What does unhealthy food look like?

David Freedman has a piece at The Atlantic about healthy foods, unhealthy foods — and the "healthy" foods that are actually probably not that healthy, despite coming to you all natural and un-processed. I want to like the piece more than I actually do. For instance, Freedman has some issues with misrepresenting the positions of the people he's arguing against. For instance, I think he and Michael Pollan would probably agree that downing lots of 300-calorie fruit smoothies isn't the best way to get in shape. But it's an interesting read, especially if you just focus on the key point: Healthy food doesn't have to be limited to what you buy at Whole Foods or the farmer's market.


  1. My wife and I discuss this often — many people conflate “healthy” and “nutritious.” Fortified cereal is nutritious, as it contains many nutrients, and calories are the main reason we eat. But is it good for your health? To have that debate, you have to know about a person’s health.  Is a person trying to lose weight? Gain muscle? Stay the same shape? Are they allergic or sensitive to foods?

    Eggs are amazingly nutritious and they’re healthy, unless you already have high cholesterol as the relatively brief boost to your dietary cholesterol may trigger something in your body.

    But similarly, there’s nothing inherent to preservatives that makes them unhealthful or un-nutritious. My doctor says I am “the paragon of health,” and I have run a marathon, biked a century, and have maintained a BMI of 22 for the last 4 years — yet I eat plenty of preservatives, fat, and sugar. My “trick” is moderation — not too much of something, calorically — and regular, reasonable exercise.

    I think every person needs to spend a little time figuring out what works for them, rather than relying on something being marketed (or spread via word-of-mouth) as healthy or nutritious. My wife alerted me to an incredibly sneaky food she found a while ago — it announced boldly it was “Sugar free!” And it contained, instead, agave syrup.

    1. Agave nectar is one that makes me laugh – the same folks who will praise agave nectar as a wonder sugar, will curse fructose, and in particualr high-fructose corn syrup, as the devil.

      And yet HFCS is typically about 55% fructose and 45% glucose, while agave nectar is nearer to 80% fructose…

      1.  I am also a fan of people who knock HFCS and go on to praise fruit juices, which are 100% fructose.

        The problem isn’t really the sweetener, it’s its prevalence. HFCS really shouldn’t be the first ingredient in bread, for example.

        1. is there any bread where HFCS is the first ingredient? id imagine that some kind of flour would always be the first ingredient

        2. There’s this recent big study, which did find increased risk of Type II diabetes with only 12 oz of soda a day, but not with fruit juice or nectar. It’s not clear that it’s the HFCS in the soda that’s increasing the risk, but while I understand the biochemical argument that they’re the same, the studies seem to suggest that HFCS  is doing something that fruit juice doesn’t. 
          The InterAct consortium. Consumption of sweet beverages and type 2 diabetes incidence in European adults: results from EPIC-InterAct. Diabetologia, 2013 (in press) DOI: 10.1007/s00125-013-2899-8

          1. Well HFCS is closer to table sugar (sucrose) anyway, since sucrose is a 50/50 split of glucose to fructose, and HFCS is 45/55. Fructose might not lead to type II that quickly (or in such small amounts) but if you had two groups, one having soda and another having an equivalent amount of sugar, it seems likely that they would both get diabetes at similar rates.

  2. ‘natural and unprocessed’. Absolutely. I can make you a single serving of chilli mac & cheese that will most definitely shorten your lifespan (you’d ask for seconds though).

    1. I make a mean mac and cheese for the occasional pot luck that my wife has where she works.  They love it (like clean the bowl love it)…and damn right they should.  Heavy cream and tons of cheese, what’s not to love (except the calories and fat, but fat is delicious.)

  3. I don’t think the author has ever read a Michael Pollan book…or at least hasn’t read the ones that actually touch on the points he’s trying to make.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I seem to recall that ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ devotes one of it’s 4 topics to the misunderstandings regarding over-processed factory organic food.  One of my hippy friends who buys into the Whole Foods BS won’t read his books anymore because of it.

    The author seems terribly interested in setting up a strawman to knock down.

      1. I actually thought he was pretty fair to Pollan, but then I thought In Defense of Food was an awful book. (I thought The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a bit better, though.)

        In Defense of Food asks us to “entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem.” And one of his favorite “rules” is “Eat all the junk food you want so long as you cook it yourself.” The notion that processed foods are necessarily uniquely bad is pretty hard to miss in his more recent books.

