Why I’ll Never Tell You to Eat “Heart Healthy” Foods

by | Apr 21, 2014

Photo by Rubyran

If you want a glimpse of hell you needn’t look any further than my inbox. Every day, without fail, I receive dozens of pitches from people that would love to hijack my site to serve their own purposes.

Whether it’s PR firms trying to get me to mention their clients’ crappy products or spammy content marketers pitching horrible and pointless articles to get some SEO juice from a respected site. I’ve seen everything. You might not realize this, but one of my many jobs is to protect you guys from the onslaught of BS the internet is trying to hurl at you.

What’s interesting though is that so many of the guest post pitches I receive rely on exactly the same formula. It goes something like this:

_(insert number)_ Essential _(insert food or nutrient)_ for a Healthy _(insert body part)_

Clearly this formula works on many health and nutrition bloggers, or all the content marketing folks wouldn’t be using it. But it also embodies everything I despise about nutritionism and the misleading health advice we’ve been fed for the past half century.

Though you may think you want to know about 7 Secret Superfoods for Healthy Skin, when has a post like this ever changed your life? Maybe you’ll rationalize eating artichokes a few more times a year, but advice like this isn’t going to make a real dent in your behavior, and therefore won’t make a dent in your health or happiness.

Second, the vast majority of the time the claims in these posts are a far stretch of science. Typically, a food gets labeled as “heart healthy” or “eye healthy” if it contains a nutrient that has at some point been correlated with good health. Yet science has shown us time and again that single nutrients are never able to make or break your likelihood of getting a particular health problem, except in cases of extremely high or low doses (this is a bad thing).

I’ve explained before that “superfood” is actually a marketing term, and that true health can only be attained by creating a lifestyle around healthy habits and nutrient diversity.

Still I take issue with labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy for an even deeper reason. Once a food has been declared either “good” or “bad” in your mind, it becomes subject to the effects of moral licensing.

In the case of a food being declared “heart healthy,” the result is that you will feel virtuous when you eat it. More often than you’d probably care to admit (or even realize), this health halo allows you to justify treating yourself to something indulgent later. Because you’ve earned it. Never mind that this is your fourth cookie of the evening.

Similarly, moralizing a food as healthy subtly shifts you from the Must mindset to the Should mindset. It’s much more effective to eat vegetables, fish, nuts, beans and other nutritious foods because you enjoy them, not because they’re good for you and you should eat them. If you’re trying to “be good” and you succeed by eating a food with a healthy label, the part of you that wants to “be bad” now has a much stronger argument.

Eating blueberries doesn’t make you a good person, and eating brownies doesn’t make you a bad person. But when eating a food makes you feel like a good person, then neglecting your greater aspirations doesn’t sound as bad.

Moral licensing doesn’t do you any favors, but it is still difficult to avoid. People and websites I adore moralize food choices all the time, falsely believing they’re doing you a favor by pointing out the benefits of one food or another.

To stop granting yourself a license to ill try to notice whenever you think of a food as good or bad, and instead remember why you enjoy them and how they will make you feel after eating them. Because only when you make choices based on your core values instead of your natural impulses will you be able to truly upgrade your healthstyle.

What foods do you moralize?

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21 Responses to “Why I’ll Never Tell You to Eat “Heart Healthy” Foods”

  1. Alexandra says:

    I do not moralize food. What a great post. I totally agree with you, whenever I see one of those 10 foods to boost your immunity, or whatever, I do click on it, but I read it with suspicion. To me this has become “hate reading”. You are correct in saying that those kind of posts never change your life. There are far to many of them, and some are contradictory.
    Your wonderful site changed my eating habits. And for this I thank you.

  2. Ashley Miller says:

    This is exactly why I adore your website and loved your book. It does such a disservice to “moralize” foods and focus too much on nutrients instead of the whole food. It also makes nutrition and diet so much more complicated than it needs to be for the average eater.

    You bring such a refreshing balance to the conversation!

  3. Tami says:

    I believe it is about a year ago that I found your website Darya. I am not so sure I ever moralized food as much as categorized it by calories but it is really doing the same thing. It is analyzing food and putting it into a category. I love that Summer Tomato taught me to enjoy food because it is delicious, and good, real, fresh, un processed food actually make me feel more than good. I really do eat what I eat because I love it not because I have to to be “heart healthy”. After a year I find myself craving real whole food. Yesterday for Easter I feasted but I must say what tasted amazing going down left me feeling sluggish and with a slight case of indigestion. Today I couldn’t wait to get back to my black eyed bean salad that was still in my fridge from Friday. (A recipe from your site that is amazing!)

  4. Matt says:

    I think humans in general like to analyze, categorize, prioritize and generally assign a value to data such as nutrition. But it seems that being healthy involves more than just a number, but the relationship each nutrient has to each other and to our bodies. I am continually learning.

