4 Damaging Mainstream Nutrition Beliefs

This is a guest blog post by Andy Bellatti, MS, RD.

I often write about the external factors that pose a threat to our health, including (but not limited to) Big Food’s egregious advertising budgets“healthwashed” and “farmwashed” food products and the litany of questionable chemical additives abundant in our food supply.

This time, however, I’m shining the spotlight inward, taking a look at pervasive, accepted and often times unquestioned concepts, ideas and beliefs within the nutrition field that are harmful because they stifle growth, critical analysis and dialogue.

1) “There is no such thing as junk food/there are no bad foods.”

In very specific contexts (i.e., eating disorder recovery), I understand where this stems from — strip away judgmental labels on food and bring it to its most basic function: nourishment. However, I’m increasingly seeing this message doled out by mainstream nutrition experts as a “takeaway” for the general public.

Let me make something very clear. If a client reports eating a king-size Snickers bar as a snack every day, a response of “Ew, why would you eat that?” is unprofessional, unnecessarily aggressive and in no way helpful. I do not condone belittling as a way to motivate.

However, the ultimate goal of a nutritionist or dietitian is to help people eat better. I am not a “weight loss-itian.” I don’t consider my job done simply because someone loses 10 pounds in two months. After all, weight loss can technically be achieved on an unhealthy diet.

In order to accurately promote health, I can’t equalize the nutritional playing field and say something as disingenuous as “there is no such thing as junk food.” Of course there is. Junk food makes people feel sluggish, tired and generally “not good.” A breakfast of Oreo cookies and soda is a “junk-food breakfast,” period.

Nutrition professionals need to recognize and capitalize on that. Telling someone an Egg McMuffin is not a “bad” choice because it contains protein from the egg and calcium from the cheese doesn’t do anyone any favors. Dietary changes do not happen overnight and often occur gradually, but minimally processed whole foods should always be encouraged.

2) “Moderation!”

To my ears, “Everything in moderation!” is the equivalent of 600 fingernails on a chalkboard, plus the never-ending drip of a leaky faucet. “Moderation” is a meaningless term. Ask 20 different people what it means and you’ll get 20 different responses.

“But that’s the beauty of it — each person can define it themselves!” some say. That doesn’t sound like beauty to me. It sounds like chaos.

“Everything in moderation,” is another way of unnecessarily and inaccurately equalizing all foods. It operates on the inane and utterly insane notion that peaches, Pop-Tarts, muffins, soda, lentils and tomatoes should all be approached the same way.

Three cups of mixed greens as part of a salad are not the same thing as three cups of chocolate pudding. A large Dunkin’ Donuts Mountain Dew Coolatta should not be consumed with the same frequency as unsweetened green tea. Eating a pint of blueberries in one sitting is very different from eating a pint of Häagen-Dazs.

Nutrition professionals should not act like public relations experts for fast-food companies (not surprisingly, the fast-food industry loves “moderation” because it means their atrocious offerings can “be a part of a balanced diet”), especially at a time when the average American could seriously benefit from eating less fast food. This is not to say someone should be scolded for the occasional indulgence. However, we can not and should not deny that certain foods belong in the “eat always” category, others in the “eat sometimes” category, and others in the “eat rarely, if at all” category.

Some argue that if we do not preach moderation, we are setting the stage for unreachable perfectionism and eating disorders, an argument I find excessively melodramatic. Recommending that people shy away from fast food whenever possible is not about perfection. It’s healthful and helpful advice.

3) “Healthy eater = red flag.”

When I was in school, I recall many of my nutrition textbooks pointing out that vegetarians, vegans and “those who avoid certain food groups” must be warned that if they do not plan their diets adequately, all sorts of nutritional ills could befall them. Meanwhile, the average American on the omnivorous “Standard American Diet” falls short of the recommended intake of fiber and several minerals, including magnesium. Of course, this is not because omnivorous diets are inherently unhealthy, but because the majority of Americans eat highly processed foods with little nutritional value.

The “Vegans must plan their diets adequately or else!” operates under the beyond-elementary assumption that “meat = protein and iron,” and “milk = calcium and vitamin D,” and if you don’t eat either of those two things, well, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Forethought, knowledge and planning are important for all eating patterns.

Similarly, the fact that someone chooses to avoid deep-fried food, soda or candy is not cause for alarm. People who eat healthfully should be encouraged, not told to, “Live a little.”

