Is the 'there is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets' argument helpful?

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

All in moderation: Demonizing 'bad' foods is not the way to encourage healthier eating patterns, claims the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
All in moderation: Demonizing 'bad' foods is not the way to encourage healthier eating patterns, claims the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
A new position statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) which can be paraphrased as 'there is no such thing as good and bad foods, only good and bad diets' is eminently sensible, but will play into the hands of 'junk' food companies opposed to any government intervention in their industry, claims one academic.

The paper - published in the February issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - says that “labeling specific foods in an overly simplistic manner as ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’ is not only inconsistent with the total diet approach, but it can cause many people to abandon efforts to make dietary improvements”.

It adds: “Classification of specific foods as good or bad is overly simplistic and can foster unhealthy eating behaviors.”

However, this argument has repeatedly been used by the food industry to justify its opposition to any government interference in the formulation, distribution or promotion of ‘junk’ foods and beverages, said Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

 Marion Nestle: Paper will play into the hands of junk food manufacturers

While it is perfectly reasonable to argue that occasional treats can be part of a healthy balanced diet, she told FoodNavigator-USA, there is "no question ​[that] some foods are healthier than others and we all know what they are."

She added: "The AND position may be strictly correct—'if in moderation, if combined with physical activity, etc'—but that’s not how the soda and other junk food industries will interpret it. 

"This kind of position is what makes food companies so eager to pour money into AND sponsorship​ and what brings disrespect to the organization for its openness to conflict of interest."

Classification of specific foods as good or bad is overly simplistic

landscape-Food-shopping-istock-Victor Melniciuc
Nutrition messages are more effective “when focused on positive ways to make healthy food choices over time, rather than individual foods to be strictly avoided”, argues the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

The AND paper, which you can read here​, argues that when too much emphasis is given to a single food or food component, “confusion and controversy can hinder, rather than facilitate, consumers in adopting healthy dietary patterns”​.

For example, while some animal research suggested saturated fats increase cardiovascular disease risk, “more recent evidence of a direct causal link is more ambiguous”,​ claims the Academy, which represents thousands of registered dietitians

“This topic remains highly controversial and it highlights the importance of stressing the total diet over time, rather than giving too much emphasis to specific food components.”

Points-based front of pack labeling schemes must be introduced with caution


Similarly, if the industry is told to adopt a front-of-pack labeling system that ranks foods according to their nutritional profile, it must be accompanied by guidance that reminds consumers that there are no forbidden foods, it says.

“If this proposed system is adopted, consumer guidance will be important to help the public understand how to utilize the point system in making food and beverage choices within a total diet context and avoid an exaggerated focus on single foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”

Nutrition messages are more effective when focused on positive ways to make healthy choices

Nutrition messages are more effective “when focused on positive ways to make healthy food choices over time, rather than individual foods to be strictly avoided”, ​argue the authors.

“The total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of healthy eating. All foods can fit within this pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity.”

Source: Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics​ doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.12.013

Title​: ‘Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating’

Authors​: Registered dietitians Jeanne Freeland-Graves; Bess Heflin, Centennial Professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas, Austin; and Susan Nitzke, professor emerita and extension specialist in nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Lost touch with reality?

Posted by David Grotto, RD, LDN,

It seems that those who don't work with patients often are the most vocal when it comes to asking for the demise of "junk food manufacturers". The reality check is that companies who make sugary sodas and empty calorie snack foods aren't going away anytime soon. And we can thank, in part, the present American lifestyle, palate and pocketbook for that.

What makes more sense, to me, is to work together with industry to shift the landscape of their product offerings by creating demand for delicious and fun products that are truly good for you (notice that "delicious" and "fun" trumped "good for you" for order of importance?). RDs and AND are helping to change that landscape by working with, not against the food industry.

Fruits and vegetables are abundantly available and most have already received the memo that they are "good for you" but current consumption trends are abysmal. RDs understand that dilemma and get that simply telling people to "Eat This, Don't Eat That" doesn't work long term, regardless of the health benefits of doing so. We eat not only for health and sustenance...we eat for enjoyment, too.

In the trenches, RDs are working with the public to make healthy eating doable by focusing on good dietary habits and NOT by demonizing food. It took working with thousands of patients for nearly three decades to come to this reality. Good nutrition will never happen unless taste and enjoyment are assured. And yes, that may mean including moderate amounts of some of those "bad" foods.

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Thanks you dietitians

Posted by Wendy Repovich,

Their argument is similar to the various diets which have been recommended forever. The named diet that has had the most long-term success for clients keeping weight off is Weight Watcher. This is for the same reason the dietitians are making, there are no eliminated/forbidden foods, and the purpose of the program is to teach the dieter to make responsible choices.

Think also how long eggs have been denigrated as bad for you because of their cholesterol content? That began in the 60's-70's and yet the preponderance of the research over the last 30 years does not confirm that the cholesterol in eggs has any affect on raising cholesterol, nor does the popular press explain the potential benefits of all the nutrients in the yolk that also come with the cholesterol, the quality of the protein in the white, and the cost factor of reasonably priced healthy foods.

If health was returned to the school curriculum with content presented every year the student is in school we could be educating the students to be wise consumers and we wouldn't have to worry about what marketing campaign the junk food manufacturers create.

Then there is also the battle for how to designate what will be considered junk. In the state of Washington where there are lots of wheat farmers, their lobby was able to convince the legislators to say that any "candy" that had wheat in it could not be designated as junk - thus Reese's cups and pieces are junk, but Reese's bars that have a cookie as part of the product is not. Give me a break.

It is impossible to legislate behavior, haven't we figured that out by now???? Thank you dietitians for being reasonable.

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How Nice, How Very Very Nice.

Posted by Jerry Segers,

Each day that goes by it becomes more and more clear that the entire food industry from dietitians to the CAFO operators has totally lost touch with reality. If the learned dietitians (Remember they must have an advanced degree to use that title) can not recognize and help consumers understand the nutritional difference between a deep fried Twinky and four ounces of grass fed prime rib, they need their degrees revoked.

We are already stuck with their proclamation that a calorie is a calorie when research clearly shows that fat consumption increased the metabolism while carbohydrate consumption does not.

Next I guess we will learn that the four basic food groups are Beer, Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate.

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