Labeling food as good vs. bad

What you eat does not make you “good” or “bad”

…in that moment, that day, that week and it definitely doesn’t define or reflect your character or value as a person.

You’re not “good” for eating a salad. It makes you a person who eats salad. On the flip side… having cake does not make you “bad” …think you get the point! 

Clients often come to me thinking our first meeting is going to be a “confession session” where they discuss all the “bad” things they’ve been doing when it comes to food.

Acting as the “food police” is not what my role is as a Registered Dietitian …nutrition is not this black and white.

Instead, I recommend that you embrace the grey & get curious about your habits and choices as opposed to critical.

Why is labeling foods as “good” vs “bad” harmful for my health & happiness?

The moment you’ve labeled a food as “bad”, you begin to fear it. It takes up more of your mental space as you spend more time thinking about it. Labeling a food as “bad” inherently puts it on a pedestal.

When something is on a pedestal a few things happen….

A) You may want it even more (since it feels off limits)

B) You may not be able to be fully present while eating it since guilt will sink in, which will reduce your ability to listen to your bodies feedback (i.e are you even enjoying it? or maybe its not that good?, or maybe you had a few bites and that felt satisfying)… instead the guilt may lead to a feeling of “well, I already was “bad” might as well just have more”

C) It stops being a neutral food choice and starts having a moral implication. Meaning, when we eat the “bad” food, we tell ourselves that we are “bad” for having made that decision.

Here’s an example…

One of my favorite foods is a chocolate chip cookie…preferably my mom’s recipe with a little bit of heath bar in it 🙂 It would likely be considered a “bad” food in a good vs. bad labeling scenario since the recipe is filled with butter, chocolate, heath bar… especially when it is compared to a fresh salad.

Next, let’s imagine I’m going to my mom’s house this weekend and I know she’ll have the cookies for me when I arrive. I decide to be “good” all week, which results in a compensatory behavior of “restricting” since I know I’m going to want cookies (in my mind.. considered “bad”) this weekend.

When the time comes to eat the cookie… I eat it, I enjoy it in the moment…but that enjoyment only lasts so long before the guilt settles in.

I beat myself up for having the cookie and dont even get to truly enjoy it. Then I figure “Welp, I was already bad…might as well continue this behavior for the rest of the weekend”. I end up having even more cookies, which ultimately does not make me feel well. This is called the restrict–>binge–>repent–>repeat cycle.

What to do instead?

I know it can be easier said than done to drop these labels. For some of us we’ve been labeling foods since childhood (often from hearing adults refer to foods as “bad” and “good”). It’s a bit of an unlearning process.

Here are the steps I recommend when it comes to “unlearning” the tendency to label foods:

  1. The fist thing to do is to gain awareness. What foods do you label? Consider making a list of the foods and what you label them as (i.e bad, fattening, not approved, etc). How does this make you feel?
  2. Next, now that you know which foods are most triggering for you when it comes to labels continue to listen to your thoughts around those foods and increase your awareness. Every time you catch yourself calling a food choice “bad” or “good” try and reframe the label to something else. For example… back to my mom’s cookie scenario… I could say something to myself like “Cookies are delicious. I can enjoy 1 or 2 in moderation and feel good about my choice.” It can also be helpful to empower yourself. For example, if you previously told yourself “I can’t control myself around cookies”. Instead, work on telling yourself “I am in control of my choices”.
  3. Additionally, instead of attaching words of morality around food empower yourself to make decisions based on what FEELS GOOD for your body in that moment by thinking of food as a part of your self-care (not self-control). To read more about what I mean by this check out this blog post discussing self-care versus self-control. For example, sometimes choices rooted in self-care are going to mean a nourishing bowl of plants and other times it’s going to be a bowl of your favorite ice cream.

Practice makes Progress

With practice over time dropping the labels will allow us to feel more in power when it comes to food and lessen the power that food has over us. We will get to decide what we want to eat and how much based on how it makes us feel…not because of moral motives.

This serves as a reminder that you are in control of your food choices and that the food doesn’t control you.

I know this isn’t easy work since and sometimes it may feel easier go back and follow rigid diet rules. The problem is – while it seems simpler to see things in black and white… it is often not sustainable or balanced.

Interested in learning more about working with me for 1:1 nutrition and health coaching to help you improve your relationship with food and find balance that works for you? Sign up for your free 15-minute phone consultation here!