Junk Food Isn’t Healthy; Health Food Isn’t Healthy

fast-foodI’ve realized that there are two types of bad diets.

The first is the kind that I see every single week in the grocery store checkout line, where the perpetrator is either completely oblivious or just doesn’t care about the fact that what he’s eating wouldn’t have passed as food a hundred years ago.  This guy buys frozen pierogies, TV dinners, cheese puffs, white bread that will stay “fresh” for weeks, and soda in such great quantities you’d think he was bathing with it.

The second type of bad eating is the well-intended kind, where a health-conscious person eats what the health magazines have told her she should eat– health food.  She eats fat-free cheese, skim milk, low carb bread, Omega-3 fortified eggs, Gatorade, protein bars, and organic candy.  The problem is that this isn’t food either.  This is techno-food.  Fit for the Terminator perhaps, but not for people.

My guess is that if you’re reading this blog, then you’re either of the second type or of neither type.  If you’re of neither type, congratulations.  I was of the second type as recently as six months ago, and I still find artifacts from the techno-food mindset in my diet.

Where did all this fake food (and all these fat people) come from?  I believe that the answer is reductionist science and the consequential practice of making single nutrients the scapegoats for our health problems.

In the seventies and eighties, we decided that since fat is called “fat,” it must be bad.  It was removed from food and replaced by carbohydrates and chemicals, giving birth to the stuff I’m referring to as health food.  But somehow we kept getting fat.

In the nineties we decided that carbohydrates were the culprit.  Not surprising, considering how many we ate in place of fats.  So carbohydrates were banished from health food, and more chemicals were introduced to make what no longer resembled food at least taste like food.  And, since food should probably fill us up, we added protein.  Lots of protein, to build muscle of course.  Because muscle is made of protein!

And this millenium, now that we can’t possibly be just as clueless as we were before, we’re adding Omega-3 fatty acids to our health food.  Hooray, we’ve found our savior!

Here’s the problem.  To our bodies, food isn’t just the sum of its parts.  Foods have a wholeness to them, a wholeness which somebody or some force (god, evolution, whatever you want) doesn’t want us to mess with.

When you take things away from foods, they aren’t foods anymore.  Even when you enhance foods with what we’ve decided are healthy ingredients, our bodies don’t absorb them well.  Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to optimally handle the foods that occur on this earth.  When we mess with that, the results cannot be anything but bad.  And the growing waistlines and unprecedented obesity numbers that characterize these times certainly support this claim.

You can take this argument to extremes and claim that our bodies aren’t really designed to handle dairy products, wheat products, or even anything cooked, since from an evolutionary standpoint these are rather recent developments.  I believe this, but for me such extremes are not practical at this point in my life.  We probably weren’t designed to run 26.2 miles at once either, so I’m doing what I can diet-wise to support this unhealthy marathon habit of mine.

We can’t all be perfect, but we can do one simple thing.  Eat real food.  Eat food that doesn’t come in packages, food that doesn’t have a nutrition label (see this post), food that doesn’t make health claims.   These ideas, by the way, aren’t just mine; I’ve learned most of them from books like In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this stuff.

The good news, from my perspective, is the health food eaters are reading this blog.  And if this post has been your first exposure to the idea that health food might not be as healthy as Oprah makes it out to be (come to think of it, why are we taking diet advice from Oprah?), then I’ve done my job.

As for the frozen pierogi and fast food eaters, I’m at a loss.  I don’t know how to reach them.  If they just don’t care about what they eat, fine; that’s their decision.  But if they’re oblivious because they grew up eating like that and don’t realize there’s another way, then they certainly won’t be typing “no meat athlete” into Google.  Which means the horror scene in the grocery store checkout line isn’t likely to get any better, barring a cultural change.

In response to this lament of mine, a friend reminded me to heed the advice of someone who knows a thing or two about cultural change.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And I think that’s all we can do.



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  1. I would think that our origins as hunter-gatherers would favor those with more endurance. The groups who could travel farther in one day could hunt and gather more than others and were more successful. More of an evolutionary basis for running marathons than modern day diet trends at the very least!