4) “You have to be realistic.”

This is often brought up by some nutrition professionals to justify their recommendations about making healthful choices at fast-food restaurants (“Just get the small size”). I’ll admit it — I used to think this way when I first started studying nutrition, before I counseled clients. I now see that the most satisfied individuals I have worked with are those who stepped outside their comfort zone. They aren’t interested in learning how they can still go to the drive-through three times a week and making “lower-calorie choices.” They want to truly learn about healthful eating.

We should not feel bad for gently challenging people. That leads me to a rather irritating “straw man” argument I often hear: “Not everyone is going to eat steamed kale and brown rice.” As if the only options available to people were a quadruple Baconator burger from a fast-food chain or a bowl of steamed vegetables.

Similarly, the disturbing fact that it is now “the norm” to nuke dinner in the microwave or get takeout a few times a week does not mean we as health professionals should encourage that as long as portions are small. It has become the norm for Americans to have credit-card debt, but you’d be hard pressed to find a financial advisor who will say, “Eh, $4,000 in credit-card debt is no biggie. Most people have $20,000!”

Our public health situation is so fragile that bland toothless nutrition messaging will not do the trick. The American public deserves helpful and accurate information that can help guide them to health. Let’s be part of a much-needed paradigm shift rather than fall back on outdated and reheated advice that serves little purpose.

Andy Bellatti, MS,RD is a Las-Vegas based nutritionist, writer, and speaker. Follow Andy Bellatti on Twitter: www.twitter.com/andybellatti

  • http://www.nutritiontofruition.com/ Samantha Scruggs

    Thank you! This is such a great article! I am always banging my head against a wall hearing some of these things, and being told to our patients from health care professionals! It is nice for dietitians to speak out against this as healthy advice.

  • ina

    an awesome write up Andy.
    sad that the 80 always follows and you can rip your hair out wondering why, but the 80 will always be just that- followers of mainstream anything as they can’t judge or reason for themselves.
    keep up the good work :)

  • http://shadesofgreenneo.blogspot.com/ Starsx7

    Just like the report I heard on TV that they believe that people trying to eat “all healthy” food was a hidden eating disorder. saying “Soon they will be come anorexic. This should be treated just like you would a anorexic, because they are limiting their food intake” Good gawds!! .

  • Heather May

    Great post! I am a vegetarian and have been for 5 years. I delivered 2 babies as a vegetarian and people were so concerned that I was harming the babies! I get it…people are scared when you don’t eat quarter pounders BUT I was shocked that they were happier when I ate candy bars, ice cream, and donuts!! Yep..that is sooo much better than my quinoa and almond milk!! I blog all about my journey from processed to organic and was even told by my mother that my kids were not getting enough sugar! Really?!?!Double standard for sure!

    Heather May

  • Lisa

    Andy, I miss Small Bites! The last comment I left there was on a post about this subject.

    This talk is still present in eating disorder circles, where ‘there is no such thing as a bad food’ is their banner phrase. I found that bit of advice and the rest–all of which is echoed here–pretty damaging, and clued me into the role of professionals in the perpetuation of the ED cycle. Like you, I understand why it’s used in treatment, but to push back against an ED sufferer’s fears with “but it’s normal to eat ____” after a certain point will do more harm than good. What it can lead to is your third point, where any deviation from a norm that encourages unhealthy eating will be labeled still disordered when it isn’t.

    That was longer than I thought it would be, but this is a topic I’m passionate about. Thanks for writing again. :)

  • Heather

    I lovelovelovelove this article. seriously.

  • Brie

    It is hard to argue with what you wrote. But, one thing I do want to say is, every food IS okay in “moderation” (for lack of a better word). What most people don’t understand is that moderation isn’t what they believe it is. For example, if you want M&M’s as a snack, that is perfectly fine. The part that isn’t fine is when you eat an entire bag at once. One serving (13 or so pieces) is plenty to satisfy that craving. As an eating disorder sufferer, I have spent years trying to undo the negative beliefs I had around food. The last treatment center I was at used an “All foods fit” model. We all had a set number of exchanges and never knew the calorie content of anything (well, I did just because I had been so obsessed for so long that I had it all memorized). The point is, I learned how to incorporate “junk food” into my life in a balanced manner. If eating disorder sufferers can do that, so can anybody else. My exchanges (I am at a healthy weight now) are 5 proteins, 5 starches, 3 dairy, 3 fruits, 2 vegetables (but most vegetables are unlimited in serving size), and 4 fats. If I want those M&M’s, one serving would count as 1 of my starches for the day. So, you see, all foods really DO fit! (With the exception of maybe a triple quarter pounder. lol But, you could have a cheeseburger! 1/2 bun=1 starch, 1 patty=1 protein and 1 oz. of cheese= 1 dairy.) Sorry this was so long. I just wanted to make sure I explained myself.

