Good Food & Bad Food
April 9th, 2012 by Sara Upson
Normally when you read an article about good and bad food you will find a list of which foods are good and which foods are bad, or maybe which foods you should or should not eat. Dividing foods into these categories to create a “healthy diet” may seem like an easy way to select foods, however this way of thinking can negatively impact your relationship with food and potentially your overall diet. In truth there is no such thing as good food or bad food.
Almost everywhere you look you can find suggestions for what you should or should not eat. Pretty much everywhere food is labeled as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, legal or illegal. I recently even saw one column that labeled foods as “sinner” or “winner”. Originally this labeling effort was started by health professionals to communicate food choices or nutrition knowledge in a simplified manner to the public. Later labeling foods was picked up by magazines and newspapers where it was popularized by the diet industry.
Food companies also utilize good food, bad food labeling. You frequently see food advertisements that suggest certain foods are good or bad, or that a food will make you feel better if you eat it. Let me give you some real food ad examples: it just tastes sinful, so good it might make you feel good, respect yourself in the morning, true love, tastes like somebody loves you. Labeling foods as good or bad initially seems like an easy way to send healthy eating choices to the public and encourage wholesome food selection (or to encourage you to select a certain product). In theory, if someone eats mostly good foods then they generally have a good overall diet.
Unfortunately, the idea of good and bad food is not quite that easy. When foods are labeled as good or bad this also creates a moralization of food. Food literally becomes a moral issue where food is good or bad and when you eat certain foods you then become good or bad, or you feel good or bad about yourself. (Now I realize some people may not attach food and morality as much as others, but if you have ever felt guilty, bad, uncomfortable, powerless, out of control, or ashamed after eating “bad” food, then you understand how the two become confused.) For example, if you eat mostly good foods, then you are “good”. Many people will go as far to say that they had a good day based solely on their food choices. You may even hear someone say they are trying to eat good or be good today. (See how easily those two are switched-eat good versus be good!) So what happens when you eat some “bad” foods? (After all consuming 100% “good” food is not realistic or necessarily healthy.) Some people find if they eat “bad” foods, they become a bad person. Many people will say they had a bad day and may even feel guilty or ashamed because of their “bad” food choices. Some people may find that if they eat one bad food, then their day is blown so they go ahead and eat bad foods all day long while planning on making up for it tomorrow (i.e. being “good” the next day). In truth, the only bad foods are foods that are spoiled or rotten. Some individuals may have foods that are personally bad for them such as foods they are allergic to, foods that they are intolerant to, or foods that cause negative side effects such as heart burn or indigestion. Other than that, food is simply food, fuel for your body, and the only person who knows if a food is good or bad for you is yourself.
Each person is unique and has individual food preferences and needs. Labeling food as good or bad shuts down your own internal feedback for food, creates fear based food choices, can lead to food obsession, and can cause you to feel guilty or ashamed because of your food choices. When food is labeled as good or bad you no longer have the opportunity to freely ask yourself what you are hungry for or explore your body’s natural feedback for how a certain food makes you feel (satisfied, energized, sluggish, etc). In addition, food labeling can cause you to select food based out of fear to control weight or health without even considering your personal nutrition needs. This food fear may cause you to believe that if you eat certain bad foods that you will become fat or unhealthy. This fear may also drive you to avoid certain foods because if you eat them you fear you may never stop. Food labeling creates fear and avoidance with the thinking that you should not eat bad food. Generally when you try to avoid something it puts more focus on the issue. (Think back to the previous blog with time spent thinking about food.) Let’s look at an example for “bad” food avoidance: you decide to avoid chocolate for a while. First you spend time thinking about why you should avoid it and how to avoid it. Then someone gives you some chocolate. You spend more time thinking about how to avoid it or what to do with it, except it is in your possession and you can’t stop thinking about it. You could throw it away, but you decide to have one piece. You now believe you have blown it, so that one piece becomes 10 pieces, then comes the guilt and shame, and the promise to yourself that tomorrow will be a “good” day.
If foods are not good or bad, then how can you think about food? When pressed one dietitian described food as supportive or non-supportive. When you think about food this way, any food at anytime can be in either the supportive or non-supportive category depending on the situation. When you want a food but think you should not have it, is that supportive? If you think you should eat a certain food but do not want it, is that supportive? Maybe. Let me give you some examples; let’s use carrots (most people would generally label as good) and cookies (most people generally label as bad).
- Example one: you are trying to control your weight and have decided to eat only carrots for dinner. In this context the carrots are not going to be enough to sustain you and would not be supportive.
- Example two: You are hungry and would like a snack. Carrots sound good and you are trying to include more fiber in your diet. In this example, eating carrots would be supportive, you have chosen carrots because you are trying to include more fiber and it is what you want.
- Example three: You’re at lunch where your meal comes with a cookie. You really want the cookie but have been avoiding sweets. You finish your meal and you are still hungry but you decide not to eat the cookie. In this case, not eating the cookie when you are still hungry is non-supportive; having the cookie could actually be supportive!
- Example four: You’re at lunch and your meal comes with a cookie. You are full from your meal and satisfied but you still have your cookie left over. In this case, not eating the cookie is supportive because you are honoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
I believe the most important factor in food choice is to listen to your body. Many people find when they stop thinking about what they should or should not eat, their body will tell them exactly what they need. When the external regulations are removed this makes way for the internal regulations (hunger/ fullness) and the natural feedback that your body will send. This creates a setting where all foods can fit into a healthy diet with balance, variety, and moderation and provides you with the opportunity to learn what is satisfying to you, what keeps you energized, and what helps you feel your best without feeling guilty. It allows you the opportunity to establish a healthy relationship with food that is flexible and meets your personal nutrition needs.