Food is neither “good” nor “bad”

2nd September, 2017

Eating sugar does not make you a bad person and enjoying a brownie is not going to harm your body in any way. Just as drinking green smoothies or munching on activated almonds is not going to make you a better person or give you the key to health.

Food can be eaten for nourishment and pleasure, or it can be eaten just for pleasure.

Thinking about food as either “good” or “bad” is so engrained in our thinking that it’s almost impossible for many people to enjoy some types of food without feeling guilt or shame that they’ve done something wrong. You should only feel guilty if you do something bad or hurtful, for example stealing the brownie or punching someone in the face to get the brownie. We experience shame when we feel bad about ourselves. Why should we feel bad about eating something that tastes wonderful and gives us pleasure?

A large part of what drives this notion of some food being “bad”, or at least “not good enough”, is a culture which is deeply fat phobic, obsessed with losing weight and food as the holy grail to health. Green smoothies, “superfoods”, quitting sugar and elaborate looking salads are all examples of the virtuosity that surrounds our health obsessed culture. It’s not that any of these foods or ideas are wrong – I love a fancy salad – it’s that they take what it means to eat well to the extreme. While this may work well for some, for many it’s way too time consuming, doesn’t fit in with a busy work and/or family life and it can (and does) lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Personally, I’d rather eat my greens along side some quiche or fish, than pop them in a smoothie and a meal of steak, potato and regular vegetables can be just as nutritious as a fancy salad with sprouted grains, cultured vegetables and activated almonds – no I didn’t just make that up – these meals exist.  Our culture’s obsession with this type of eating has lead many of clients to feel that many traditional basic meals aren’t good enough or that one of the world’s most nutritious foods – the potato – is somehow bad for health. You can read my post on potatoes and potato chips here.

Surely it can’t hurt to call some food “bad”?

While intellectually you may be able to recognise that enjoying, let’s say ice-cream, is ok, continuing to label such food as “bad” or “unhealthy” can elicit the feeling of guilt and shame around food choices as discussed above and will only continue to fuel the widely held, but misplaced, belief that certain food is “bad” or should be avoided. While some people can brush this off, many find themselves in negative and obsessive thought patterns about the food and themselves. When we feel badly about ourselves and when we are consumed with thoughts about food, we are less likely to take the time to tune into our true needs and desires and treat our bodies with care. We are more likely to fall into the diet mentality trap of “who cares, stuff it, I deserve it, I’ll be good tomorrow”. This diet mentality trap inevitably leads to overeating the so called “bad” food and may be followed by feelings of guilt, shame and unhappiness with self and often swearing to never eat that food again! This is what I mean by an unhealthy relationship with food.

What if chocolate (insert other sweet or fatty food) was just chocolate, much like a carrot for most people is just a carrot. What if you chose to eat chocolate simply because you felt like the taste of chocolate in that moment. How much would you need to eat to satisfy your taste for it and feel truly satisfied afterward? This is something you may need to experiment with and I know there will be people reading this who are thinking “but I’d eat the whole block”. If this is you, what might happen if you experimented with taking some time to sit and savour that chocolate (or other food you’re prone to overeat), consider the smell, flavour and texture of each piece as you go, how does the chocolate taste and feel in your body? However, before you do this, you may need to loosen your grip on the idea chocolate is “naughty” or a “guilty pleasure”, because as long as you continue to place a moral value on the food, you’ll run the risk of the “forbidden fruit” effect – the natural human desire to want what someone tells you you shouldn’t have. While all this sound easy enough in theory, actually changing your mindset can be very challenging and this is where you may need help from a non-diet approach dietitian.

Is it ok to refer to some food as good?

This really depends on the context. If you’re using the word good to refer to good quality produce or just tasty food, then I think it’s ok to say good, but if you’re using good to mean you’re “being good” for choosing it, or it’s nutritionally superior, then we run into trouble. All food offers some nutrition and choosing to eat a salad over a cupcake does not mean you’re being a good person. Also, if only certain types of food are labelled good, then it’s natural that some food will be seen as bad, or not so good. While this may seem fairly benign on the surface, it perpetuates the diet mentality mentioned above and sets up the unhealthy relationship with food that can lead to disordered patterns of eating, and even eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.

For example, if you find yourself thinking “I was good last night” because you said no to dessert, you could find yourself prone to overeating on another occasion. This overeating occurs as you feel you “deserve it” having been “good” the night before; so why not go the whole hog this time? The outcome; you eat more for the sake of eating than really enjoying the food, this leaves you feeling not only uncomfortably full, but upset with yourself and saying, “I’ll be good tomorrow” or “I’ll start again on Monday” and so the cycle goes. This is the all too common diet cycle that people with a diet mentality experience over and over and over and over…

You can start to let go of the negative feelings you experience with food by starting to change the way to think and talk about food. One important step is to change the language you use. You could try using the word nourishing to replace “good” and fun food or play food to replace “bad”. Note; many foods people consider bad, such as burgers, pizza, chips are also very nourishing as they contain the vital nutrients fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Typically, nourishing food is the food you choose to eat when you are physically hungry; fun (or play) food you might choose to eat primarily for the taste and hunger may not present. It must be noted that even fun or play food provides some nourishment, it’s just that if we only ate these foods, we would miss out on some important nutrients and we would probably feel a little blah after a period of only eating chocolate, ice-cream, cake, lollies, crisps etc.

Eating can be and should be both a nourishing and pleasurable experience.

Bon appetit!