Two young women choosing vegetables at an indoor farmer’s market

Food That’s Surprisingly Good (Or Bad) For You

Chocolate’s bad for your health and juice is good, right? Maybe not. Eating the right food is surprisingly hard, because everybody needs different things and food is more complicated than we realize. Even whole, fresh foods like fruit can be good or bad for health.

“The choices people make in selecting their meals—and how they feel about it at the time and after eating—are so important,” says Anne Lee, EdD, assistant professor of nutritional medicine in the Department of Medicine, the Celiac Disease Center, and the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.  

Lee studies the intersection of eating patterns, behaviors, quality of food, and quality of life. The most surprising thing her research has revealed is how little the portrayal of a food in the media has to do with the food itself. In other words, most claims that a food is bad or a must-have superfood are not based on science. And an occasional “bad” food can still be part of a good diet.  

What makes any food bad for your health 

In a word: processing.  

“Foods are not inherently bad for you in their natural state,” says Lee. “The degree of processing, added ingredients, the serving size, and the frequency of eating a particular food is what may slide a food from a healthy rating to a not-so-healthy rating.” 

How to avoid food that’s bad for your health 

Eat as much raw and unprocessed foods as possible, then minimally processed. Even a small amount of heat is considered processing and changes the natural structure of food.  

Avoid any food with ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, or if there are more added ingredients and artificial flavors than actual food.

4 good (or okay) foods that people mistake as bad  

  1. Carbs and Grains 
    • Carbs and grains are so often villainized and blamed in the media for the obesity epidemic. In reality, whole grains are great sources of fiber (essential for gut health), B vitamins (for metabolism and nervous function), and minerals, such as iron. 
  2. Avocados  
    • Avocados are often condemned because they have a lot of calories, but they are good calories. Avocados are sources of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins E and C, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. They are high in monounsaturated fats, which are good for your heart because they reduce inflammation and help your body better absorb vitamins.  
  3. Nuts 
    • Nuts are a great source of protein, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that are important for brain health. Nuts are a nutrient-dense snack that helps keep you full and energized. 
  4. Dark Chocolate 
    • Chocolate was once called the drink of the gods. It is rich in flavanols that protect your body’s cells from inflammation and are thought to boost your immune system and heart health. When it comes to chocolate, the purer the better. Dark chocolate has less added fat and sugar than milk chocolate. 

Check with your doctor to see how much of any food you can consume. Good-for-health foods can have consumption limits too.  

4 bad (or not great) foods people mistake as good  

  1. Fruit products and juices 
    • Fruit in its natural state can be a healthy choice. Yes it has sugar, but it is natural sugar. Fruit provides vitamins and fiber. Added sugar is what to avoid, as found in fruit beverages, fruit gummies, and fruit leathers.   
  2. Low-fat packaged foods  
    • When fats are removed from foods, other ingredients such as sugar alcohols, starches, and gums are added to maintain the flavor and texture of the original food. These are added ingredients you just don’t need in your food.
  3. Low-sugar packaged foods 
    • Similar to low-fat foods, low-sugar products contain fillers, salt, and gums to achieve the desired taste and texture. Another concern is the added sugar substitutes or sugar alcohols. These sweeteners have no calories, but they can cause stomach upset and diarrhea when taken in large quantities. 
  4. Yogurt  
    • Plain yogurt is a great choice: It’s full of protein and calcium. Yogurt with fruit syrup has a lot of added sugars. And nonfat yogurt often contains added starches and artificial sweeteners. 

The easiest ways to make good choices about food  

  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store: Fresh, unprocessed items are usually found there.
  • Choose a variety of foods with a wide variety of colors: Eat the rainbow. The more colors in your diet, the greater the variety of vitamins and minerals.
  • Eat food in its natural state: The less processed the better.

It is also important not to let meals, shopping, or food preparation become burdensome. An occasional burger and fries, or chicken parmigiana, can feed the soul as well as the body. Occasionally, not daily. 

You do not have to make gourmet meals each day. Simple, clean eating is the key. 

A great day of eating can be as simple as this: 

  • Low-fat plain yogurt with fresh berries, plus a slice of whole grain toast 
  • Quinoa bowl with greens and grilled chicken (healthy bowl options are available at many restaurants) 
  • Whole grain pasta with vegetables, plus a salad of mozzarella and tomatoes  

Food to avoid  

Healthy eating is not about one food. Healthy eating is about the type of food. The thing to avoid is food in packaged, processed form. Food that is packaged and processed usually has more refined carbohydrates, fat, salt, and sugar and less fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  


Anne R. Lee, EdD, RDN, LD, is assistant professor of nutritional medicine in the Department of Medicine and Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and a nutritionist at Columbia's Celiac Disease Center ​​​.

Call 212-305-5590 to schedule a nutrition appointment. 

Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University