        No doubt Freedman offers some silly examples (like the smoothies) and exaggerations (like the title), but I did see the main point as a useful corrective to the kind of silliness that one finds in In Defense of Food. And the piece offered much less strawman than Pollan’s argument there that government dietary advice “bears direct responsibility” for the current public health crisis, which completely misrepresented what the guidelines actually said. Not that that makes Freedman right about everything, but I don’t think Pollan is particularly deserving of anybody’s defense.

        1. Bahh. If the author had identified anyone of standing who makes the argument he’s assailing then he’d be making a salient point. He cherry picks some items from grocery stores and restaurant menus (did you know that ounce for ounce cheese has as much fat as a big mac? SHOCK!!); he carelessly elides TV chefs and …whoever he’s claiming actually supports his ridiculous straw man arguments; he shares an anecdote about a “professional wellness coach” saying something stupid (clearly Pollan’s fault, eh); he adopts the odd construction “fat, sugar and other problem carbs” as if fat is somehow a carb.

          I didn’t see where he made an interesting point. Oh, except this one :

          People who want to lose weight and keep it off are almost always advised
          by those who run successful long-term weight-loss programs to transition
          to a diet high in lean protein, complex carbs such as whole grains and
          legumes, and the sort of fiber vegetables are loaded with.

          No kidding, eh? To bad Pollan doesn’t recommend such a diet.

    1.  I think he’s going on a different tack, namely that the reason people are blaming processed foods is misguided. There’s nothing inherently unhealthy in a food based on its level of processing.

      I think Pollan’s overarching point is that relying on processed foods tends towards unhealthy eating decisions, and that by taking more control over our diets we can eat more healthfully. I don’t agree with all of what Pollan says, but he is right that a homemade anything will usually be better for you than a mass-produced version, and taste better. Pollan at least advocates “know your ingredients” and “know how to cook a little,” which is a positive message for everyone.

      Freedman’s general statement is that knowing your ingredients goes beyond whether they are labeled a certain way — a plum is a plum — in order to actually understand “health.” You can find that at a McDonalds if you understand ingredients and calories. However, a bacon cheeseburger is unhealthy whether you eat it at Burger King or a farm-to-table restaurant (and the F2T place probably butters their buns and adds extra fats anyway!).

      1.  In unhealthy vs. unhealthy I’ll choose the place that runs their business more ethically, pays better wages etc. If I can afford it.

    2.  Amen,
      He’s kinda going after veggie junk food, which is sort of a ‘no duh’ situation. I kinda skimmed the piece but he doesn’t seem to address that some choices are ethical choices as well, instead of health choices. More ethical companies, small businesses vs. mega corporations/factory farms etc…

  4. Freedman is looking for good, weight-loss food in a smoothie?  That’s crazy.  I’ve seen this attitude in too many who are “concerned about their weight”.  They think they can still gorge on all the sweets and yummy treats but lose weight because of calorie counts.  I’ve never seen that work well.  To significantly lose weight and keep it off requires a significant, permanent lifestyle change — not just counting calories on all the stuff you are already stuffing in your mouth.  But that’s HARD.

  5. Here’s what McDonald’s lists as the ingredients for their “healthy” blueberry pomegranate smoothie that costs $3:
    “Blueberry Pomegranate Smoothie (Small):BLUEBERRY POMEGRANATE SMOOTHIE BASE, ICE, LOWFAT SMOOTHIE YOGURT”http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/usnutritionexchange/ingredientslist.pdf

    It’s totally “natural”, really!

    1. He’s not claiming that it’s natural.  He’s claiming it’s 220 calories and just as healthy as the 300 calorie version hand crafted in health food stores.

        1. No, he’s claiming that the hand crafted ones are just as “healthy” as the McDonald’s one.  In other words, neither is really good for you.

          1. The ingredients are listed on the McDonald’s website. They are:

             Blueberry Puree, Water, Clarified Demineralized Pineapple Juice Concentrate, Raspberry Puree, Apple Juice Concentrate, Pomegranate JuiceConcentrate, Contains 1% or Less: Natural (Plant Source) and Artificial Flavors, Cellulose Powder, Peach Juice Concentrate, Pear Juice Concentrate, Citric Acid,Lemon Juice Concentrate, Xanthan Gum, Pectin, Fruit and Vegetable Juice For Color

          2. Now bear in mind that, as a first approximation, any juice concentrate is basically sugar.  

            And seeing as I’m not a ruminant, I really see no reason to add “cellulose powder” to anything I drink.

            The sad thing is, of course, that if you made this yourself, your ingredients would be:
            * Blueberries
            * Pomegranates
            * Yoghurt
            * And maybe a teaspoon of sugar if you’re addicted to sweetness.