    • hollyhudson

      As an RD who shops mostly at the farmers’ market and is committed to a healthy diet, but who also has worked in eating disorder clinics, I see the two sides of this issue often talking past each other.

      “Some argue that if we do not preach moderation, we are setting the stage for unreachable perfectionism and eating disorders, an argument I find excessively melodramatic.”

      Andy, I understand the frustration with people who want to label anyone who tries to eat healthfully as having an ED. But these folks have no idea what an eating disorder is, and just want to demonize what they see as an unobtainable lifestyle filled with torture. (Of course, we know the fallacy here. How many patients have you encountered who’ve gotten off of sodas or gotten used to vegetables and now express no desire to go back to the way they ate in the past? For me: plenty, it’s not torture at all.) Or, yes, from a public health perspective we see food companies that use the word “moderation” as a way to get people comfortable eating more and more of their product, and a diet that is moderate in cake, moderate in chips, moderate in ice cream, etc., can easily end up being 100% junk food.

      But ED patients *are* a special case. They demonize certain foods (their “fear foods”) to the point where they drive cravings for these forbidden foods. When you talk to ED patients, it’s their fear foods that they binge on. Perhaps some one is really strict about avoiding sugar, but when they binge — it will be on candy. It’s not about the food, it’s the psychology of it, and the first step in recovery is letting go of the black and white thinking about foods. The binges won’t stop unless they change their thinking about the food. And once that happens it’s very common for the person to overconsume the once forbidden food for a month or so. It’s a process they have to go through, and at the end the food loses it’s mystique, and their desire for it drops to normal levels. In other words, they become able to occasionally have a slice of cake and move on with their lives, rather than being terrified of cake, and then once they have one slice, going on to eat the entire cake, and then trying to compensate with symptoms (over exercising, purging, etc.) You absolutely cannot give the same nutrition message to a person with ED as you would to a person who simply has a skewed or somewhat hypercaloric diet. The psychology is totally different.

      Brie, you’re right. The exchange method is great for those who have lost track of what a normal eating pattern looks and feels like, and it is great for getting your hunger and satiety cues back on track. I’ve seen it succeed. I wish, though, that there was more long term follow up with patients to work on maximizing health while keeping the obsessive behaviors at bay. For instance, eating whole grains and fruit for dessert at home, but happily going with white bread and cake when you’re out with friends and that’s all there is. That is real moderation. Holding a healthy diet standard — but being relaxed enough about meeting that standard so that it doesn’t interfere with your social life and happiness.

  • http://gigieatscelebrities.com/ GiGi Eats Celebrities

    I LOVE YOU Andy!!! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Larry

    When I hear the “everything in moderation” argument my response is “yes, I only engage in human sacrifice three times a year”.

  • jennirox

    Great article! Thank you.

  • Ryan Andrews

    Gosh – this is one of the best nutrition articles I’ve read in 2013. Good stuff.

  • Say

    As someone in eating disorder recovery, there’s something that you’re forgetting. While we may have our own dietitians who are careful not to talk about good vs bad food, healthful food vs junk food, etc., the WHOLE REST OF SOCIETY DOES. Including blog posts like this. In a society that polarizes food and stigmatizes certain food choices, it only does so much good to have a dietitian who talks about balance and moderation, when everyone else uses terms like junk food, etc. It seems like a lot of what you are talking about in this blog post is not the terms themselves, but people’s lack of information and misinterpretation of the terms. When my dietitians have talked about moderation and balance, that comes with concrete examples and information about what that actually means. So, while they wouldn’t talk about a “junk breakfast,” they would help me to see how it was unbalanced and how a more balanced breakfast would help me to feel physically and mentally better. That way, I still get the information about healthful eating without the shame that comes with stigmatizing my choices, and research has shown over and over that shame is not a motivator for long-term behavior change, whether or not someone is in eating disorder recovery.

  • rbthe4th2

    Fabulous post!