    • This is a good point. I was thinking that sprinting was probably more important for hunting and escaping, but you’re right about the endurance aspect for gathering and migrating.

  2. What a great website you have!!! I was happy to read that I’m not the only one taking a “glance” at other people’s carts in the super market! Also, there are several body building websites that argue marathon training is ‘impractical’ because cavemen could roam/walk for days but only chased prey for short sprint durations… I guess to each his own! 🙂 Good luck in your training and nutrition and other goals!

    • I really hate seeing how badly people eat. It used to make me feel good about my own eating, but then I realized what a low standard that is to compare myself to. And now I just feel bad for them.

      I would agree that evolution probably had more reason to favor the ability to sprint than the ability to run long distances. That’s why I joked about my marathon habit being unhealthy! But as David and Joe say, people did have to walk and run much farther long ago than we do now. So I don’t really think running long distances is that unnatural, besides the fact that our modern way of life has conditioned us otherwise.

      • Great site here. But you are dead wrong about the ability to sprint in an evolution sense. Humans are inherently ULTRA endurance atheletes. Pound for pound the only thing that can out perform us in endurance is birds and fish. Read the book “Running After Antelope” by Scott Carrier 🙂

        • Jsoldo, you are absolutely right, and I was very wrong when I wrote this. It’s an old post, and since then I’ve learned a lot about persistence hunting and the theories that we’re natural endurance athletes. Thanks for the comment and book recommendation; I’ve never heard of that one.

  3. Great post. “In Defense of Food”, by Michael Pollan is also a favorite of mine. Here is the best advice I have ever received WRT nutrition … “Eat what rots [in its natural form], before it does”. For me that is almost completely vegan and a high % raw. I find this is entirely feasible/possible with a little work to simplify our meals. My own experience has been that complex meals complicate the digestion process. Want to make it easy to be nourished, make it easy on the body to do its job. In nature all creatures rarely eat more than one food at a time to nourish the body, yet in the kitchen we concoct all combinations of food to try and satisfy the mind. Not to say there is not a place for that; just suggesting there is a price to pay for it.

    Here is another quote that has stuck with me lately. Not sure it is entirely true for me or anyone else, but it sure got me thinking … “Humans are the only species smart enough to cook their food but dumb enough to eat it.” – Einstein

    On the fitness/running/marathon front, the main issue with running/walking is returning our position/motion back to our design in conjunction with the laws/forces of nature. Society lets us cheat and then we say running is hard on our bodies. I am not buying it … society is hard on our bodies. Longevity follows mobility; if you truly want to live long and live fully yet you can’t walk/run as we used to … 5,10,20+ miles; then maybe your body is trying to tell you something.

    Thanks again for the post (and for the nod on the ending quote. As in Caddyshack “be the ball, be the ball Danny”.)

    • I’ve just recently started learning about digestion and much energy it takes to digest certain combinations of foods. And I’ve noticed a lot more energy in the hours after I eat since I’ve been conscious of it.

      And thank you for the Gandhi quote I used in the post!

    • I agree that raw food and simple meals are vitally important for health. I do not, however, believe that a vegan diet is the optimum diet. If it works for you, great, but no traditional society was vegan, or even vegetarian. Mostly vegan/vegetarian with some raw dairy, some eggs, some raw meat is great. You don’t need much, but no healthy society has been vegetarian or vegan. It’s virtually impossible to get enough nutrients to stay health over a lifetime and make healthy babies.

      Alyss’s last blog post..You can please some of the people all of the time…

      • Hey Alyss, thanks for commenting. I guess I wasn’t totally clear; I didn’t mean to advocate a vegan diet. Your point that no society has been vegetarian or vegan is good. I do believe that evolutionarily, we are not designed to eat dairy, since no other animals drink milk after infancy, much less the milk of another species. BUT, humans have been eating meat for ages, so I think our bodies are adapted to handle that well. Probably the most natural thing, then, is to eat meat but not dairy. Since, as a vegetarian, I don’t get animal protein in the form of meat, dairy is necessary for me to get it.