            And that * would* actually be pretty damn healthy. And tasty.  And cheaper. And it would only take 10 minutes including washing up. 

    2. Why did you put natural in quotes? I don’t think McD’s call their smoothie natural? It’s not like natural implies anything with regard to how good something is for you anyway.

  6. Maggie, I’m sorry but this is the worst piece of journalism I’ve read in a long time. It’s full of broad claims and short on specifics, it sets up straw man arguments every time it can, and completely misrepresents its target. I love a good piece of “contrarian opinion” too, but his points are moronic. He is conveniently confusing eating healthy with the corporate agro-business that the “organic” label has created. Maybe his wealthy Boston suburbanite neighbors buy into the myth that Whole Foods = Godliness, but no one with any basic understanding of health does, especially not Pollan.

    Freedman’s obsession with calories shows he certainly doesn’t understand the first thing about health- everything he talks about is under the scope of fat and calories, as if keeping your calorie count low is what makes a healthy human. The “good points” he makes are just obvious, and don’t, in any way, connect to his main vitriolic attack against the “elite” he so despises.

    The truth is pretty simple- even if you’re poor, cooking a meal of supermarket vegetables and beans for dinner is going to be much better -and cheaper- for you than anything processed. We should, as a nation, aim to feed ourselves using the methods Freedman hates so much: local, organic food, unprocessed. It is actually theoretically possible to do so, though we have a lot of changing to do before we get there. But, so what? Freedman’s logic is like saying “there’s no way enough Americans are ever going to let black people vote, so why bother? Let’s focus on something more realistic.” If the Atlantic really wanted to run his ignorant opinions, they should have at least stuck them in the op-ed section, where they belong. This piece is not even college-level journalism.

    1. You’re spouting out meaningless words as well. 

      The word “processed” doesn’t mean anything with regards to nutrition. The benefits of buying local are debatable. There might be some economic reasons, but there are also environmental downsides to it (the Freakonomics guys talk about it). Likewise, the benefits from eating organically produced food are arguable as well.What it comes down to is monitoring what you eat for calories and nutrients and paying attention to your health. By those measures, your suggestion of supermarket vegetables and beans is likely a good and inexpensive choice. But pile on a bunch of buttery garlic bread, a big serving of fruit juice and too much oil and vinegar salad dressing, and you’re still going to die of obesity related diseases.

        1. Your simple truth (homecooked food is better than processed) is nonsense.

          Your four pillars of good eating (local, organic food, unprocessed) are arguably misguided and potentially harmful.

          1.  We should, as a nation, aim to feed ourselves using the methods Freedman hates so much: local, organic food, unprocessed.

            But this is sound. This is more ethical and sustainable, regardless of calories or whatever which I won’t argue about. The author conspicuously chooses to ignore that. He also ignores that “conventional” corporate food models rely on massive subsidies as well as all the other hidden (and not so hidden) costs associated with this model of food production.

          2.  It’s not nonsense at all. Of course, if you compare two extremes (home cooked bacon fried with extra butter) to a store bought oatmeal cookie, yes, the cookie is probably better for you. But that’s a moronic argument. All things being equal, something raised without pesticides is better than that same thing raised WITH pesticides. Something that travels 10 miles is better than something traveling 10,000. And something that millions of years of natural trial and error has produced is better than something that 2 years of lab testing has produced. No one is saying eating Organic Tostitos is healthy- but the benefits to eating well are pretty well documented, not to mention obvious. This guy’s article ignores all that just so he can take pot shots at yuppies. I hate the yuppies too, but I’m not going to trample over facts to get to them.

        1. They at least try to base their argument on facts rather than instinct and common sense. I get the feeling that they are happiest when they find facts that dispute common sense.

          Regardless, I agree with you. Every source should be treated with suspicion. 

          1. I would say they present wild speculation as certainty. No surprise that their pop-contrarian conclusions usually are that something bad/regressive is SUPRISE! actually the right way…  It preys upon the otherwise healthy skepticism we should have about conventional thinking. It is also a massive money making business for those two.

  7. Most of what this guy is saying is somewhat true: Processed food COULD be healthy. Expensive yuppie Organichow often is not.

    But the problem with processed food is, um, capitalism. If you’ll pay $5 for a box of cereal that contains absolutely no nutritional value, what motivation does the cereal company have to replace what processing removed?

    The only motivation they have is when Whole Foods starts stepping on their bottom line.  Then, suddenly, that same cereal can have all manner of nutritional additives filtered back in.  The rise of fake Organichow is just the first evidence that consumers shopping for better food is having the desired effect.  Keep up the pressure and someday McDonalds will be cheap and healthy.

