By Helena Thomas Harman, Nutritionist SSC

We often put foods into good and bad, but there are no bad foods and the idea of this can be damaging for our relationship with food. Categorising foods into good; raw, pure, fresh sustainable, and bad; calorific, junk food, processed can be influenced by the packaging, as well as accessible information through the media.1,2

We’re increasingly using social media as a source for nutrition and diet information, which has been found to often provide low quality, simplified or even incorrect advice3. As people’s interest in their diet and health increases, people need to have more access to correct and evidence-based information.

Cutting out certain food group’s because it’s deemed ‘bad’ isn’t good for your health

Many diets that are promoted as healthy or to aid weight loss involve restricting one particular food group or having a list of rules to follow.

Although being in a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss, dieting has actually been linked with long-term weight gain instead. This is due to restrictive diets not leading to sustainable changes in overall diet; instead making life-long dietary changes should be focused on4.

Cutting out a certain food group can lead to nutrient deficiencies and may even be bad for your health long-term. For example, the Keto diet is a very low carbohydrate diet that’s been promoted for weight loss; however, this may lead to a low intake of vitamins, minerals, fibre (which can negatively impact our gut health) and also cause fatigue5. Following any kind of restrictive diet should only be done under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

The benefit of Plant Points

The American Gut Project found that participants who ate more than 30 different plants per week had more diverse friendly bacteria in their gut compared to those who only ate 10 a week6. You can find out more about the benefits of Plant Points here. Emerging research has shown that less diverse gut microbiomes may be linked to an increase in chronic health conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease7.

Plant-based foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals such as polyphenols, and prebiotics which provide a host of health benefits supporting our immune system and digestive health. Studies have also found plant-based diets to be linked with promoting a healthier weight and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease8.

Counting how many plant points you have is easy and encourages you to add more foods to your diet rather than restrict or cut out certain foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, spices, herbs, tea and coffee all count towards your 30 plants a week.

Why “clean eating” is problematic 

Clean eating is a broadly used phrase for many diets- across social media platforms. However, there’s no clear definition of what ‘clean eating’ actually is, with some people advocating reduced consumption of processed foods, whereas others focus on restrictive diets that eliminate certain food groups (e.g. wheat and sugar)9. There’s a concern that ‘clean eating’ diets may lead to obsessive eating habits in some women (10) and may even mask eating disorders9. 

As the definition of clean eating is so varied, it’s hard to say what the impact on our gut health short or long term would be. One aspect that’s often encouraged in clean eating trends is reducing or avoiding the consumption of ultra processed foods. There’s been some animal research that suggests high intakes of these kinds of foods have negative effects on the gut microbiota and increased risk of inflammatory diseases, however more human research is needed11. More research is also needed into how restrictive diets may affect our gut microbiome.

The key thing to takeaway here is that it’s all about eating foods in moderation. Having a healthy diet throughout life is associated with a lower risk of diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer12.

Looking at our whole diet is vital in making sustainable healthy food changes that we can stick to long term, rather than focusing on a single food or food group4.

Are there any foods that should be avoided?

There are specific foods that should be limited due to connections with poor health. In the Western world it’s been shown that we’re generally consuming too much salt, sugar and certain fats that are negatively impacting our health. In fact, the World Health Organisation highlights that our dietary choices and lack of movement is now one of the biggest risks to our health12.

The intake of salt, sugar and fat in the UK is generally too high, due to a high intake of ultra-processed foods like baked goods, crisps, sugary cereals, and ready meals. There’s the need for people to make conscious choices to decrease intake, due to an increased risk of health concerns such as obesity and cardiovascular disease linked to an excessive intake of these nutrients13. Ultra-processed foods have been found to take up to 60% of daily energy intake in some countries, highlighting the importance of encouraging a move to more home cooked nutrient- dense meals14.

However, ultra-processed foods can still be enjoyed in small quantities as part of a healthy diet. Some ultra processed foods such as bread and baked beans are a staple in many UK households, in these cases swapping to more nutrient dense versions such as wholemeal/wholegrain bread or low salt/sugar baked beans can improve the nutritional quality of these foods16.

The link between your gut health and overall health

Our gut is home to over 100 trillion microbial cells, early-stage research has found that our gut microbiome may influence our digestion, immune system and mental wellbeing, therefore potentially playing a vital role in our overall health17.

Current research has shown that probiotics, a source of good bacteria found in our gut, have the potential to help conditions such as IBS and eczema18,19. Much more research is needed into looking at the benefits of probiotic supplements and individual strains of bacteria in humans; however, currently we know that increasing our intake of dietary fibre to support our gut health will be beneficial for our overall health20.

Myth or fact? 

'All carbs are bad for you’

Myth! Carbohydrate foods play an important role in a healthy diet as they’re needed to provide energy for every cell in our body, as well as being a source of fibre which is essential for gut health21.

‘Gluten is bad for everyone’s health’

Myth! Gluten free diets are essential for those with gluten intolerances or coeliac disease; however, there’s been an increase in people adopting these diets unnecessarily. There is a perception in the media that restricting gluten may be beneficial for health; however, this can lead to nutritional deficiencies in poorly planned diets and also unnecessary increased financial costs22.

‘Fresh fruit and veg is always better’

Another myth! Frozen vegetables can offer a more cost effective and accessible way to increase vegetable consumption, without decreasing the nutritional value23.