Note: This is NOT a sponsored post. This is simply a report of my findings and heartfelt advice to help you sift through the flood of information out there.

The problem with modern shoes

Modern shoes are, for the most part, not designed to help you maintain healthy feet. Rather, they contain several features that encourage foot deformities – and corresponding health problems.

Most shoes are not designed to keep your feet healthy.

The first common problem is the tapered shoe box, which is more prominent on ladies’ shoes, although it is also featured in most mens shoes as well. Even sandals feature tapered toe boxes! This compresses the toes together, which encourages bunion formation, because they push the toes together and don’t give them enough space to wiggle. They also can cause ingrown toenails.

Men’s and women’s shoes with tapered toe boxes.

The next common problem is an elevated heel. And that doesn’t just mean stilettos: most men’s shoes and children’s shoes feature elevated heels as well. Even a slight, 1cm elevated heel causes the pelvis to angle forward, which may encourage the development of lower back pain, as well as forcing the head forwards, which encourages a knick in the neck which may encourage development of nervous twitches. The elevated heel also displaces the weight distribution from away from an equal distribution between the heel and toes, to being spread primarily across the toes. This encourages bunion formation.

Children’s sandal with a raised heel

Another common problem is overstabilized heels, which particularly prominent in sports shoes. To check this, look at the back of the shoe. If the sole is larger than the top of the shoe, then the shoe features extra stabilization on the heel. If it contains arch supports, these are also stabilizing features present. These stabilizing features can be helpful if you suffer from weak muscles (and have no interest in strengthening your foot muscles). However, if you have healthy feet, then wearing shoes with stabilizing features will weaken your muscles by putting them out of use. The other common stabilizing feature included by shoe manufacturers is arch support, which helps people who have weak arches compensate by building the arch into the shoe – but at the same time, allows the foot muscles that build the arch to deteriorate from disuse.

Children’s shoe with stabilized heel. Note that the base is larger than the shoe.

Another problem is shock absorption layers in shoes. These are great for absorbing impact shock. But at the same time, they encourage the wearer to exert even greater impact with each step. The result is that the measured impact of each step on your knees is greater – even when using shoes with good shock absorption – than natural running techniques without any shock absorption layers. The greater impact causes wearing down knee cartilage, until at some point a disc rupture or too much wear and tear sends you to the operating table. If you are used to shock absorbing shoes, you may need to relearn how to walk and run in order to be able to prevent these types of injuries and improve your walking and running style.

What does a healthy shoe look like?

If you want a shoe that will allow you to strengthen and maintain core strength in your intra-foot muscles, then you’ll want to keep your eyes open for the following key features of healthy shoes:

  1. A naturally shaped toe box provides sufficient wiggle room for your toes when you put your body weight onto your foot.
  2. Zero drop between the heel and the toe allows proper weight distribution between the heel and toe across the lateral arch.
  3. The right amount of padding – use as little dampening as possible without damaging your feet given your gait, physical strength, and exercise habits.
  4. Shoe size – size refers not just to length, but also width and height. Take out the shoe liner and step onto it with your full weight. If your foot fits in the contour of the shoe liner, the shoe is wide enough for you. If not, the shoe is too small. The same applies to height. Take a measuring tape and measure the circumference around the ball of your foot. High-end shoe manufacturers provide this measurement as the width of the shoe: this is the true width that you need in your shoe to have enough space in terms of both width and height.
Healthy shoes can be fashionable too!

Well. So it seems that we’re down to natural fit shoes and barefoot shoes, and most manufacturers don’t consider the bunion taking extra space. I don’t recommend extra wide comfort shoes either, because they usually feature tapered toes and heel raises – exactly what you do not need if you want to regain proper foot functionality.

Quick brand comparison

To help you sift through the multitude of brands out there, here is my experience with some of the popular brands out there:

Toe box width
Raised heels
Natural (bunion-safe)
Zero elevation
Barefoot and padded models
Makes sports shoes only.
Natural (bunion-safe)
Zero elevation
Barefoot (no padding)
Sole is less flexible than Altra. Also carries stylish, formal models.
Merrill Barefoot
Narrow (not bunion-safe)
Zero elevation
Barefoot (no padding)
Vivo Barefoot
Natural (not bunion-safe)
Zero elevation
Barefoot (no padding)
Natural Feet
Slightly tapered (not bunion-safe)
Raised heels
Slightly tapered (not bunion-safe)
Raised heels

Wide sandals with a generous toe box may fit as well. The key features to look for there are no heel elevation, flexible sole, heel strap to prevent slipping, sufficient space for all toes without squashing them in any way (the safest guarantee for this is sandals with a middle steg and no toe loops). This is likely your cheapest option because you don’t need any specialist shops or brands – if you’re lucky you’ll find a pair in a normal shoe store.

Tip for ladies: Check out the men’s department. Men’s shoes are typically cut one size wider than ladies’ shoes and not nearly tapered as much!

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