I receive this question on the daily from clients. Can I eat that? My answer -> always yes (as long as it is edible, it’s not poisonous or going to send you into anaphylactic shock, of course). It’s easy to become really good at creating, or adopting from others, definitions of what “good foods” and “bad foods” are, especially given that we’re surrounded by this language constantly:
"Eat this, not that! Avoid these foods! Avoid all (you fill in the blank)!"
Everywhere we turn, we find ourselves bombarded with this banter: from the media, diet books, family members, friends, even teachers and healthcare providers. “You ate vegetables? That’s GOOD! Did you eat ice cream yesterday? Well, you probably shouldn’t have it again today...” Seems that food is either right or wrong, good or bad, dirty or clean these days.
Black and white thinking at it’s finest, folks. Humph.
A sneakier version of this thinking is when we acknowledge that food isn’t “good or bad,” but still categorize it as “healthy or unhealthy.” -- can you see where I’m going with this? Food is not meant to be avoided - it’s part of enjoyment, celebration, and life. It’s what fuels us and keeps us alive; food is what keeps our legs moving, our brains thinking and our heart pumping. We need it!
In my experience, when you ask children, “what is a good food?” they’ll respond with their favorite foods - foods they enjoy. “Good food is ice cream, strawberries, spaghetti.” When you ask “what is a bad food?” They’ll say foods that they don’t like or that they’re allergic to. “Bad foods are Brussels sprouts, olives, peanuts.” As we grow up, we start looking at food differently. Food is no longer “just food.” Food is calories, food is exercise, food is something we use to try to manipulate our bodies instead of nourishing them, food intake needs to be earned. Often times, we forgot to enjoy food, we even forget what foods we used to enjoy. What used to be “I like ice cream” becomes “I don’t eat ice cream,” “I can’t keep ice cream in the house,” or “ice cream is dangerous.” What happens when we label food (that we enjoy) “bad” and “unhealthy?” We try to restrict and avoid it. When this self-imposed restriction and deprivation happens, we naturally crave it, fixate on it, and want the food even more. Cue the restrict-binge cycle. When you (finally) allow yourself to have the forbidden food again you’re more likely to eat as much of it as you can because “it might be the last time.” Sound familiar? Many of us have spent years building up food rule walls to create a barricade of restriction, binging, negative feelings about food, negative thoughts about our bodies, and keeping life and the enjoyment of food on the outside.
How do you think you’re going to feel when you consume a food you’ve deemed good or bad? You guessed it...good or bad! Food is not a matter of right or wrong. Food is NOT a moral issue.
I repeat…. FOOD IS NOT A MORAL ISSUE!
If you’re always left feeling guilt/shame because of your intake, it’s only likely to increase the likelihood of you overeating in the end. This occurs due to restriction of the foods leading us into a downward spiral of increased cravings, overeating, and maybe even secretive eating behaviors and physical discomfort. Before you know it, there you go - jumping back on the diet wagon again only to go through this cycle. All. Over. Again.
Again, attaching positivity or “goodness” to certain foods and negativity or “badness” to others is the same thing. Let’s think about cake and kale. Kale is great, it has a ton of nutrients, adds color to a dish, and taste pretty darn good sautéed with salt and oil (in my opinion). Cake is great too, it tastes delicious, it’s fun to make, and there are so many varieties you can try. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Kale for many would likely fall under the “good” or “healthy” category and cake would fall under the “bad” or “unhealthy” category. Let’s explore this further... Cake is more energy-dense and actually a lot more balanced if we take a look at the ingredients: carbohydrates (flour and sugar), protein (eggs and dairy), and fat (oil and butter). The only component of kale is kale (complex carbohydrate). If we needed to survive on either cake or kale, the cake would likely keep you alive for a lot longer. The cake would be the “healthy choice.” Food is not good or bad, it is not healthy or unhealthy, food is food. Different types of food have different ingredients, purposes, benefits, and it ALL FITS.
Guys, I’m not suggesting you have a free for all with food. My guess is if you make food less novel, ridding yourself of the shame and stigma attached to it (all of that black and white jargon I’ve already gone over), you’ll be able to remain more attuned with yourself, which will allow you to further hone in on what it is exactly it is that your body needs:
How does the food make you feel?
