I also blog frequently on the Yesod Web Framework blog, as well as the FP Complete blog.

Is it healthy? Depends on context

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Some relevant backstory: I’ve been experimenting quite a bit over the past 6 months to see how I respond to different eating patterns. Included in that have been a few months of high carb consumption, focusing mostly on starches as an energy source. However, I’m generally in a low-carb mode, and my family are pretty familiar with that. With that information…

A family member recently asked me why oatmeal is healthy. The question makes sense: if I typically avoid carbohydrates, why would oatmeal—a food I ate quite a bit of during that high carb phase—be a healthy choice?

In that conversation, I introduced the concept of context for diet. This isn’t a novel concept I’ve come up with, but I wanted to explain it here anyway. Let’s start off with the extreme versions of this.

“Is sugar healthy?” I’ve written plenty here already claiming that sugar is not healthy. However, if someone is about to die due to lack of sufficient calories, sugar would be very healthy (it will prevent imminent death).

Which is healthier: a cheeseburger or a cucumber? Most people probably think the cucumber. In the context of modern Western disease, where overconsumption is rampant, the cucumber is probably healthier. However, the cheeseburger includes more micronutrients, and for someone with a deficiency may be considered healthier.

Coming back to the oatmeal. When I was following a high carb diet, I considered oatmeal a healthy choice (others may disagree). I was eating a whole grain, so taking in significant fiber with the starch. To my knowledge, I have no insulin resistance, and therefore can tolerate carbohydrates well. Oatmeal is satiating, making it less likely that I would overeat it. And it provides a decent amount of protein, something which I was looking for in my context (significant resistance training).

Right now, I’m eating a ketogenic diet. If I was to eat a bowl of oatmeal, it would kick me out of ketosis and spike my insulin. All of that fat that I’m eating during this keto phase would likely end up getting stored as body fat, something I’m trying to avoid. It would be a terrible idea.

Similarly, during that high carb phase, if I’d eaten a super-high-fat meal like I do right now, most of that fat would have gone to storage instead of to providing my body’s energy needs.

Keep this in mind when making nutrition choices. Even if someone else who is highly health conscious is eating it, it may not be the right choice for you. Make sure to analyze:

  • Your goals (gain weight, perform in the gym, etc)
  • Any specific aspects of your body (autoimmune, insulin resistance, current weight, etc) relevant to the decision
  • What activities you’re performing (someone with a desk job doesn’t need as many calories as a marathon runner)
  • What the rest of your diet looks like

Also, if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or keep kosher, that cheeseburger I mentioned above is probably always a bad choice.

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