How to Define Good Food
Despite the title of this post, I’m not going to tell you how to categorize food into “good” and “bad”. I don’t believe that food has a moral value. Similarly, when we define food as “clean”, that implies that another food must be “dirty”. I’m just not into that distinction. I see too many women beat themselves up over their food choices. Also, eating a kale salad doesn’t make you more righteous than eating an ice cream sundae.
However, I can help you find food that provides the most nutrition. Instead of focusing on the foods that you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat, I’d rather encourage you to think about foods that nourish you, provide energy and nutrients – and to realize that there is an abundance of those foods!
First, I always encourage people to turn to whole foods, especially plant-based foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils), whole grains, nuts and seeds. These foods provide the most vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients - all of which are essential for your body to thrive. Additionally, research has shown over and over that including more plant-based foods in your diet has many health benefits. Dairy and lean protein also provide many great nutrients, but are animal-based options.
How to Think About Nutrients
We don’t eat nutrients in isolation, but rather within foods and meals. That said, there are some nutrients that I think it’s more helpful to focus on, specifically some that most Americans don’t get enough of each day: fiber, potassium, calcium, and iron.
[Side note: despite what you hear in popular diets and a lot of media coverage, PROTEIN is not on the list of nutrients that Americans don’t get enough of. You get plenty. I promise. You might need to spread it out over the day, but consider this your free pass to stop obsessing over protein.]
Fiber is found in plant foods, specifically in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and seeds. It is important for many things, including gut health. Right now, there is a lot of interest in gut health in the research community, the media, and nutrition-minded individuals. More and more research is showing exactly how a healthy gut can lead to a healthy body.
To meet your daily fiber requirements, a few foods with the most fiber (by weight) include raspberries, blackberries, pears, broccoli, collard greens, lentils, black beans, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and oats.
Potassium is important for blood pressure regulation. Together, potassium and sodium help balance your body’s fluids. Most people consume about twice as much sodium as they need and half as much potassium, which throws your body’s fluids off balance and can cause high blood pressure.
Fruits and vegetables are a great way to get potassium (are you noticing a pattern here?), as is dairy. In fact, you might be familiar with the “three servings per day” of milk recommendation (if not, I’m totally dating myself!). That campaign was actually created to help people meet their potassium requirements.
A few specific foods (that aren’t a banana) high in potassium include cow’s milk, yogurt, cantaloupe, watermelon, potatoes (white and sweet), spinach, butternut squash, and edamame.
Calcium and Iron
These are very different minerals, but I’m grouping them because of their importance to women’s health. My doctor once told me that as a white women, I was destined for osteoporosis and poor bladder control. While I don’t think that osteoporosis has to be my destiny, I am still diligent about prevention by getting adequate calcium.
Women also have higher iron needs, thanks in part to regular blood loss. Low iron causes fatigue because your cells aren’t efficiently getting oxygen (iron helps carry oxygen through the bloodstream).
While dairy is an excellent go-to for your calcium needs, there are other sources as well. Think of hearty greens like kale and bok choy, along with tofu and fortified milk alternatives and orange juice. Sources you might be less familiar with are canned salmon and sardines due to the edible bones.
When it comes to iron, meat is an obvious choice. But think outside the box a little. Whole grains, legumes, and leafy greens are great plant-based options. Pair these plant-based sources with vitamin C for optimum absorption. Spinach and tomatoes are a great example of this, but even a small amount of lemon or lime juice added to a pan of leafy greens can help with absorption. Also, consider using a cast-iron skillet for cooking to amp up your iron stores.
Scarcity vs Abundance
When you shift your focus to getting these positive nutrients, you also switch your focus from things to cut out of your diet to things to add to your diet. This mindset switch can be the difference between scarcity and abundance. This can help you find more joy in your food choices. Look what “get” to eat, instead of what some lame diet tells you you “have” to eat. Also, when you approach the world from a scarcity mindset, it is likely to trigger overeating/bingeing, especially after a period of restriction. When you approach the world from an abundance mindset, you know that you have the opportunity to be choosy. What do you really want to eat? What sounds delicious? What can you save until tomorrow?
Both mental and physical health are important (and surprise – they’re related!). In a world filled with diets and an obsession to be thin, choice and joy and mental health can get lost in the conversation. But I also know that in the world of intuitive eating and healing a relationship with food, the nutritional value of foods can get lost. It is my privilege and joy to help people strike the balance that is right for them between the mental and physical health when they define “good food”.
How do you define good food? How does this definition resonate with you or ruffle your feathers?