Why the word “should” is so unhealthy

Recommendation: To answer the question “What should I eat?”, first identify what’s most important to you, in whatever terms you want. Just be able to explain it simply. Then, think about how eating fits into achieving that priority. From there, filter all the health advice you get in context of that greater purpose and determine how much effort to put into following it.

Why “should” is a red flag

should-red-flag

How often do you hear someone talk about what you should eat or what’s healthy? For me, it’s daily and one of the hardest things to determine is if what I’m hearing is quality guidance. So, this article aims to help with that by sharing the key principles I rely on to evaluate health advice.

Simply put: it’s not about the person who’s giving the advice. It’s about you and the advice itself. If you get only one thing from this post, let it be that the best strategy for eating healthy depends on what’s important to you.

Why? Because of this second rule-of-thumb: anytime the word “should” comes up, try to add the phrase “in order to _____” at the end of the sentence and see if it clarifies things. Only you can fill in that blank.

We’re still seeking a definition of “healthy”, anyway

Even if we don’t want to fill in that blank, it’s not always clear which foods are good for you and which aren’t. Everyone I know seems to be talking about what to eat–not like that hasn’t been the case since the beginning of time–but some headlines promote certain diets and foods as healthy while others say the opposite.

What food is “healthy”, though?! Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a significant disagreement among some of the general public and professional nutritionists:

Survey by KEVIN QUEALY and MARGOT SANGER-KATZ JULY 5, 2016
Survey by KEVIN QUEALY and MARGOT SANGER-KATZ JULY 5, 20161

Now, the FDA is even taking public comments on how “healthy” should be defined as it relates to food labels.2 Obviously, we’d all love to know if that granola bar we want to eat is truly healthy. But while the FDA is figuring that out for us, I’d argue a more helpful question to answer is, “What is your purpose for paying attention to health advice?”.

Do you have kids you want to feed well?

Are you managing a disease? Overweight? In peak physical condition?

Has your spouse started sneaking kale into your Sunday crepes in a tasteless attempt to get you to eat better?

What’s best for us might be different depending on the role food plays in our health.

“Eating” as a decision-making process

As a behavior, selecting food should be purposeful in order to align with our goals. Of course we all eat without thinking sometimes; this article isn’t about that. Rather, this is about how to improve the result when you are consciously attempting to make a healthy choice. In that context, putting food into your mouth is the action resulting from a decision. That decision could sound like “I should eat more whole-grains”, and it might actually be the best decision for you. But eating is such a fundamental behavior that we run the risk of making decisions without questioning underlying assumptions about why we need to eat “more” of anything, or even why we need to eat at all.

attempted metaphor:

Focusing on what to eat before focusing on why to eat is like deciding what to wear before checking the weather.
And yes, I’m breaking this down so far as to ask “Why should I eat?”.

Take 30 seconds to answer that question as best you can (no Googling!).

. . .

It’s definitely weird to ask. The first thought in my head was “to feed my cells”. However, when thought through in this way it becomes clear that we have various reasons for eating in different situations (whether or not that’s a good thing). Potential answers to “why” include:

– Pleasure (e.g. when offered a 20-ounce steak)
– Energy (e.g. breakfast)
– Nutrition (e.g. when offered fresh vegetables)
– Fitting in/social expectation (e.g. when offered cake at a birthday party)

There are likely others, but it becomes clear that whichever reason we have at a given moment impacts our second question of “what” we “should” eat–remember, today we’re talking about times when you’re consciously trying to make the right choice. As stated at the beginning, “should” is a dangerous word which should automatically trigger a question of “in order to do/achieve what?”. Considering the above list of three “why”s to eat, maybe you should eat cake in order to: “fit in socially at a birthday party”, if that’s what matters to you. But if you just rely on articles about foods you should eat, birthday cake would never be one of them.

Quality vs convenience

With that in mind, we’re better prepared to evaluate the guidance we read in articles and hear from friends. Because we must eat, and because we automatically associate the concept of “health” with “eating”, it makes sense that we’d pay attention when someone speaks about what’s healthy. But this is a little dangerous because it’s so easy to get an unhelpful (or harmful) opinion in front of people. Blogs (like the one you’re reading–thanks!), cheap diet books, internet articles, and daily talk-shows are just a few examples. These aren’t held to a standard of “quality” because it’s convenience that determines what gets read. High-quality, thorough health research is unappealing and takes time to read, whereas a short, simple article with a catchy headline is far more convenient.

In other words: how easy to understand is the health guidance? How expensive is it (in time or money) to consume? I’d argue this is one reason why there’s so much disagreement among popular diet and nutrition experts–when so much partially-examined advice is put out there, it’s easy for one to find and expose an error in the other.

This highlights a second topic to address: the sources of guidance. I’m not yet sure how to effectively choose sources of health tips, so I won’t attempt to here. Instead, I consider each tip on it’s own, from any source. This is similar to other contentious topics–separate what the person says from who they are before you evaluate whether it’s good advice or not. Then consider it in context of who they are. If your friend is in high school and has no background in health, that doesn’t mean what they’re saying is wrong. Likewise for a doctor in the opposite way. But definitely ask your doctor’s advice, at least, before you try anything new!

We now have highlighted two factors in making healthy decisions: why health matters to you, then how to select which advice to follow.

“Balance, moderation, and variety.”–suboptimal, but safe

That’s the rule of thumb I was told to follow by a nutrition professor at Purdue (along with many other educated folks in the health field).

Slightly more detailed is the USDA’s tool for healthy eating called “MyPlate”. I interviewed another of my professors who’s on the advisory committee for the USDA guidelines. He said the MyPlate tool and USDA guidelines, in general, have moved away from focusing on certain nutrients and toward recommended “eating patterns”. The goal is to provide information and tools which Americans can use easily, instead of worrying about calories and individual nutrients. Personally, I support this approach if only because we still don’t understand nutrients, food, nor the sources of food well enough to form qualified recommendations for the general public. So it’s probably not the way to maximize health, but it’s our best bet to remain disease-free over a “normal” lifespan.

Finally, consider health as a cellular status

Ongoing research in soil depletion, farmed vs wild seafood, vitamin supplements, gut bacteria, epigenetics, etc. will all continue to clarify the massive picture of “things that affect how healthy food is for our cells”. Importantly, it’s at that cellular level that our decision of “what we should eat” results in health or disease. Therefore, I don’t expect anyone to have a comprehensive grasp on those details of what’s healthy anytime soon. Til then, I recommend thinking about what’s really important to you first, and how healthy eating fits into that picture. Then you can effectively determine how much effort to put into learning what you should eat in order to achieve your bigger goals.

After all, one benefit of eating healthy might be getting to enjoy more time with loved ones. So maybe you SHOULD go ahead and have a big piece of birthday cake since you’re already doing just that!


  1. Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? What About Granola? Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree (2016) 

  2. ‘Healthy’ May Be Getting a New Definition (2016) 

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