How do you know which foods are “good for you?” There’s gotta be a better option than just following whatever advice is gracing the cover of this month’s Oprah Magazine, right?
(Don’t worry, the answer to that question is always yes).
But classifying foods as “good” or “bad” can be a tricky business. What’s good for one person might be literal poison to another (think: anaphylactic allergies). So how can you figure out which foods you should be eating (or not eating)? How can you ensure you’re making the right choices for your goals? Is it totally arbitrary?
Not totally! There is a lot of variation between people, though.
In this guide, you’ll learn a bit more about how wide the range of “healthy” and “good” can be from person to person, and why that is. Then, we’ll give you some tools for figuring out how to make the best food choices for your particular situation and goals, with extra tips on how to navigate different types of circumstances.
For the love of all that’s good and holy…
Anytime we mention food, we get a handful of angry emails from people who have very strong beliefs about the “right” way everyone should eat.
To be honest, we don’t care. Everyone’s different, and there’s a million ways to be healthy.
GMB isn’t about telling anyone what they should believe or what they should want. If you are vegan or carnivore or just really, really like mayo, that’s completely fine with us, and we respect your opinions, so long as you don’t try to push them on others.
The Wide Range of Good
Our team at GMB is a really good example how many different ways there are to eat, while feeling well and supporting your physical (and other) goals. While our company is 100% remote, we try to get the team together at least once a year.
As you can probably imagine, getting 22 people under one roof means a pretty extensive grocery list, with all sorts of dietary restrictions to consider.
- most of the company thrives on coffee and needs an endless supply, while at least two team members cannot drink coffee or they’ll get sick
- speaking of coffee, we’ve got to keep the fridge stocked with regular cow’s milk, heavy cream, almond milk, coconut milk, and oat milk to fit each person’s particular abilities to process different types of dairy and non-dairy alternatives
- we’ve got a few people on staff who can’t eat gluten, while others feel great no matter how much bread they eat
- in the mornings, Jarlo will be cooking up bacon for 2/3rds of the team, while the other 1/3 are either vegetarians, non-pig eaters, or keep kosher
- a couple of team members don’t drink at all, while others take strong stances in the beer vs. wine vs. bourbon vs. tequila vs. gin debate (we basically keep the peace by buying each person his or her own bottle ;))
- our grocery list includes a good balance of fruits and veggies; meats, eggs, and other proteins; and essentials like gelato, Pop Tarts, and peanut butter cups
You could take an extreme stance and try to eliminate all possible allergens or food sensitivities from your diet… but where’s the fun in that? Our staff members are pretty mindful of what they eat and how different foods make them feel and function, so any restrictions they’ve listed are the result of serious time and effort to figure out what works best for them.
And that’s really what you have to do to figure out what foods you should be eating. Take some time to explore how different foods make you feel, and start to find trends.
If you always feel crummy after eating bread, maybe you have an issue with wheat or gluten. Or maybe you just need to pair that with some more protein and see how that changes things. There may be certain foods that you feel totally fine eating once a week, but more than that is not a good idea. Other foods may be great for you right after a training session, but not before.
Sometimes, it’s not about how a food makes you feel, but rather, how your genes react with certain foods. For example, some people can eat high levels of saturated fats without any impact on their bloodwork, while others can only tolerate small amounts of saturated fats before their cholesterol and other blood markers get out of whack.
It takes trial and error, a considerable amount of introspection, and in many cases working with a physician, to figure out what foods do and don’t work for you.
Just don’t fall into the trap of moralizing foods, seeing any food as inherently “bad” or “good”—what’s bad for you is great for another person, and vice versa. It’s all about finding the foods that fit your body best.
How to Evaluate Foods
Okay, but what if you don’t necessarily feel good or bad after eating particular foods? Or you’re not so in tune with how your body reacts to certain foods? There are lots of other ways to evaluate the value of the food choices you make.
But before we go into these different tools for making food choices, know that these are just some ideas we curated from our team members, and we are not saying you should be using tools like this every time you take a bite of food.
Please don’t do that.
