Is there such thing as good or bad foods?

unnamedFoods are labelled as good or bad all the time. Whether these phrases are used in the media or in our daily conversations, I believe it’s time to rethink the terminology. I’m not convinced that labelling foods as either good or bad is helpful or accurate for anyone, especially those who are trying to educate themselves on nutrition or improve their eating habits. The language we use can impact our beliefs, our attitudes and our behaviours and this is why I think it’s worthwhile to drop the words good and bad from our food vocabulary.


These labels encourage moral judgement

Food itself is morally devoid. Therefore, using moral language to describe food places judgement on the individual. This may lead us to feel superiority or self-righteousness when we eat good foods and shame or guilt when we eat bad foods.

The biggest problem I see here is the shame. Shame is the fear that we are not good enough. It is different from guilt, which is the feeling that we have made a mistake. Unlike guilt, shame implies the inherent inability to do better – a destructive, progress-halting force for anyone attempting to make healthier dietary choices.

Additionally, viewing food through such a narrow lens encourages black-or-white thinking which promotes all-or-nothing behaviours. An example of this could be the restrict-binge cycle in which people try to restrict all foods they perceive as bad from their diet, eventually stray and then experience a binge which lasts anywhere from one day to months. During this binge they eat many of the foods that they previously restricted, until the cycle begins again.

On a smaller scale, we have the abstinence violation effect. This happens when we set a rule for ourselves (such as no bad foods) but when we break that rule we act is if it doesn’t matter whether we break it by a little or a lot. This is how one small scoop of ice cream can turn into the whole pint! I’ve written about this before in a previous post called How does a bite turn into a binge?

Categorizing foods this way is overly simplistic

Putting some foods on a pedestal and demonizing others is a commonly used short cut. We’re attracted to the simplicity of having a mental list of good and bad foods. However, this is problematic because it deprives us of the opportunity to really understand our foods, how they impact the body, and whether or not they are suitable for us as individuals.

Rather than categorizing foods as good or bad many people find it is much more helpful to ask some of the following questions instead:

  • Am I allergic or intolerant to this food? This is the one situation where complete restriction from a food is encouraged.
  • If I eat this food right now will I progress, stall or regress from my goals? If it will cause me to stall or regress am I okay with that outcome and willing to take ownership of my choice?
  • How will I feel emotionally if I eat this food? Am I okay with that? Why will I feel that way?
  • Is this food nutritious? Could it benefit my health to eat this?
  • Is this food non-nutritious (e.g., most high-sugar, high-fat foods such as cookies, candy, or chips)? If the answer is yes, consider again whether you can be accountable and okay with the outcome of eating it both physiologically and emotionally.

Of course, these questions are not the be all and end all when it comes to determining what a nutritious and satisfying diet will look like for you. You may need to work with a nutrition coach in order to develop a better science-based understanding of food and your relationship to food. However, these questions are much more helpful than labelling foods as good and bad, something which seems to have become default.

If you’re someone who struggles with black-and-white thinking when it comes to foods, fears bad foods or is feeling confused about how to make appropriate choices – this is a good place to start! If you’d like to work with someone to help you with this please reach out to me at gillian@gillianthomasfitness.com.

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