No Nutritional Value?

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People sometimes use the phrase “no nutritional value” to demean certain foods or to flagellate themselves or someone else for having consumed one of them. Whenever someone speaks these words, I curiously wonder: Do they mean the phrase literally or figuratively? Either way is problematic, unfortunately, and is indicative of room for growth in their relationship with food.

If someone perceives that a food literally has no nutritional value, chances are high that they are factually incorrect. Anything we eat that contains at least one macronutrient (carbohydrate, fat, protein, water, or alcohol) or micronutrient (vitamin or mineral) has – by definition – nutritional value. Check out a food’s nutrition label, and if you see any numbers other than zeros, you know it has nutritional value. Even if you see zeros across the board, unlisted nutrients are still likely present, or perhaps the quantities are low enough that labeling laws allow for rounding down to zero. Sitting here now, I am hard-pressed to think of even a single example of an edible entity that has literally no nutritional value.

Besides, criticizing a food for having little or none of a particular nutrient implies that other foods with higher concentrations of it are somehow superior, but this is not necessarily true. Some nutrients have a tolerable upper limit, which is the “maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects.” For example, consuming too much zinc can cause a copper deficiency, as the two minerals compete for absorption. People have died from drinking so much water that their blood’s sodium concentration became perilously low. Vitamin A toxicity, which can also be fatal, can arise from eating just a single serving of polar bear liver.

Even if we consider smaller quantities, ones not large enough to seriously risk our health, consuming too much can prove useless. Purchase a supplement with a high concentration of B vitamins and note how your urine turns neon yellow, which results from our bodies expelling the excess vitamins it cannot use. (Insert here your own joke about flushing your money down the toilet.) Taking in a large amount of calcium at once does little good for our bones, as our bodies are limited in how much they can absorb at a time. The bottom line is that more does not always imply better or healthier.

Having said that, I know that most people who say “no nutritional value” do not mean it literally, but rather as an expression of how they deduce foods, ingredients, and nutrients into moral hierarchies. For example, someone may tell me pasta has no nutritional value because they see carbohydrates as inferior to protein. Another person may claim that butter has no nutritional value because they look down upon its high fat concentration. Yet another patient may say that juice has no nutritional value because their demonization of sugar blinds them from appreciating the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other nutrients swimming around in the beverage.

People are often hard on themselves or feel anxious for eating foods that they perceive as having no nutritional value, which hinders their ability to eat intuitively. Recognizing our body’s signals can sometimes be challenging enough even without guilt and stress complicating matters and clouding the picture. One of my patients described the situation to me with a simile, saying it is like playing a sport and straining to focus on what the coach is saying while other people on the sidelines loudly yell conflicting advice. Similarly, if we feel virtuous for eating a food that we perceive to have nutritional value, we might be at risk for blocking out signals from our body that the food is not actually hitting the spot.

See if this common scenario feels familiar. You are in the midst of eating a food that you perceive to have “no nutritional value.” Even though you can tell you are getting full, you decide to keep eating it because you figure today is ruined anyway, so you might as well finish it all so it is no longer in the house, and you can start fresh tomorrow. Here is another situation that might ring true. You are craving a specific food, but since you feel it has “no nutritional value,” you try to satisfy the craving with an alternative version that you believe has a better nutrition profile. Since the latter does not quite hit the spot though, you consume more of it in an attempt to make up for lack of pleasure with quantity. Still not satisfied, you try other foods. Your grazing may eventually encompass eating the food that you craved in the first place. Now you feel stuffed and maybe guilty, whereas if you had allowed yourself to consume the object of your desire in the first place, you could have had a more enjoyable and peaceful eating experience and then gotten on with your day.

When I was in nutrition school, I used to modify my cookie recipes in an attempt to make them “healthier.” It took me a long time to understand why I tended to eat so many of these modified creations in one sitting, but eventually I realized it was because these cookies – which were more akin to high-fiber pancakes than actual cookies – were not hitting the spot. That is not a knock against pancakes, which are of course fine, but they do not fill a cookie-shaped hole as well as the real thing. Once I came to understand what was happening, I abandoned those modified recipes and returned to the original. Instead of having a whole pile of the “healthier” but less satisfying versions, I would have a couple of real cookies, feel satisfied, and be done.

If any of what you have read here resonates with your own thought patterns or experiences, ask yourself this: How might my own eating change if I abandon the flawed notion that some foods have “no nutritional value”?

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