Can healthy food make you fat?

11-Jan 2014, by Lee Sandwith

One of the major issues when it comes to nutrition is that there are many different interpretations of what constitutes healthy food. For example, some people are of the opinion that unprocessed, fresh, organic food is healthy; others believe that only low calorie foods are healthy whilst some even believe that there is no such thing as healthy food whatsoever.

So what’s the answer? Can healthy food make you fat?

To find out we’ll need to get back to basics and analyse exactly what healthy means.

What does healthy mean?

what-does-healthy-meanAccording the English dictionary, health is defined as ‘the general condition of body and mind’ and the word ‘healthy’ defines something that ‘promotes health’. These definitions aren’t particularly helpful in our quest as ‘the general condition of body and mind’ doesn’t necessarily have the positive connotation that most people associate with the word ‘health’. As such, in my opinion, the term ‘healthy’ would be better defined as ‘promotes wellness’ as it is much more difficult to misinterpret.

From this follows a couple of key points. First, following the above logic, ‘unhealthy food’ would be best defined as that which is harmful to the body. Second, in the context of nutrition, the term ‘healthy’ has lots of applications beyond how it contributes to weight gain, for example, how food affects things like cholesterol, blood sugar and overall wellbeing.

Essentially, there is much more to it and lots of factors which makes it difficult to judge how healthy certain foods are.

Is there such a thing as ‘healthy food’?

what-is-healthy-foodI’ve read lots of articles which put forward convincing arguments towards there not being such a thing as unhealthy food. One in particular which caught my attention was within an excellent article by Armi Legge, the founder of Evidence Magazine, on Flexible Dieting in which the view expressed is that “there are no specific foods you need to eat to be healthy or lose fat. Food isn’t “bad,” “good,” “healthy,” “unhealthy,” “super,” or anything else. It’s just food”.  In the context of weight management I partially subscribe to this view as it’s not what you eat that counts but how much you eat, or specifically how many calories you consume in relation to what your body needs to function. However, in my opinion, given the wide range of ‘applications’, and that clearly some foods are healthier than others, it’s unhelpful to suggest that no foods are unhealthy.

For me, the defining factor is that some foods have been reported to have the potential to cause cancer. For example, the UK government recently announced that people should limit their intake of red and processed meats following a report from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition which concluded that “high consumers of red and processed meat should consider reducing their intakes because of possible links with a risk of colorectal cancer”. There have been similar claims about lots of other food types such as refined sugar, fried food and even freeze dried coffee which is enough evidence to dispel the myth that there is no such thing as unhealthy food.

At the very least it is undeniable that some foods, in relation to the relevant factor, are healthier than others, whether that’s cholesterol levels, blood sugar or weight gain and, specifically, some foods are more desirable than others when it comes to weight management, for example, considering things like the thermic effect of food.

In my opinion, it would be a much more positive move to provide simple, clear advice on weight loss and nutrition to help people make informed, healthier lifestyles choices rather than confusing people by advising that everything is fair game. This is especially important when it comes to educating children about health, nutrition and wellbeing as it is very confusing to, in one breath, prevent a child from having, say, a chocolate bar, and in another say that there’s no such thing as unhealthy food!

Let’s get back to weight loss

weight-lossIt’s fairly clear that there are ambiguities when it comes to the term ‘healthy food’ and it is not my objective to get into the details of each within this article as the context is specifically whether healthy food can make you gain weight. As I’ve been intimating, this is a slightly misleading question given that it’s almost impossible to have a definitive list of healthy food considering the wide range of factors in play: it’s far too broad a subject. To answer it properly you would need to list pretty much all food types, record the risks and benefits associated with each, then apply a rather sophisticated level of computation to measure the relative impact of each food type.

To further complicate matters there are many foods with have a number of different effects on the body. For example, going back to my earlier example of red meat, you could assume that red meat would fall firmly in the ‘unhealthy food’ category given that it has the potentially cause cancer. However, red meat also brings with it certain benefits, for example, it is reported to increase testosterone levels which is supposed to have a positive impact on maintaining healthy body fat levels.

So is red meat healthy or unhealthy? The answer would be yes and no: I guess healthy in moderation and unhealthy when the dose exceeds a certain threshold. When it comes to weight gain, this logic could be applied to all foods as over a certain threshold any food will lead to weight gain, however, it’s not really the food which is causing the weight gain, it’s the act of overeating.

What about organic food?

is-organic-food-healthyThis article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning organic food as a huge percentage of people class organic food as healthy regardless of what it is. In my opinion this is a major mistake, especially for people looking to lose weight as although organic food may be of a better standard it still contains the same calories as non-organic food. I have too many examples of this to list but one major example which should help to drive this home is refined sugar.

Is refined sugar healthy?

The answer is a resounding NO as it is purely for taste and has little nutritional value: it’s the original empty calorie. But is organic sugar any better for you than normal sugar? Probably as it isn’t treated with pesticides etc but it’s still sugar and still has the same nutritional value as non-organic sugar and it’s still undesirable for anyone looking to lose weight. Organic food will be covered in a completely different article at some point as it’s an extremely interesting subject but for now, the message I want to get across is this: not all organic food is healthy!

Calorie is king!

Bringing things back to weight loss, clearly it is possible to gain weight by eating only ‘healthy food’, however, the definition of the term ‘healthy’ brings with it complexity when it comes to food and nutrition. The simple answer is that weight loss and weight gain are purely down to calorie intake in that if you consume more calories than your body needs you gain weight, and if you eat less calories than your body needs you lose weight.

Essentially, calorie is king when it comes to weight loss and anyone looking to lose weight should understand that this is the fundamental foundation on which any good quality nutrition plan is based. There are undeniably lots of different ways to achieve the same outcome but essentially, if you’re gaining weight, you’re taking on too many calories for your body’s needs so you either need to eat less, exercise more or do both: switching to healthy, organic food just won’t cut it despite any other benefits. Further, some foods are definitely more desirable than others when it comes to weight loss, for example, those which are beneficial in terms of the thermic effect of food.


the-ultimate-guide-showcase-2Clearly the question around what constitutes healthy food is a complex one as there are many different considerations. Some foods are healthier than others and some can be very harmful when it comes to factors such as cholesterol, blood sugar and even disease. However, the question around whether healthy food can make you fat is a simple one: calorie is king so too much of anything, healthy and unhealthy foods alike, will contribute to weight gain.

If you’re looking to lose weight, it’s not that complicated so don’t let anyone confuse you with obscure opinions on what you should and shouldn’t do. The ultimate message is that if you eat a little less and exercise a little more you should be able to easily lose weight with minimum effort.

That said, if you would like further information, or if you need a little bit of help losing weight, you could check out our weight loss eBook, which is a comprehensive guide to weight loss, nutrition and fitness which provides everything you need to lose weight quickly, adopt a healthier lifestyle and make the changes permanent.

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