I recently heard an exchange between a mother and her child that highlighted how difficult it can be to make sense of all the nutrition “advice” we hear.

“You’re not going to just get French fries and ice cream tonight,” the mother said.

“No, I’m getting a corn dog too!”

“Good. You need some protein.”

With so much conflicting nutrition information available to us, it’s hard to know what a healthy diet looks like. Recommendations for wheat-free, high-protein, and low-fat diets make it difficult to tell the sound advice from the fads. Add a situation like working 18-hour days to get your new company off the ground—well, we’ve all seen the pizza boxes in startup offices.

And how many times have you justified pizza by telling yourself the tomato sauce and veggie toppings are enough for balance? Or maybe that, yes, you had two slices of pizza, but at least you didn’t have three?

Here are two quick reality checks that may help you to clarify if a food choice is part of a balanced diet or is a rationalization for eating without thinking.

First, a food can’t be considered healthy in one way if it’s going to make you sick in another.

For example, you need calcium, and ice cream has calcium. But it can also have a lot of sugar and saturated fat, making it a poor source for your calcium needs. Same goes for drinking a whole bottle of wine for cardiac benefits while ignoring alcohol’s toll on the liver—or eating a corn dog to get protein. If something is toxic in one way, it doesn’t really matter if it’s healthy in another.

Second, remember that you don’t get credit for what you don’t eat. This gets right at the heart of the term “potato-chip vegetarian.” That’s someone who thinks that simply not eating meat makes them healthy, regardless of what they do eat. The truth is that not eating a certain food doesn’t impact you in any way; your body doesn’t even know you were being virtuous or choosy. It’s only the foods you actually consume that either make you sick or keep you healthy.

Eating well can be hard. Keeping these two ideas in mind can make things a whole lot easier.

Ann Garvin

Author Ann Garvin

Ann is an author, speaker and educator. As professor of health, stress management, research methods and media literacy at University of Wisconsin Whitewater, she has worked extensively in psychometrics, statistics and psychology. Ann is the author of On Maggie’s Watch & The Dog Year (Berkley Penguin, 2014).

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