        • I hate to differ, since I really love your site and your opinions are so close to mine that I find you absolutely brilliant! 🙂
          However, I must tell you that you really DON’T need dairy. The USDA and the Dairy Council have done such a phenomenal job of conning the public that we need their product for healthy bones, etc., that we all take their word for gospel. Here’s a gift for you NoMeat…if you liked Pollan, you’ll love the science behind The China Study, by Colin Campbell, PhD (he grew up on a dairy farm and never imagined where his research would lead him.) That book will change your life forever as it has ours. Finally, you need to know that pound for pound, our dear friend broccoli contains more protein than chicken….more antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients, more enzymes, more fiber, less fat, fewer calories…I’m sure you know as well as I do. Dairy is America’s heroin. We’re addicted and it’s making us all sick. It’s time people did their own research instead of letting advertising educate them. (Here’s another resource: http://www.pcrm.org then type in the search What’s Wrong With Dairy?)

          • Joan, thanks for your comment. And you’ll probably be surprised to hear that I agree with you! This post is from the early days of my blog when I was a very new vegetarian (I guess after a year, I’m still new). Since then, I’ve changed my opinion on dairy a lot. I do eat cheese occasionally, not because I think it’s healthy but as an indulgence. I’m not sure if I’ll even go completely vegan, but it’s possible. Your comment reminds me that I should make a note on old posts that aren’t accurate reflections of what I believe now. So thanks, again!

            And yeah, I definitely need to get ahold of the China Study. So many people have recommended it to me.

    • Georgina says:

      I’ve looked everywhere for that Einstein quote and have not been able to find it. I’ve also seen a variation of it as: “Humans are the only species smart enough to MAKE their food but dumb enough to eat it.” If you could find a source for your quote, I would love to see it.


  4. I agree completely. Another thing that drives me nuts is vegetarians who constantly eat fake-meat products: soyburgers, faux bacon, etc … more of the same frozen, processed garbage. Why not try eating vegetables? I think using fresh ingredients when cooking is the most wholesome thing you can do for your body.

    • Yeah, if you are vegetarian just for ethical reasons, then I guess there’s nothing wrong with fake meat. But healthwise, why fake meat when we have real fruits and vegetables? I haven’t liked the fake meat I’ve tried so far either. Although people say Morningstar fake bacon is good.

      • But the problem with “fake meats” is just that, it’s full of fake ingredients (chemicals and other weird stuff to turn a plant into a “meat”) – so it’s super processed and not good for us.

  5. Another great post! I used to work in a health food shop and was always surprised by the amount of stuff masquerading as ‘health’ food 🙂

  6. I think Pollen sums it up really well: “If the label makes a health food claim, it’s not healthy” or something to that extent. The “health foods” are junk food on steroids. 🙂

  7. I was reading the reviews from the link you provided for In Defense of Food and there were some very interesting comments. Since you meantioned the Terminator in your post and also had some good quotes for changing your diet,this one really seemed to fit and is from the Terminator himself:

    “You want to live, follow me.”

    Maybe that person behind you at the grocery store is doing the same thing and looking at your food too. I bet at the very least, he feels guilty for what he is buying. Maybe next time, he buys one thing from your cart. I’ve been shocked by how my grocery store trips have changed recently. I feel like I spend 30 minutes in the fruits and vegetables section in the front and then just hurry through the rest of the store barely buying anything else. Since I started eating this way, I have found it very hard to go back to eating the crap I used to.

  8. Terminator quote = f-ing funny.

    Good point about people in the store seeing my cart, to be honest I didn’t even consider that. It’s probably even stranger for them to see a cart of good food than it is for me to see a cart of bad food, since bad food carts are much more common. I have noticed the exact same thing as you have about the produce section; it feels like that’s the whole shopping trip now. Which is good, considering that in nature the produce section is the only section. Well, that and the carcass section.

