Food has evolved. Probably over-evolved. We have gone past nutrition and now we use food entertainment and even psychological dependance. Many people think that if you want to eat nutritiously, it isn’t going to taste good. And if it tastes good it probably isn’t very nutritious. Marketing has not made this any easier – gluten free, “clean”, zero sugar, zero calories, diet. Is this good? What is “clean”? If it doesn’t have any sugar or calories, is it food?
I have simplified all of this with a food classification chart. I like charts. This may help you visualize food for what it is and help you improve what you eat.
The Food Chart
Taste is on the y axis (vertical).
Nutrition is on the x axis (horizontal).
0 is bad. 10 is Great
Taste is subjective but it is a HUGE influence on what we eat. Everyone likes and dislikes different foods and drinks. For the taste scale, I am just going with general appeal. Most people like Doritos but don’t like Brussels sprouts so I went with that.
By nutrition I am referring to foods that have a substantial number of vitamins and minerals like fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. Foods with high nutrition scores also contain high levels of macronutrients like protein and fats but relatively low calories.
Calories are good. They are what keep us alive and moving. But excess calories can overwhelm their nutritional value. Added sugar can push the calories up in an instant. Excessive salt and saturated fats can also overwhelm the nutritional value of foods and drive down the nutritional value.
1. Entertainment– low nutrition but good taste.
Doritos – Little or no nutrition but engineered to taste great.
2. Just bad – Low Nutrition and bad taste
Black Licorice – Tastes like a solvent and has minimal nutritional value. Made of sugar and hate.
3. “Good for you” – High Nutrition but bad taste
Brussels Sprouts – Great nutrition but they taste like rotten cabbage boiled with cat turds.
4. Goal – High nutrition and taste
Lasagna – Great taste and (potentially) all sorts of good macronutrients, vitamins and minerals.
The first quadrant is the Entertainment food. High Taste – Low Nutrition. These foods are just fun to eat or drink. They are often highly engineered to taste good with little or no consideration to nutritional value. They usually have the best names and commercials. As long as they taste good but don’t kill people (very quickly), people will eat them. Most fast foods live in this quadrant. Beer and soft drinks are up here as does candy. Fun to eat and drink but no real benefit.
The second quadrant does not have many inhabitants; Low Taste and Low Nutrition. We don’t keep stuff around that tastes bad and has minimal nutritional value. Stuff like Gefilte fish, black licorice and haggis end up here. But, a lot of alcohol fits in the second quadrant, too. They taste so bad by themselves that we have to mix them with other stuff to push them up to the first quadrant. Whiskey and Coke. Margaritas. Gin and Tonic. Pretty much any cocktail.
The third quadrant holds a lot of the stuff we are told is “good for you” Otherwise, we wouldn’t touch it. Low Taste but High Nutrition. For me, Kale and Brussels Sprouts land here. Nasty taste but great nutrition.
The fourth quadrant is the goal state; taste that you want and high nutrition. Lots of fruits live up here. Eggs, nuts and seeds do, too. Very little added salt or fat is necessary to make these foods taste good. I put many of the combined foods up here like lasagna (when it includes vegetables and lean meats) stir fry and well “balanced” meals such as a piece of chicken with asparagus and brown rice.
Moving around in the Quadrants
From 4 to 1
We often try to improve the taste of a food but over-do it with improvements such as frying, sauces, adding salt and sugar and candy coatings.
This process might improve the taste but it also decreases the nutritional value moving the food from the Fourth to the First quadrant. Not a good move. An example is adding so much salad dressing that your meal becomes Ranch Soup. Donut burgers are a great example of culinary nuclear weapons. They may taste good and attract lots of chuckles but they are slowly killing you.
3rd to 2nd
Too much “improvement” can move a food from the Fourth to the Seconds quadrant and then to the garbage can. Frying bananas. Tomato aspic. Fish or fruit on pizza.
3rd to 4th
The goal of a good chef is to take foods with good nutritional value and make them taste better – move them from the Third up to the Fourth quadrant.
A talented chef can cook, season and pair foods like kale, leaks, squash, cod and green beans and make them taste great without diminishing the nutritional value.
Eat as many foods in the Third and Fourth quadrants as you can. Learn how to prepare foods in the Third to bring them up to the Fourth.
The first quadrant is for entertainment, not nourishment. Limit your intake of those to special occasions or very small servings.
And just eliminate foods on the Second quadrant. If it has no nutrition and you have to add stuff to it so that it is palatable, you probably should not be eating it in the first place.
Zach Guza is the owner of Black Dog Fitness in Knoxville Tennessee.