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Why I’ll Never Tell You to Eat “Heart Healthy” Foods

Why I’ll Never Tell You to Eat “Heart Healthy” Foods

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If you want a glimpse of hell you needn’t look any further than my inbox. Every day, without fail, I receive dozens of pitches from people that would love to hijack my site to serve their own purposes.

Whether it’s PR firms trying to get me to mention their clients’ crappy products or spammy content marketers pitching horrible and pointless articles to get some SEO juice from a respected site. I’ve seen everything. You might not realize this, but one of my many jobs is to protect you guys from the onslaught of BS the internet is trying to hurl at you.

What’s interesting though is that so many of the guest post pitches I receive rely on exactly the same formula. It goes something like this:

_(insert number)_ Essential _(insert food or nutrient)_ for a Healthy _(insert body part)_

Clearly this formula works on many health and nutrition bloggers, or all the content marketing folks wouldn’t be using it. But it also embodies everything I despise about nutritionism and the misleading health advice we’ve been fed for the past half century.

Though you may think you want to know about 7 Secret Superfoods for Healthy Skin, when has a post like this ever changed your life? Maybe you’ll rationalize eating artichokes a few more times a year, but advice like this isn’t going to make a real dent in your behavior, and therefore won’t make a dent in your health or happiness.

Second, the vast majority of the time the claims in these posts are a far stretch of science. Typically, a food gets labeled as “heart healthy” or “eye healthy” if it contains a nutrient that has at some point been correlated with good health. Yet science has shown us time and again that single nutrients are never able to make or break your likelihood of getting a particular health problem, except in cases of extremely high or low doses (this is a bad thing).

I’ve explained before that “superfood” is actually a marketing term, and that true health can only be attained by creating a lifestyle around healthy habits and nutrient diversity.

Still I take issue with labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy for an even deeper reason. Once a food has been declared either “good” or “bad” in your mind, it becomes subject to the effects of moral licensing.

In the case of a food being declared “heart healthy,” the result is that you will feel virtuous when you eat it. More often than you’d probably care to admit (or even realize), this health halo allows you to justify treating yourself to something indulgent later. Because you’ve earned it. Never mind that this is your fourth cookie of the evening.

Similarly, moralizing a food as healthy subtly shifts you from the Must mindset to the Should mindset. It’s much more effective to eat vegetables, fish, nuts, beans and other nutritious foods because you enjoy them, not because they’re good for you and you should eat them. If you’re trying to “be good” and you succeed by eating a food with a healthy label, the part of you that wants to “be bad” now has a much stronger argument.

Eating blueberries doesn’t make you a good person, and eating brownies doesn’t make you a bad person. But when eating a food makes you feel like a good person, then neglecting your greater aspirations doesn’t sound as bad.

Moral licensing doesn’t do you any favors, but it is still difficult to avoid. People and websites I adore moralize food choices all the time, falsely believing they’re doing you a favor by pointing out the benefits of one food or another.

To stop granting yourself a license to ill try to notice whenever you think of a food as good or bad, and instead remember why you enjoy them and how they will make you feel after eating them. Because only when you make choices based on your core values instead of your natural impulses will you be able to truly upgrade your healthstyle.

What foods do you moralize?

Originally published April 21, 2014.

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