    1.  If I’m paying that much for a box of cereal, it damn well better have chocolate in it. Lots of chocolate.

  8. Somewhere between Pollan’s book, ‘Cooked’ and the newletters from the American Gut Project, I’ve come to think of my large intestine as ‘The Great Fermenter’.  I think about the care and feeding of the Fermenter in the same way I consider what to feed the box of red worms in the downstairs bathtub — plus protein. 

    Worms like cellulose, so we gather all the leaves from the maples, pear and crabapple in the fall in big bags and lay them over the kitchen scrapes in the box.  Occasionally, we throw in a layer of shredded paper.  We check to see if it’s getting too dry or too wet.  Apart from these things, we leave the worms alone to do their thing.  Twice a year we harvest the worm castings.  Good worm compost is fairly odorless and look like large crumbs of devil’s food cake.  It’s heavenly to run your fingers through.

    Based on what I’ve been reading, I feed the worms better than I feed myself, and unlike the worms, I’ve been a lot more confused about what to eat.  Most people who have had cancer really are looking for answers to the question ‘why me?’.  Breast cancer doesn’t run in our family, either side.

    Yesterday, I sat out on the patio and talked to my mother, to ask her a few questions that have been on my mind.  I started with, ‘Were you born Cesarean?’

    Here’s what she had to say:  She had been born vaginally, but 2 1/2 months premature, the last born to a poor family living in Chicago, in 1938.  She had spent the first month in the hospital and then was sent home.  A county nurse was sent round to her parent’s apartment once a month and she provided vitamins to my grandparents to help mom catch up.  My grandmother’s breast milk had dried up by then and mom continued on formula, but she was never able to regain what was lost for having been born too early.  Calcium, for example… the enamel of my mother’s teeth was too soft and by the time she was fourteen, they were so rotten she got a job at a malt shop to earn the money to have them pulled and dentures made.  There are no pictures in which she smiled prior that age.  She wasn’t a good student, didn’t go to college and married young.  She had two children; I’m the first born.  She breastfed briefly but her daughter didn’t thrive…. the way she put it was ‘my breast milk turned to poison’.  So she turned to baby formula.  Mom skipped trying to breastfeed my younger brother altogether and started with formula.  My brother, like all the males on dad’s side of the family, would have more health problems growing up than I did.  When mom was in her late thirties, she was diagnosed as a diabetic.

    She’s seventy-five now and she’s been smoking since she was eighteen.  She’s an insulin-dependent diabetic, who manages high blood pressure and high cholesterol with medication as well.  She has heart disease and she’s inclined to be serially clumsy.  Last month she broke her left foot in three places.  She lives alone with an elderly Schnauzer and doesn’t go out much anymore.

    Now, what does a mother running the kind of nutrition deficit like my mother, have to offer her unborn child in terms of raw materials?  What happens if the child is born Cesarean rather than vaginally, then not breastfed?  What are the consequences for all those rounds of pencillin for chronic ear infections before the age of five, back when doctors handed those prescriptions out for every little childhood ailment?  What if those children too are raised in poverty and ate the diet that goes with being poor?  All these questions came up in the survey for those who participated in the American Gut Project.

    These are the questions I’m mulling over, Maggie – is there a point when it’s simply too late?  If a child is not born with the strongest possible nutritional and microbiome start in life, is it possible to catch up?  Can we bridge the deficit from generation to generation?  If we can, then Pollan is probably closer to having some answers… but if we can’t then it doesn’t much matter what we’re eating and Freedman isn’t wrong — demonizing fast food won’t make us any healthier.  And yes, Pollan is a bit of an elitist, in that access to more nutritionally dense food a class privilege.

  9. The article completely misses the greater evidence that most health problems are caused by people eating the wrong nutrients (AND too many calories), and the effect of processed vs. unprocessed food is minimal by comparison.The majority of people are carb-sensitive and have some level of dairy intolerance. Most people would benefit more from cutting out those nutrients and shifting to a low-carb dairy-free diet with total calories based on their daily energy expenditure. This includes olive oil, coconut butter, avocados, and most nuts, and other monounsaturated fats, in addition to fish, poultry, beef, and non-starchy vegetables. 

    “Paleo” diets have become trendy because it’s a convenient theory for why many react poorly to these types of nutrients. However, some people have no issue with carbs and dairy; I would also argue that actual gluten sensitivity is uncommon. Either way, you must experiment to find out which types of foods cause your body to react poorly to them, whether it’s an insulin spike or poor digestion, and cut those foods out of your diet to ensure good health.

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