there is no such thing as “good for you”

Q: Is (a particular food) good for you?

A: Argh. I know you are asking a quick yes/no question, but I can’t answer in good conscience with anything but an essay.

First off, the whole question of whether something is good for you is about the relationship between you and the thing. Goodness does not reside in the object itself. A diet of nothing but eucalyptus leaves isn’t good for koalas because eucalyptus leaves are GOOD, but because the koala is a koala. The relationship between koala and eucalyptus is good. There are certainly things that are bad for everyone all the time, but I don’t think there is any food that is good for everyone all the time. Why’s that? Well, there are a few reasons.

Every individual is unique. Check out this amazing illustration of real human stomachs from a book called The Wonderful World Within You by Dr Roger J Williams.

Look at that diversity! How different were these people’s experiences of digestion! I use this picture a lot when I am teaching. I think it gives a really clear visual impression of just how much variation there is in anatomy and physiology. As different as our noses and hair textures are, so are our organs. And on a molecular level, we are more diverse yet. It’s no wonder then, that different people can react so very differently to the same food.

What’s more, “you” are an ecology, a system composed of many parts, coordinated in a complex rhythm. You have shifting needs. Even if something is good for you at one moment, it
may exactly wrong a few hours later. Timing can be just as important as what the food actually is.

I think when we take food seriously as medicine, it’s important to keep contraindications in mind. It honors the power of food to acknowledge that it can harm. The current nutritional superstar, kale, is contraindicated if someone has bleeding problems or is about to get surgery. Cacao can exacerbate fibrocystic breast pain and herpes flares. Fermented foods and bone broth contribute to histamine load, which can cause symptoms for people with a sensitivity. Virtually any food can cause allergic symptom in someone.

Also, any one food becomes “bad for you” when eaten to excess. There’s a danger in deciding that certain foods are your “good for me” foods and relying on them too heavily. The most important aspect of a healthy diet is VARIETY. And that variety needs to be eaten in the right quantity to be it’s most nutritious.

I know this is a lot more to think about than a simple yes/no response. I hope I haven’t left you overwhelmed or demoralized. What’s important to remember here is that you are the best expert on your own body. Pay attention to what works for you, and don’t let anyone else tell you that something is good for you when you can feel that it is not!

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