Nevermind all of the hard biochemistry and nutrition therapy tests I took to become a dietitian – this question is by far the hardest one to answer. But I get asked it all the time, so I have to get good at answering.
First I need to carefully ask “why do you want to know” without coming off as defensive, because in their mind they’re thinking “um you’re a dietitian and I want to lose weight, you weirdo”. If I’m lucky they’re not already planning how to avoid their next appointment. But understanding where the question is coming from is crucial to giving a helpful answer, because the answer will change depending on the context.
“Is this good for me?” is a really complicated question because our health, food choices, and weight cannot be simplified to a yes or no. The answer will change based on a person’s current health, genetics, eating behavior, culture, situation, access to food, mental health, and goals.
For example, for a person with diabetes, going through the drive through may result in higher blood sugar after the meal. Objectively speaking, there are more nutritious options available. But what if this individual didn’t have money for groceries this week, and they could feed their family off the dollar menu? What if they travel frequently for work and have been staying in a hotel all week without access to consistent refrigeration? The fast food would be better than nothing.
Once I figure out where the question is coming from, then we can start brainstorming:
- What would it mean for you to eat this way?
- How would this fit into your current routine?
- Do you want to make this change?
- If relevant, we can discuss the nutrition of the food being discussed, and how it would affect their health.
Feels like a long answer to what started as a simple question.
As a dietitian, I fully believe in the power of food, but I also appreciate its limitations. A single food will not make-or-break our health. The human body is a complex system with many “checks and balances” in place to maintain homeostasis. In practice, I have found that small, manageable lifestyle changes can result in notable improvements in cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and, in certain cases, weight change. Maybe extreme changes would result in greater improvements. But if you can’t sustain those changes, or they’re making you miserable, is it really worth pursuing? I would argue “no”. But I also appreciate that some people need to go that route before they find a happy medium. You do you.
So, when you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself this series of questions:
- What have I heard about this food, and from who?
- What is their background?
- Is it oversimplifying health and nutrition?
- How do I feel about this information?
- Am I hungry and/or do I want to eat this food?
- Will this food help me reach my health goals?
Being a dietitian (or health provider in general) is about asking a lot of questions and considering the whole person and their health goals. A one-size-fits-all, i.e. one that says “eat this, don’t eat this”, only further promotes the elusiveness of the “perfect diet”.