There’s Something Rank About Ranking Our Foods

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Registered dietitians and nutrition scientists have a somewhat complicated history of being a bit … well … critical of the food you may (or may not) be eating. Sometimes it goes too far, and the knowledge we have about food becomes too objective. This over-analysis of nutrient composition overlooks what food is also meant to do: provide nourishment, satisfaction and joy.

Since becoming an RD, I have taken care not to participate in food shame and instead work to debunk the click-bait articles posted all over the internet. Recently, I’ve seen quite a few articles supposedly highlighting the most nutritious foods on the planet. And they frustrate me. For a few reasons.

While I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to consider the nutrient composition of foods, it’s not the full story. Food is more than the nutrients they contain, and people have individual tastes, preferences and tolerances that need to be taken into account. Here are three reasons why we should stop ranking our foods.

Allergies and disease states are real.

Individuals with diabetes are more conscious of their carbohydrate intake. Those with diverticulosis don’t consume many nuts or seeds. Those with celiac disease can’t consume gluten. Some people are allergic to dairy, peanuts, shellfish and many other foods. There are individual allergies and disease states that can greatly impact what someone can or cannot eat. One person’s list of the 100 healthiest foods is going to be different from yours or mine. It’s impossible to make great blanket statements about food without first considering someone’s nutrition and disease history, preference and tolerances.

Food is more than just nutrients.

These lists rank foods by their nutrient composition, which is relevant but not the only factor to consider when choosing foods. There’s a difference between fullness and satisfaction — if you ate two cups of vegetables, you might be full, but I doubt you’re satisfied. Macronutrients pair well all together, so it’s hard to rank foods in isolation without considering what you’d eat with them. There are also some foods that certain people prefer over others. If you tried to tell someone who hates almonds that they have to eat almonds to be healthy, that person might face some anxiety or discomfort while eating. Think of a healthy food you really, genuinely dislike. If you were told to consistently eat that food, would you be happy? Probably not.

Your relationship with food may influence the way your body processes certain foods.

The way I look at pizza is probably different from the way someone else does. If you’re worried about your weight or fearful of certain foods, you may feel anxious when you look at a calorie-rich food, whereas someone who is comfortable with all foods and sees them as energy might be excited about them. There’s some research that your mind’s reaction to food can influence your body’s digestion of that food. Essentially, if you are anxious about the food you’re eating or you happen to be anxious while eating, it may influence digestive pain or discomfort.

Overall, there are too many confounding variables when it comes to food to make a list as general as the “healthiest foods on the planet.” Food is more than calories and nutrients — it’s tradition, it’s preference and it’s different for everyone. Focus on the foods your body prefers and feels energized from after eating instead of what someone tells you to eat. As long as you’re incorporating a wide range of lean proteins, whole grains, healthy unsaturated fats and fruits and veggies, you’ll be just fine.