    Thanks Darya for this website. This is the first time I have visited and I saved it to my favorites. My favorite line of this article is, “true health can only be attained by creating a lifestyle around healthy habits and nutrient diversity.”

    • Darya Rose says:

      Welcome, Matt. And thank you for the kind words :)

      If you like this one you’ll probably have a lot of fun in the Habits category: http://summertomato.com/category/habits/

      • Matt says:

        So Darya,

        Maybe sometime you could write a blog entry on “What is Healthy”. Is it objective, subjective? Is there a scientific definition for it? Do you just know it when you are there? How far do you have to be away from it to know you are not? etc,etc…

        I suspect my version of ‘healthy’ might be someone else’s borderline and yet maybe healthy is the journey and not the destination. I pull into rest areas occasionally and then I realize that I ‘MUST’ keep on the journey. My goal at this point of my life is to be healthier when I reach 50, then I was when I was 30.

        I apologize if you have written this already. I haven’t been able to read through all of your blogs yet, but I suspect that what you are writing will help me reach my goal.

        Regards,
        Matt

    • Darya Rose says:

      This subject takes an entire chapter of my book, but in a nutshell:

      Healthy = real, unprocessed foods.

      What most people forget though is that what you eat is only one part of the equation. Quality and quantity are just as important, as is how you eat and why you eat. Knowing what’s healthy is easy, it’s the doing it that’s the hard part.

      Darya

  5. Monica says:

    Thanks for always being so damn reasonable. A breath of fresh air on a smoggy Internet.

  6. briana says:

    Excellent. I need to be more aware of my thoughts about certain foods and why I eat them.

  7. Audrey G says:

    Absolutely brilliant Darya!!

    Are you familiar with Paul Rozin’s psychology research regarding culture and attitudes towards food? In a series of cross-cultural surveys, Americans were more likely to associate foods with “health”, the French linked foods to “pleasure”, and the Japanese were somewhere in the middle. As you pointed out, this can works in the opposite direction too e.g.”I eat broccoli because its healthy.” versus “I eat broccoli because it’s yummy!”

    I struggle with the moralization of pasta—thankfully, soba miso is helping my recovery.

    Here’s the abstract to Rozin’s article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10502362

    And Micheal Pollan wrote an awesome New York Times article about this in 2004: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/our-national-eating-disorder/

    I love your book and your blog. Thanks for weeding out the “Superfood” BS!!

  8. Felicity says:

    Yep… I’m trying to free myself from that dysfunctional mindset as we speak. It will take a while, I think. Thanks for your article. When the world is full of ads for processed foods on the one hand and articles about superfoods on the other, and growing up with no real ‘food culture’ of my own, it can be easy to forget what we all by now know to do.

  9. Hana Claire says:

    Finally a blog post about food that isn’t telling me to ‘do this’ and ‘cut out that’ under the guise of ‘helping’! This is so refreshing to read.

  10. Kevin Liu says:

    Darya,

    I’ve never commented on your site before, but I *so* agree with your sentiments in this piece.

    It’s to the point now that when I see food labeled “healthy” or “natural” I don’t want to buy it anymore. Real food doesn’t come with labels.

    On top of that, “heart healthy” is usually a subjective, relative term. Sure, processed cereals can be heart healthy, assuming you eat an otherwise highly processed diet.

    I think it’d be hard to argue that cereal is heart healthy compared to real food.

    Again, thanks for bringing this issue up.

  11. Jeffrey Bunn says:

    Thanks for the article, Darya. It said everything I’ve been thinking about ‘health’ for a long time.

  12. Mindy Rumuly says:

    I love this post especially as many of my Facebook friends post about their new “amazing vitamin-supplement” diets which they claim help to curb their appetites and make them feel like teenagers (my peers are in their late 30′s and mid 40′s)again. One friend reported she feels too good to “work out at the gym” and still sees results on the scale. Oh my.

    Here I am with my (big=5 kids) family eating three healthy and homemade(generous with veggies but well-balanced with protein)meals and enjoying walks on the trail everyday with indulging for birthdays occasionally.

    Thanks Darya for protecting us! I am super excited about your baby (Congrats!)and look forward to hearing how being a (new) parent will affect your perspective here.

  13. Chris says:

    I agree you should not try and moralize foods, but question how foods make you feel. One tool I have found helpful though is keeping a food diary. Then if I eat something that doesn’t make me feel good. I usually will tend to avoid that food next time, or at least ask myself “Is it worth it?”. And sometimes the answer is a resounding “YES!”

  14. I couldn’t agree more to this post. There are no shortcuts to a healthy body and life. It DEFINITELY starts with killing vices and starting good habits. Great post!

  15. Wal Herring says:

    What a great post. You mentioned what I think is the most important first step in creating a ‘healthy diet’ …. How food makes us feel. So simple yet not often considered. Thanks for a great post!

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