By Ben Coomber – Nutritionist, Health & Performance Coach
I was recently asked to comment on a blog post/article which was promoting the idea that humans don’t need to eat meat to survive, and while I was happy to do that (I’m always happy to help folk place things in context/understand them), I have to admit I did a little bit of an involuntary sigh first.
In my eyes, that blog shouldn’t really need writing – of course we can survive without meat. I’m not saying that we should or shouldn’t, but it’s fairly obvious that we can survive without any one specific food just fine by getting our nutrients elsewhere. Your body is pretty agnostic when it comes to the foods that you eat; what matters are the nutrients and other things within.
But the thing that caused me to get all exasperated wasn’t just that; the main thing that led me toward writing this piece was a technique used to make the author’s point. A technique that I see on social media ALL OF THE TIME from fitness professionals.
Food comparisons – Comparing one food to another
In the blog it said “A serving of beans has more protein than a chicken drumstick”, which was the most patently stupid thing I’ve read in at least 6 or 7 hours. After all, how big is a serving of beans? And with that considered we need to ask whether a chicken drumstick is “a serving”? Because if it’s not (and it isn’t), then that’s an unfair comparison. It would be like comparing a serving of Bran flakes and a single garden pea for fibre content.
But the problem wasn’t just the inappropriateness of the comparison, it’s that comparing foods in these terms misses the point entirely because people don’t eat single foods.
- They lead a lifestyle
- Within that lifestyle they eat a diet
- That diet is made up of meals and snacks
- Those meals and snacks are made out of foods
Taking two particular foods out of the context of someone’s entire lifestyle and comparing them is basically the same as taking a brick and a bit of wire out of a house and trying to determine which one is better. It ENTIRELY depends on what you’re looking to achieve with the item in your hand, and it also entirely depends on literally everything else you do when you’re building a house.
Unless they actually poison you, single food choices don’t really make all that much difference to your health or body composition. What matters is the sum of all of the food choices you make over an extended period of time.
Is Greek yoghurt better than natural yoghurt? Well, what does the rest of your diet look like? Without that information it’s literally impossible to say because it depends on your protein intake, your carbohydrate intake, your fat intake, your lactose tolerance, your appetite, your preference, and the meal you’re trying to make.
Greek yoghurt makes a better Tatziki but it doesn’t pour well. It’s also higher in protein but if you’ve got enough protein elsewhere in your diet that’s not all that important…
The other side of this problem is that because the person who is making the comparison is in complete control of the narrative, they get to choose the dimensions along which you compare the foods. This results in them basically being able to reach whatever conclusion they want.
Monster Energy Ultra has 500% of your daily B12 and almost zero calories per serving, whereas broccoli doesn’t have any B12 and contains about 45kcal per 150g serving, so Monster Energy Ultra is better for you than broccoli.
If food comparison logic works then there is absolutely nothing wrong with the above, and you can pretty much do this with whatever food you want. A Snickers bar has more fast acting carbohydrate to fuel your muscles than steak does, so a Snickers bar is better for you than steak.
Even when you make seemingly appropriate food comparisons the whole idea falls flat when you think about it: Dark chocolate has less sugar than milk chocolate so it’s better. What if my requirements allow for the sugar and so this one dimension doesn’t make a difference? What if I simply don’t like dark chocolate?
The only time food comparisons make sense is when they’re directly and thoroughly compared without comment, so no saying or implying that X or Y is better, just “this is what is in these foods”.
It’s entirely fair to put Greek and Natural yoghurt next to each other, list the nutritional value, and then allow people to make decisions based on this information within the context of everything else they do. This is simply being informative.
This is rarely what I see, however – usually it’s “X is the better choice because…” either stated or heavily implied.
But this kind of judgement can only REALLY be done within a person’s own life, in a specific situation, when they look at everything else within their diet. Only then is someone able to decide whether they should opt for the crisps with 160kcal per bag or the crisps with 88kcal per bag, or whether they should choose the Monster Energy or the Broccoli
Because you don’t eat foods, you lead a lifestyle which contains a diet which is made up of meals and snacks which are comprised of foods, and looking at individual choices without taking the rest of the situation into account is much like looking at a tree rather than a forest.
In fact, I think there’s a common phrase about that…
Visit Ben’s Website here https://bencoomber.com/