“Oh, look at how good you are with all these fruits and vegetables! But at least you’re a little bit bad with this chocolate and chips.”
Last time I went grocery shopping, the cashier shared his thoughts with me as I was checking out. These days, it’s not uncommon to hear comments about being “good” or bad” or eating “healthy” or “unhealthy” goods. Our culture tends to be black and white around food, and it’s the way media, food companies, and social media talks about food these days.
While people are using the word “diet” less often, the conversation has swapped out the word diet for “clean eating”, “cheat day” or “healthy” food.
It’s so common for someone struggling with disordered eating patterns to talk about food this way, and unfortunately, our culture minimizes it as a problem. People think it’s normal eating if they eat healthy or clean because that’s what everyone else does.
Yet, when you classify food as good or bad or other terms, you’re creating food rules that create unnecessary fear, anxiety, and judgment about food. Instead of enjoying the ice cream out with friends or restaurant meal with your family, you may end up thinking about how “bad” the food is and how you plan to compensate for it later.
Here’s how you can start to challenge those good and bad food mindsets to free yourself from fearful food rules.
1 Remind yourself that food is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’
All food has a purpose. At its core, food is energy and fuel for your body and contains macronutrients and micronutrients to keep your body functioning well.
When you use this definition, then bread has essential carbohydrates and B-vitamins to energize your brain and muscles and ice cream contains essential fatty acids for healthy hormones and healthy hair, skin, and nails, as well as calcium for your bones. Next time, you find yourself feeling guilty for eating a food, think about how the food is benefitting your body.
2. Emotional eating is not “bad”
Emotional eating or eating comfort foods has a purpose too. Yes, some foods provide more nutritional value than others, and other foods provide emotional comfort, pleasure, and social enjoyment. These experiences are wonderful for your mental, emotional, and social health.
I love going out for ice cream in the summer, sitting down for a Thanksgiving feast with my family, or going out to eat on the weekend. Some days, I crave some chocolate if I’m feeling sad, so I enjoy some while also practicing self-care to meet my emotional needs.
Your body is designed to enjoy and feel pleasure from food. If humans didn’t enjoy food, we wouldn’t be alive! When we’re hungry, our brain is designed to go out and seek food and feel pleasure when we eat to keep us alive.
3. Practice including these foods into your life
While you may read this article and agree, the real practice comes from experience. When you challenge yourself to include challenging foods that you classify as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ back into your life, then you can learn this lesson for yourself. It takes time and self-work, but it’s worth it.
You may realize that you can eat ice cream without binging on it, enjoy a burger and fries without feeling guilty, or just eat normally without anxiety or “making up for it” later. You’ll learn that you won’t have to rely on eating a salad to feel good about yourself, and you don’t have to feel bad for eating certain foods.
This process takes patience and self-compassion, and it can be helpful to work with a dietitian and therapist that can eat with you and help you process your emotions afterward.
Food is just food. It doesn’t have the power to control how you feel about yourself. When you start to reframe these mindsets and break free of the food labels, you can take back your power. You can make nourishing yourself with all foods only one important part of your life, and recognize that it allows you to get out and enjoy life to the fullest without taking over your whole life.