Are you satisfied with the intake?
Are you feeling tired or sluggish after eating or revived and full of energy?
Do you have stomach pain or discomfort?
Are you experiencing a sugar crash?
If you’re finding this to be a bit challenging, we’re here to help! Here are a few TRUTHS to counter some of the automatic, black/white thoughts:
THOUGHT: “I’m going to be bad today and have that brownie.” TRUTH: Eating food does not make you bad - being mean to others, mistreating someone, etc - that’s bad. Eating brownies? I think not.
THOUGHT: “I’m going to treat myself today.” TRUTH: Food shouldn’t be something that is earned, as if ingesting it on any other random day would be just wrong.
THOUGHT: “But I shouldn’t eat that or I’ll get fat or I shouldn’t eat that because I am fat.” TRUTH: Your body weight, shape and size does not make you worthy of only eating certain foods - if you are human you deserve to eat and you deserve to eat good food that you ENJOY. PERIOD.
THOUGHT: “This food was forbidden in my last diet, I’m such a failure for eating it. I might as well keep eating it at this point. I can always start over again tomorrow.” TRUTH: Diets are restrictive and keep us from enjoying some of our favorite foods. “Starting over” is just going to put you right back into that restrictive phase again; only perpetuating the nasty dieting cycle. Yuck.
My clients tend to swing to the extremes even in conversation about this. Here’s an example of some dialogue from a recent session with my client, Janet:
Janet: “I really wanted french fries, but I know that’s not good, so I ate an apple instead.”
Me: “Okay...since you were craving french fries, did that apple satisfy you?”
Janet: “Well, I felt full after, but I wasn’t really satisfied. I still really wanted those french fries. I actually wanted them so badly that I couldn’t stop thinking about them and ended up going through the drive-through on my way home from work and getting some...along with a few other things. Now I feel awful. I should probably just have a salad for dinner.”
These extremes can keep us stuck in the dieting cycle. We’re either good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy. But how do we shift this? We start by healing our relationship with food so that these feelings start to dissipate. One of my favorite activities to help clarify this is creating a good/bad - satisfied chart with my clients. Together we work though the black and white thinking. In Janet’s case, we distinguished an apple, (what she perceived as good) vs. french fries, (perceived as bad) and then worked collectively to help her find a satisfying alternative. We ultimately came up with getting an order of french fries and having them WITH her sandwich and apple at lunch. Instead of eating them instead of the apple or on their own. What did she learn? When she tried this out and reported back to me a week later she said she ended up eating less overall, that she was full, had good energy and wasn’t thinking about food again until she started to get hungry a few hours later.
Food should be enjoyed. Enjoyed with others. Enjoyed without lingering guilt or shame attached to it. Bottom line, food is not a moral issue. Food is food.
5 Tips to help start working towards being able to enjoy (all) foods again
1. Make a list of foods you ENJOY, your favorite foods. Acknowledge judgments that come up and try to shut them down. This might be difficult if you’ve been restricting certain types of food for a while. Think about foods you enjoyed as a kid before food was “healthy” or “unhealthy.'
2. Choose a food on your list (preferably one that is or used to be deemed “bad”) and try to remember the last time you truly enjoyed that food. Write down the story of what you were doing, who you were with, why you chose that food, how it tasted, and why you enjoy it.
3. Give yourself PERMISSION to eat ALL foods. Next time you’re in the grocery store, tell yourself, “you can have any food here you want.” This doesn’t mean you have to buy anything, just practice giving yourself permission. Check out our blog post on this here >>
4. Practice challenging food judgment. Next time you notice yourself judging a food you or someone else is eating, take a moment and pause. Where does the judgment come from? Is this judgment helpful? How can we re-frame this thought to be neutral or positive?
5. Unsubscribe/unfollow/delete accounts on social media who feed into and project the “good/bad,” “healthy/unhealthy” mentality! Look for accounts to follow who support the all-foods-fit philosophy (hint, hint @nourishrx). On IG you can also choose to follow hashtags like #HAES, #AllFoodsFit, and #IntuitiveEating!
Breaking free from diet culture and challenging food judgment can seem like a daunting task but we’re here to tell you you don’t have to go it alone! We are here for you every step of the way and want to provide you a community of support. Drop us a line to see all our practice has to offer!