It’s a good idea, especially if you have specific physical goals, to have some tools in your toolbox, but don’t let those take over your life. Sometimes, the “right” choice goes against all the rules.
The First Bite to Last Bite Test
How does your enjoyment and satisfaction differ from your first bite of a food to your last bite? Often, a food may taste great and be exactly what you wanted/needed with the first bite, but by the last bite, you’re not feeling your best. Maybe it’s just too rich or not the right balance of nutrients, and you’re left feeling less-than-great.
That may just mean eating less of that food next time (only eating it as long as it continues to feel good until the last bite). Or it might mean that’s not the best food for you to be eating regularly.
Jarlo likes to say that his favorite foods to eat are those that make him excited to be hungry again so he can eat more of them. That’s a far cry from feeling ALL THE REGRETS by the time you get to the last bite!
Color, Taste, Texture, Freshness
This way of evaluating food mostly applies to fresh, real foods (as opposed to packaged or preserved foods), so it’s one way of working higher quality foods into your diet. If you’re mostly choosing foods that are colorful, tasty, have a lot of texture, and are fresh, you’re obviously going to err on the side of fewer packaged foods. That’s certainly not a bad thing to emphasize!
For Ryan, this is a big one, especially because of all the raw fish he eats in Japan—without these characteristics, he could be risking food poisoning. So, that just brings another perspective to this particular tool.
Calories vs. Satiety (Caloric Density)
If fat loss is a goal of yours, this is an important idea to keep in mind. Foods that are high in calories but leave you feeling hungry pretty quickly after eating them are not going to be the best options to help you lose weight.
Some people will try to eat foods that have a high caloric value per unit of volume (think high calories in a small amount of food) and just try to keep their calories low overall. They reason that the only thing that matters for weight loss is the total caloric intake. The problem with this reasoning is that, often, calorically dense foods, like donuts, ice cream, etc. don’t create satiety, so you get hungry again shortly after eating them. This causes you to walk around hungry for much of the day.
You may be able to maintain this for a few days, but nobody can maintain prolonged hunger over the long haul. This is why eating mostly food with low caloric density is usually the way to go for fat loss. As a rule of thumb, foods that have a high water content have lower caloric density and foods with low water content have high caloric density.
A good example of this is a baked potato versus potato chips. An equal volume of baked potato will have many fewer calories than the same volume of potato chips. This is partially because of the oil added to the potato chips, but the lack of water in the potato chips is a big factor, which is why even baked potato chips have a much higher caloric density than a baked potato.
This is not to say that you should never eat anything with high caloric density if you’re trying to lose fat. It just means that you will probably have a lower chance of success if most of your food is calorically dense. The bottom line is if fat loss is your goal, you’ll want to choose mostly foods that are not very calorically dense.
This concept is closely related to caloric density, but is a bit different. For our purposes, when we refer to nutrient density, we are referring to micronutrient density. Micronutrients are things like vitamins, minerals, and other compounds found in small amounts of food (we are taking micrograms or milligrams as opposed to grams).
Foods that have a high micronutrient density are foods that have a high amount of micronutrients per unit of volume. Most fruits and vegetables are nutrient dense whereas foods like pretzels and popcorn are not.
For general health and performance, it’s a good idea for much of your food to be nutrient dense. Again, this does not mean that you should never indulge in a hot fudge sundae. It just means that you probably don’t need to be eating a hot fudge sundae for breakfast every day.
Suitability as a Staple
More often than not, the foods that are touted as being the “healthiest” are also the least practical for the majority of people. As Andy says, “Who’s got a fridge full of acai, kale, and cold-pressed almond oil? I don’t care how healthy something is if I can’t make it a part of my regular diet.” So, for this tool, you may want to think about which foods are most practical and useful for you to keep around the house.
If you have to go to a specialty store that’s completely out of your way and spend an obscene amount of money on a particular food, that’s probably not something that should be a staple for you. There are always better options.
Ease of Preparation
Some people absolutely love cooking, no matter how complicated the recipe or how much time it takes. For the other 99% of the population, it’s really important to choose foods that will be relatively easy to prepare. Otherwise, those grand plans you had when you were at the grocery store will lead to those complicated-to-prepare foods rotting in your fridge, while you turn to fast food in a pinch.
