Is there such a thing as good food and bad food? Do foods have moral values? Isn’t junk food bad for you? Isn’t there such a thing as a good calorie and a bad calorie?
You’ve probably seen these questions addressed online at one point or another, with most of the answers leading to “yes”. Yes, junk food is bad. Yes, there are differences in the kinds of calories we eat. Why do people say this? Because it’s easy to make calories the villain. Everyone thinks that calories are bad and that the fewer calories we eat, the healthier we are. We’ve gone so far down this rabbit hole of “calories = the devil” that we’ve forgotten what the science says.
Macronutrients and micronutrients
Let’s dive into some basics really quick. Aside from water content, food contains two substances: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macros are the more common nutrients that you hear about in the fitness world: protein, fat, and carbohydrates (and sometimes alcohol). Micronutrients consist of everything else: vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. A calorie is a measurement. More specifically, a calorie is a unit of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water up 1 °C. It’s not a little thing that “crawls into your closet and sews your clothes smaller every night.”
So is there such a thing as a good calorie and a bad calorie? Short answer: no. This concept is an oversimplification that has been very easily spread across the internet (as most things are). It’s misinformation that I would like to clear up in this post.
As you understand, both macros and micronutrients are important when it comes to fitness and health. But not all foods contain balanced amounts of both macros and micronutrients, right? Based on their macros and micronutrient content, we can then categorize our foods into two groups: density (calorie-dense) and volume (nutrient-dense) foods:
Density foods: These are foods that are usually higher in calories and offer low amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. They are usually processed and/or contain high amounts of fat or carbs. They’re high-energy foods and are great for providing necessary macronutrients and/or satisfying a common craving.
Volume foods: These foods are usually lower in calories and offer substantial amounts of micronutrients. These foods are usually in their “whole” state and consist of fruits, vegetables, and grains. They’re usually high in water content and great for supplying your body with necessary micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals and fibrous “bulk” that helps make you feel full. Feeling full = volume.
When consumed together in moderation, and combined with daily movement, you can expect to see important changes in your body, both to your physique and your health in general.
How can I learn to balance my density and volume foods?
A good example of balancing calorie-dense and nutrient-dense foods comes from the IIFYM diet. IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) likes to focus on the macro content of foods first and foremost since they are the building blocks of the body. IIFYM dieters have a set amount of macros to eat for the day. They can get them from any foods that they choose, whether it be a candy bar or an apple. The IIFYM “bro dieters” will tell you that you can eat anything you want as long as it fits within your macros. Your macros are calculated based on your goals and your current body stats like weight, height, age, etc.
Good IIFYM dieters know the importance of micronutrients and the role they play in good health. They choose a majority of their macros from fresh, whole foods like lean meats, veggies, fruits, and grains. In doing so, they obtain a lot of valuable micronutrients for their bodies. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t eat some ice cream and pizza to hit their calorie intake for the day, too! Good IIFYM dieters know that they need to incorporate both calorie-dense and nutrient-dense foods into their diet in order to maintain good health, stable energy levels, and a strong physique.
In my opinion, IIFYM is the only kind of “diet” I can support (if it works for my clients and they aren’t obsessive over numbers, otherwise it’s considered a no-go). It can help one learn about the macros and micronutrient content of the foods that they are currently consuming. They can then make adjustments based on their goals. And IIFYM doesn’t mandate cutting out entire food groups! Everything is okay to eat, as it should be. If a client can learn from this kind of data and not let it intrude upon a normal, healthy lifestyle, it can be very beneficial.
There really are no “good” or “bad” foods. All foods have an appropriate time and place for consumption. It’s just up to you to decide when and how much to eat based on your own body’s reactions and progress based on your goals.
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