Take a moment and think about this: have you formed judgments about certain foods?
Deep down, do you believe spinach is “good” while cookies are “bad”?
It’s hard not to form certain beliefs about food (even unconsciously) living in a world where we are constantly exposed to diets and meal plans and cleanses.
The snap judgments we make about food can be rooted in many past experiences. Our parents can impart the notion that foods are acceptable or unacceptable by forbidding certain foods in the house and allowing others. Perhaps a diet plan you adopted allowed certain foods (“good”) and prohibited others (“bad”). Or maybe you’ve read some of the (often conflicting) information about nutrition out there, which designated which foods “should” be either sought out or avoided. Even the term “clean eating” implies foods that don’t make the cut are unclean or “dirty.”
Many think that creating and maintaining constructs around food can set us up to make healthier choices. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Here are 5 reasons why no food is “good” or “bad” and labeling food in that way can be harmful:
1. Labeling leads to shame and guilt if we eat “bad” foods.
By thinking of food as good versus bad, we set ourselves up for feeling either obedient or guilty based on what we eat. While this may seem benign when we’re eating only the foods that have been deemed virtuous, it invites feelings of shame and guilt whenever we perceive that we’ve veered into the naughty zone. Guilt (or the avoidance thereof) may help a person stick to a diet in the short term. But eating and living based on guilt and avoidance is detrimental to mental health and wellbeing in the long run (and we know that diets don’t work anyway).
You are not “bad” because you ate french fries.
You are not “good” because you ate a salad.
A person’s self-worth is not tied to what that person ate in a day. We are all inherently worthy of love and respect, regardless of what we eat. Labeling food as “bad” can lead us to cast the same moral judgment onto ourselves when we eat that food. That’s just one reason to let the labels go.
2. Labeling leads to fear even when eating “good” foods.
Even by eating only foods on our “good” list, we set our minds in a restrictive mode and live in a state of fear of doing something “bad” based on what we eat. It’s like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop; when the temptation will just be too much to say “no” to something “bad.” In contrast, finding food freedom means listening to our inner wisdom about what we want to eat and when; not leaving it up to labels and rules.
The notion that only “good” foods deserve to be eaten also conveys a message that eating must be justified and explained (i.e. food must be “good” to be eaten or a person should only eat if they eat “good” food). This is false. You deserve to eat when you’re hungry, and you are entitled to have a range of experiences with different foods whether or not someone deems them "good" for you.
3. Labeling over-simplifies nutrition.
I think we can all agree there is a LOT of information about food and nutrition out there, but much of it is confusing and/or conflicting. Nutrition isn’t a simple matter of “good” and “bad." Research is constantly being done on the health implications of the consumption of certain foods. And foods can cause very different reactions in different people: The same food item may make one person feel awful and make another person feel awesome.
One thing is for certain: No food is “healthy” in isolation. No one food on its own provides all the nutrients we need. And any food can be unhealthy if consumed in excess. If a person were to eat nothing but kale (often deemed “good” or “clean”), that person would become sick and malnourished.
Balance is key. Variety is essential.
Openness to trying new things, and discovering the range of foods that make you feel best (and continuing to be open to discovery) will allow you to establish confidence that you know what is best for your body.
4. Labeling gives away your power.
Who decides which foods are "good" and which are "bad"? These are often arbitrary labels given by an external source. By accepting these standards defined by someone else, we allow decisions about our health and wellness to occur outside of us.
No one knows what foods are going to make you feel great better than you do. Don’t give away your authority to make choices that will only impact you. It could be that a cupcake makes you feel joyful or makes you feel icky. It could even depend on the day. You are entitled to the freedom to make the decision that is right for you at the time.
5. Labeling assumes food has a purely utilitarian purpose.
Food is fuel. But it is also much more than that. Food can have cultural roots and family ties. It can evoke feelings, emotions, and memories. It is the common thread in many shared experiences.
Think of some of the foods that are often demonized. The “bad” label is commonly slapped on many celebratory foods or drinks: birthday cake, wedding cake, cocktails, champagne, Halloween candy. Now think of the occasions during which these items are typically available: birthday parties, weddings, holidays, celebrations. Probably NOT the time you want to be feeling shame and guilt around your choices!
Enjoy the moment. Let the labels go.
What are your beliefs about the relative merits of various foods?
How could you shift your perspective to make choices from a desire to nourish yourself rather than to control yourself or be "good"?