Of course there's such a thing as a bad food. At least there is if "bad" is defined on the basis of health. In a sense, a bad food is one whose risks outweigh its nutritional benefits when consumed regularly. And while there is certainly room for disagreement over what should or shouldn't be considered bad, some foods are pretty straightforward. Take lollipops for example. There's nothing nutritionally redeeming about a lollipop. There are no vitamins or minerals to speak of, and virtually all of its calories come from sugar. Consequently, I'd certainly label them "bad." Still, I'll occasionally give them to my children, whom I love more than life itself. But the fact is, just because a food is nutritionally bad doesn't mean we shouldn't ever eat it.
You might think I'm preaching the, "everything in moderation" argument, and I suppose that in a sense I am. But I do think that the difference between the food industry's versions of "There's no such thing as a bad food and everything in moderation," and my "Of course there's such a thing as a bad food" is more than just semantics. It's like the glass half-full or half-empty version of looking at indulgences. Pun intended, I don't think sugar-coating the fact that there are indeed bad foods is useful given the numerous diet-related chronic diseases that plague modern-day society. Yet that's exactly what the "no such thing as a bad food" spin does: It takes the sting out of the choice.
Truthfully, there are many bad foods that I desperately enjoy. I honestly think I could happily eat potato chips, chicken wings, and nachos for each and every meal until the day I die. The thing is, I'd likely die a younger man too, and dying young isn't exactly part of my bucket list.
So what's a person to do when faced with so many bad foods?
Simple. Ask yourself two questions.
1. "Is it worth it?" The answer should depend on your own personal definition of good and bad and should take into account your own health concerns. For instance, if you're struggling with your weight, are the calories more than they're worth? Or if you're fighting high blood pressure or diabetes you might be focusing on sodium or sugar.
2. If the answer to the first question is, "Yes, it's worth it," follow up with, "How much do I need to be happily satisfied?" That's exactly how much you should have.
Remember too that the answer to the first question will vary. On some days a bad food will seem worth it more than on others. Holidays, birthdays, terrible days at work, celebrations, social events—these all can and do have a bearing on our dietary choices because food simply isn't about fuel and sustenance. Food plays a pivotal societal role in comfort and celebration and to deny food that role is proof that you're on a diet (and that ultimately you're doomed to fail).
So my advice to you is to simply have the least amount of bad food that you need to enjoy your life, but please don't kid yourself into believing that there's no such thing as a bad food; doing so will lead you to consume more of it than would simple, thoughtful, realistic consideration.
Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.