Maybe you just need the right tools to make food preparation easier. Or maybe you just need to buy different foods that are easier to make. For example, you may put yourself in a much better position by having a crock pot or Instant Pot to make food preparation easier, while also having some foods around that require little to no preparation at all for those times when even throwing some food in the crock pot is too much work.
General Food Guidelines to Help You Navigate (Almost) Any Situation
You probably know that you need some balance of protein, fats, and carbs—the question is what that balance looks like. Every “diet guru” out there is going to tell you something different. We’re not gurus (of the diet or exercise variety—none of us looks good in long, flowing robes); we prefer relying on good ‘ole common sense.
In an ideal world, most meals will look something like this:
Obviously, there are exceptions, and this particular balance may not work for some people, but for most people this is a pretty good ideal to aim for. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and different circumstances will call for different things. Let’s look at the most common scenarios.
By definition, most days are going to fall into this category. This is where the 80/20 rule comes into play—80% of your days can be categorized as “regular,” while the other 20% are anything but. Think of your typical Tuesday, whatever that looks like for you.
On regular days, it’s a good idea to aim for the balance of macronutrients shown above for most meals, and to use any combination of the evaluation tools we talked about in the last section, to make sure most of the foods you’re choosing work for your needs and goals. Of course, you’re not going to hit that balance every time—perfection is never the goal!—but having some general guidelines can help you to be less aimless in how you eat.
One thing to note is that a regular day for you may be completely irregular for someone else. Josh likes to contrast one client of his who was going on a big trip for the first time in over a decade, with another client who spends 2-3 weeks each month traveling. For the former, traveling is anything but regular and the “regular days” guidelines can be tossed out the window during that special time; for the latter, travel days ARE regular days. So, just remember that you have to know your own personal circumstances and plan around those.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to changing the way they eat, is expecting that they’ll be able to keep up those changes all the time, even when they’re in totally unusual circumstances.
Josh wrote a lot about this in his social eating article. Don’t expect yourself to follow the same guidelines when it’s your anniversary dinner, or you’re going out to celebrate a promotion at your job. If you’re going to Italy for the first time and you never travel, depriving yourself of delicious Italian food for the sake of “sticking to your plan” is just dumb.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you should go hog-wild every time you have a special event come up (although it can sometimes mean that, and that’s totally fine). In the social eating article I just mentioned, Josh provides some really good strategies for enjoying those special events and circumstances to the fullest, without getting yourself completely off track. You can have your cake, eat it too, and not have to feel shitty the next day.
Eating Out vs. Eating at Home
Similar to special events, things are going to be different when you’re eating at a restaurant vs. eating at home. But that doesn’t mean all guidelines have to go out the window, especially if you eat out quite often.
Unless you’re eating at the greasiest Mexican restaurant in town, most restaurants will have some options that can work for you. If you order a chicken or steak or salmon dish that comes with a side of vegetables and rice, there’s your delicious, balanced meal right there!
So much of this is about making mindful choices. For instance, when the waiter brings bread to the table, you can decide if you want to skip it and have carbs with your meal, or if you really love the bread at this restaurant, you may decide to eat the bread and ask for two vegetable sides instead. None of the guidelines you follow should be set in stone, and having key skills in your arsenal will help you to navigate any scenario you may encounter.
A Successful Eating Plan is All About Common Sense and Skills
Much like crying in baseball, there’s no room for dogma in a sustainable eating plan. All diets work for some time and for some people, but ultimately, they don’t work long term for the vast majority of people.
Instead, you can make smart and flexible choices about the foods you eat, using the tools we shared in this article.
When you pair a sensible understanding of food choices with guidelines and skills to help you navigate those choices throughout the day, week, month, year, and for many years to come—well then, you’re in business!
Our new Eating Skills coaching experience will teach you to build skills around eating that will completely change your relationship to food, and get you off the diet rollercoaster. It’s not a diet or a temporary thing; it’s a lifelong approach to help you reach and maintain your goals.