  9. I find it really sad that when I enter the doors to my high school every day I see kids sitting with the jitters because they just finished the biggest size of an energy drink you can buy or an extra large coffee with extra sugar. Kids look at me funny when I eat carrots, apples, etc. during class while they sit and eat their candy bars. I get really weird looks because I take green tea wherever I go. I have been a vegetarian for about 6 months and my mom is going crazy. She has been calling me a granola. I feel loads better since I’ve been eating real food instead of that processed crap. My friends also joke that I’m the nutrition police because I read labels (not to count calories but just to figure out what I’m really eating if its not fruits or veggies). I’ve noticed that my healthy eating has been rubbing off on other people as well. Some of my friends have been choosing the apples over the candy bars in the morning. I really like being healthy and I don’t care what people say anymore.

  10. This was a great article and I put a link to it on my blog-
    It’s nice to find someone else who believes in eating real food!

    meatlessmama’s last blog post..Healthy Eating

    • Thanks so much! I love that your blog subtitle has “vegetarian whole foods” in it. I’m a new vegetarian, but in my limited experience it’s pretty clear that it’s just as easy to eat junky fake food as a vegetarian, maybe even easier without meat to anchor your plate. Like all the meat substitutes and even some nutrition bars.

      Looking forward to reading your posts!

  11. I totally agree with your post and the quote from Gandhi.

    • Thank you! I like the Gandhi quote too; wish I’d thought of it. I do feel much better with that attitude instead of being frustrated at how awful the eating problem is.

  12. Hi Matt,

    I was never the 2nd type, but sadly, I was the first type for YEARS. My cart always had so much crap in it. It drives me crazy now to think of all the junk I let our oldest put into his body. 🙁

    Thanks for joining in on Real Food Wednesday – I stumbled your post!


    Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s last blog post..Pork: the Source Matters – Michael Pollan and the Swine Flu

  13. What a great post! Real food is the only way to go. It tastes good, it makes you feel good and it’s good for the planet! Don’t forget, though – you need enough fat and at least a little animal product to stay in optimum health. Just a little butter or cheese, some raw or grassfed milk or an egg will do it. And if you aren’t eating animal fat then make sure you are getting plenty of coconut oil and avocados!
    I also love watching people’s carts at the grocery store. Maybe when I “retire” (hah!) I’ll just work at a grocery store as a checker. I love noting what people are getting and trying to make up a story about who they are and what they are doing. The Lean Cuisine and diet soda ladies always crack me up – they never look very happy either 🙂

    Alyss’s last blog post..You can please some of the people all of the time…

  14. “Well-intended” bad eating is a great way to put it- a very articulate post! It irks me that there is so much bad information and aggressive marketing out there, and people who are trying to make good choices fall prey. Ultimately I’ve realized that whole foods are the way to go- no labels and contradicting claims to sort through!

  15. This is a great post! I’d like to read that book.
    .-= Mel @ She Runs Brooklyn´s last blog ..I Eat the Same Thing Everyday =-.

  16. I found this after searching “Food isn’t healthy anymore.” I read all these articles about how peanut butter is bad, eggs are bad, bread is bad, etc., etc., etc., and it’s like…are we just supposed to STOP eating!? I’m so sick of the crap that’s put into virtually everything in the stores now. I feel like it’s impossible to truly eat healthy. I mean, even produce is coated in crap. I’m not rich, so I cannot afford organic for a lot of items. I thought if you wanted to make sure you filled the gaps of nutrition, you down a multivitamin. I don’t know when everything became fortified with the latest fad. I don’t understand this obsession with immortality. I mean, we’re GOING to die. That’s a fact so why the panic over food? I don’t want Omega 3 in my bread. I don’t want poison in my meat. I feel like America is trapped and, to be perfectly honest, I feel it’s done that way on purpose to keep drug companies in business. I try to eat the best I can in the environment I’m in but it’s just so sad. I agree with your post and am happy I found it. Thank you. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees this.

  17. It’s funny, reading this post made me realize my previous ways. I used to think I ate really healthy by consuming Subway sandwiches and chips for several meals a week (sometimes twice a day). I would usually opt for the “hearty italian bread” which is just plain ole white bread. Often it would lead me to still be hungry, which would make me think that eating “healthy” does not fill me up.

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