Unhealthy Health Foods?

What is the least healthy “health food”?

This question immediately gives rise to some others:

  • Healthy for whom?
  • What is the definition of “health food”?

The idea that something can be “least healthy” is based on an assumption that nutritient needs are the same among people, and consistent within individuals. But people can have unique nutritional requirements because of age or physiological state (e.g. pregnancy). This could result in situations where foods that might be less healthy for one person are extremely healthy for another.

Examples:

  • Sesame seeds contain fat but are also an excellent source of copper, calcium, manganese and magnesium. For more information, see: Sesame seeds
  • Chickpeas are also high in minerals, especially molybdenum, and B vitamins. They are relatively low in fat while providing about 7 grams of protein per 1/2 cup serving and that protein supplies the following essential amino acids: isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. The only conditionally essential amino acid not provided by chickpeas is histidine, which is essential for infants, not adults. For more information, see: Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and Protein in Garbanzo Beans
  • Sodium is not, strictly speaking, unhealthy. You have to have some sodium to live. It’s the “dose that makes the poison”, since an excessive sodium intake on a daily basis is what creates salt-related health problems. For more information, see: Sodium: MedlinePlus

A vegan who relies on hummus as a source of dietary protein is not going to gain weight as long as their consumption of hummus does not compromise their caloric balance.

Someone who consumes olives after working out is not going to develop salt-related hypertension as long as their sodium intake does not exceed the amount needed to maintain electrolyte homeostasis.

The healthiest approach to eating is to consume minimally processed whole foods in a diet that emphasizes vegetables, and to go for as much variety as possible. If you do this most of the time, an occasional serving of “least healthy health food”, however you define this, is not likely be very harmful.

This article originally appeared as my answer to a question on Quora.