatoes and cereals supposedly so harmful; why are they regarded as staple foods in so many cultures?
In a series of articles on staple foods, I will explore biochemistry, the scientific literature and other food cultures to find out.
To Be Continued …
Note to this story:
My son’s question was in 1987 and my children are now aged 37, 35, 31 and 29 years old.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.