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Why Should You Stop Labelling Food as Good or Bad?

good food vs. bad food

After reading about the unfortunate passing of Anthony Bourdain, chef, food enthusiast and TV celebrity, last week, it got me thinking about the clients I have seen in my practice and their contrasting relationship with food.

Anthony was described in the media as someone who had a love of adventure and fine food and drink. They said he had a passion for exploring food and cuisine around the world and he taught us how food can connect us with each other. Isn’t that the way it should be? Food should be enjoyed and appreciated. It has the power to unite people around the table to share the same pleasurable experience. It is the focus of our celebrations and our culture. It stimulates all of our senses and can make us feel good. Food nourishes our body, keeps us healthy and gives us the energy we need to do the things we enjoy. Food is a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, for so many people, this is not the case. Food is the “enemy”. They live their lives restricting or avoiding foods that are “bad” and trying only to eat “good” food. For them, the enjoyment of food and drink no longer exists. Typically, “good” foods are those associated with being lower in calories, healthy and “boring”, whereas “bad” foods are those which are higher in calories, unhealthy and “taste good”. On many weight loss diets, “bad” foods are the foods or food groups that should be avoided. Strictly avoiding “bad” foods leads to a feeling of deprivation which ultimately leads to cravings and overeating. Eating something that gives pleasure or “bad” food almost always ends up with a feeling of guilt or shame. This in turn leads to negative feelings of oneself, “I have no willpower”, “I blew my diet”, “I was bad today, I ate a piece of cake”. Negative self-talk threatens your self-esteem. Low self-esteem may lead to emotional and/or disordered eating. Your food choices don’t define you. If you eat a piece of cake, you are NOT a bad person. You are a bad person if you rob a bank, physically harm or bully someone. If you eat a piece of cake, you are human! Categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”, leads to an unhealthy relationship with food. Very restrictive diets can result in deficiencies of important nutrients. It is important to eat a variety of foods from all food groups in order to get the vitamins, minerals, calories, protein, fat, and yes, “carbs” that you need to survive!

Some people like rules about good and bad foods because they find it makes it easier to make decisions about which foods they should or should not eat. The reality is that it isn’t quite as black and white as just two categories of food, good vs. bad. In fact, there are many foods which fall into the “grey” area. For example, pizza is something we might consider a “bad” food. Some types of pizza can be high in fat and/or sodium, which we know aren’t as good for our health. However, pizza is made of cheese, which is an excellent source of calcium, not to mention protein. The crust is a good source of carbohydrate, which provides us with energy and B-vitamins and fibre (if it is whole grain). The tomato sauce is a great source of antioxidants such as lycopene and vitamin C. If you skip the processed meat toppings and add vegetables, pizza is actually nutritious! Conversely, a food such as asparagus, is usually considered a “good” food because it is a vegetable. Some people may not enjoy eating vegetables because they are “bland” or “boring”. If asparagus is roasted in the oven with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, and cooked tender crisp, it is delicious. A “good” food like asparagus can potentially be pleasurable to eat! You can see, it really doesn’t make sense to label foods specifically as “good” or “bad”. Food is just food.

Your decision about whether to eat a single food item does not determine whether or not you are following a healthy diet, it really depends on the overall picture. A healthy eating pattern includes mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins, healthy fats and fish, some low fat milk products, poultry and eggs, and less lean, red meat. Foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar, salt, and/or highly processed, should not be forbidden, they should just be consumed in moderation. There is no reason why all foods cannot be part of a healthy diet. For example, if you love potato chips, enjoy a small bowl occasionally, just don’t eat the whole bag! If you can’t stop eating chips once you open the bag, buy a smaller, single serving bag at the convenience store. You will be less likely to binge on a food if it is included regularly in your diet in moderate amounts.

If you want to eat “normally” and improve your relationship with food, you need to change the way you think and try to stop labelling foods as “good” or “bad”. Avoid diets that are highly restrictive or eliminate specific foods or entire food groups. Find a healthy balance between foods that nourish and hydrate your body and those that strictly give you pleasure. Pay attention to the food you are eating. Slow down, eat at the table with your family (when possible) and eliminate distractions such as TV, computers, phones and other electronic devices. Take the time to think about the taste, aroma, texture and sound of the food you are eating. Enjoy the experience of sharing a meal with your friends and/or family. Rely on your hunger/fullness cues to determine when, what and how much to eat. Make peace with food. Food should be your friend, not your enemy.

Eat Well. Feel Well. Be Well.


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