With the diversity in our food and the knowledge of macro and micro-nutrients we have at our disposal, it can be extremely puzzling to decide which foods to consume in order to obtain the nutrients sought after. No matter the food item, every single nutritionist, registered dietitian, health coach, fitness trainer, doctor, nurse, holistic practitioner, and any medical professional will hold a different position.
Despite this factor, most people can reach a consensus on many facts regarding diet. Fruits contain natural sugar–thing is, certain types contain more sugar than others as well as more fiber than others. Same with vegetables, roots, tubers, and stems. Being plants, fruits and vegetables are primarily composed of water and stored carbohydrates that are made from photosynthesis, but depending on the plant, will have a different nutritional profile and effect on the body. On the other hand, meat is also mostly water, but contains a greater amount of protein and fat than carbohydrates and fiber because the meat, being abundant in muscle and fat, lacks the glycogen stores to supply them. Regardless, within the little realms of food groups, there will always be disagreements as to what foods to eat for certain nutrients.
According to the American FDA regulations, labeled food products that possess the “good source of” claim must contain 10-19% of the standard daily value of classified nutrient. This percentage may work for certain nutrients, but not necessarily for others in accordance to many factors. Nevertheless, as much as most readers would hate to receive this answer, the truth of a matter is that whether or not any food is a good source or bad source of a nutrient all depends on the food’s nutrient content, the efficiency of that nutrient post-consumption, as well as your personal needs, health goals and dietary preferences.
The real question is, what classifies “good” from “bad”? Quantity? Quality? Diet-friendliness? The rest of the nutrients that come along with the food? There really is no guideline, but most people abide by quantity. However, just because a food has a lot of something doesn’t necessarily mean it should be recommended as a healthy food.
Surimi, known as imitation crab, for example, has a very high source of protein per 100 grams for a very low calorie count. With that being said, surimi is a highly processed product that can include unwanted ingredients such as MSG and other artificial ingredients, which is why most health experts do not recommend consuming it. On the other hand, cooked lentils, being a much more nutrient-dense food, has only nine grams of protein per 100 grams. Chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and any other kind of bean except for edamame and soy beans will have similarly lower protein counts than that of surimi, despite containing much more micronutrients and fiber.
This doesn’t make surimi a bad source of protein necessarily. Being cheap, convenient, palatable, versatile, and calorically dilute, it has its positives. Protein powder can arguably be in the same boat, depending on the brand and material ingredients. Conventional protein powders lack essential nutrients besides protein, calcium, and maybe iron, and are loaded with artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and other additives that increase sodium and sugar content. Regardless, they still pack in more than plenty of complete protein that absorbs quickly in the body and–again, depending on the brand–can be cheap, convenient, and tasty. Personally, I use vegan protein powder on a regular basis, because every serving I purchase is reasonably priced, versatile, healthy, convenient, and delicious. However, I am relatively picky with brands and always opt for anything with as minimally refined ingredients as possible.
What happens if we decide to flow by nutrient quality? By doing so, we will base all of our energy sources on whole foods from the Earth and drastically reduce and even eliminate anything refined and/or processed. As we all know, complex carbohydrates will provide a different thermic effect than simple carbohydrates, usually digesting a lot more slowly and providing an underwhelming effect on blood sugar levels. For optimal health, this is absolutely true. However, for weight loss, fat loss, or even muscle gain, is it really?
As much as we hate to hear it, losing weight is a math equation–a highly complicated one with too many confounding variables, yet still a math equation. Not taking into account physical absorption and thermogenesis, processed foods can still be “good” sources of nutrients, just as much as wholesome foods, if we were to follow quality rather than quantity. One of the most common comparisons that is used throughout the community of flexible dieting is the side-by-side nutrition profiles of carbohydrates in brown rice and white rice. As shown, the two are pretty much neck in neck when it comes to total carbohydrates and calories (this is excluding any micronutrient comparisons as well as everything else). No wonder you see so many dietitians, fitness instructors, personal trainers, and nutritionists consume white rice on a regular basis, yet know so much about optimal health!
As mentioned before, the diversity of diets that we can follow will have differing stances on certain foods being a good or bad source of a nutrient. People with a severe fructose intolerance cannot consume many nutrient-dense fruits and carbohydrate-rich foods, whereas people with a nut allergy can miss out on an entire food group of healthy fat-packed sources. Ketogenic individuals will rely on spinach and sesame seeds as their non-heme iron powerhouses, whereas people who follow a carb-rich diet may rely on potatoes and chickpeas. Nevertheless, spinach, sesame seeds, potatoes, and chickpeas alike can be part of a healthy, balanced, and colorful diet. Just using ketogenic people as an example, they may not be able to function as optimally on carbohydrate-dense foods because of possible glucose inefficiency or allergies. Does that make potatoes and chickpeas terrible sources of iron? Of course not. They are just unsuitable for those on a ketogenic diet due to their high fiber and carbohydrate content, which are extremely beneficial for others!
Lastly, the target nutrient isn’t the only main variable to consider. People with very specific food goals may want to kill eight birds with one stone (not literally, of course) by picking foods and/or products that will possess a high quantity of multiple nutrients. Again, protein powder serves as one of the best examples that would combat this factor. Depending on brands and ingredients, protein powder is often incredibly rich in protein content (and maybe one or two other nutrients such as calcium for dairy protein or fiber for plant protein), but is relatively low in other essential nutrients unless if infused with superfoods. One can easily pack in 20+ grams of protein with one scoop, but it would generally be more efficient to do the same through a serving of tofu, one-and-a-half cups of beans, or a serving of meat and/or eggs. Not only that, these whole foods contain essential nutrients (i.e. vitamin A, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, calcium, vitamin D, etc.) that are not often found in protein powder.
If eliminating all general consensuses, no food can be qualified as a better source of one or more nutrients than others so easily. Every single person has a different body that will require its own necessities and perform its own functionalities. Any food can be a good or bad source of almost any nutrient, but it is merely a matters of playing comparisons and understanding your body. Some people can thrive on grains as a primary source of carbs, while others would prefer fruit, root vegetables, tubers, potatoes, and beans. Certain individuals can digest animal proteins more sufficiently than plant protein. That doesn’t mean that one type of source is more superior than the other.
Just because a chicken breast has more protein per ounce than beans doesn’t automatically classify beans as a terrible source than protein. Despite the fact that cereal or a slice of bread is processed, both foods have easily digestible carbohydrates and fiber, plus they can even provide fortified nutrients that most of us are deficient in, such as vitamin D and iron. People who are bulking will not rely on the same staples as people who are cutting since calorie and macronutrient ratios will differ. In short, evaluate your personal health goals, your nutrient requirements, and your relationship with food to figure out what works best for you! But if there is one MAJOR factor we can agree on, it’s that we all have foods that benefit our bodies as well as others for our souls. I mean, sweet potatoes contain carbohydrates, but so do vegan waffles. 😉