Food and Behaviour Research

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Is the “there is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets” argument helpful?

By Elaine Watson


The food industry will no doubt be delighted by the latest 'position statement' from the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - because as this commentary highlights, it plays straight into the hands of the 'junk food' producers by claiming that there is no such thing as a 'bad food', only bad diets.

No one can seriously dispute the fact that what ultimately matters for health is the overall diet, rather than any individual foods or drinks. However, this kind of statement provides the perfect gift to producers of distinctly unhealthy foods and drinks, who will 'spin' it to their advantage, and use it to keep resisting any attempts by government to regulate or tax their products.  

Professor Marion Nestle is a highly respected academic who knows all too well how conflicts of interest can distort supposed public health messages.  She is to be commended for calling to attention the real implications of this kind of 'position statement', along with the fact that the  Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics receives generous support from the food industry.

See: Frieland-Graves & Nitzke, Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: total diet approach to healthy eating, J Acad Nutr Diet, Feb 2013. 

11 Feb 2013 - FoodNavigator USA

A new position statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) which can be paraphrased as “there is no such thing as good and bad foods, only good and bad diets” is eminently sensible, but will play into the hands of 'junk' food companies opposed to any government intervention in their industry, claims one academic.

The paper – published in the February issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – says that “Labelling specific foods in an overly simplistic manner as 'good foods' and 'bad foods' is not only inconsistent with the total diet approach, but it can cause many people to abandon efforts to make dietary improvements”.

It adds: “classification of specific food is good or bad is overly simplistic and can foster unhealthy eating behaviours.”

However, this argument has repeatedly been used by the food industry to justify its opposition to any government interference in the formulation, distribution or promotion of 'junk' foods and beverages, said Marion Nestlé, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University.

While it is perfectly reasonable to argue that occasional treats can be part of a healthy balanced diet, she told FoodNavigator-USA, there is “no question (that) some foods are healthier than others and we all know what they are.”

She added: “the AND position may be strictly correct – “if in moderation, if combined with physical activity, etc.” – but that’s not how the soda and other junkfood industries will interpret it.

This kind of position is what makes food companies so eager to pour money into AND sponsorship and what brings disrespect to the organisation for its openness to a conflict of interest.”