People often see dietitians as the “food police.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. You will probably be surprised to know that many dietitians do not believe in setting extreme food rules or hyper-fixing unreasonable expectations for our patients and clients. The belief that food should be categorized as “good” and “bad” is one of these expectations that diet culture supports and must stop.
You probably define “good food” as fruits and vegetables, while “bad food” includes cakes and cookies loaded with added sugar and fat. There’s no denying that fruits and vegetables are far more nutritious than a chocolate chip cookie. Foods like these have been linked to an increased risk of several chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure over time.
However, two things can be true at the same time, and there is no denying that our society unnecessarily moralizes food. Broccoli and strawberries can be health-promoting foods without being called “good,” just as a slice of pumpkin pie is not a health-promoting food but not necessarily “bad.” There is room for it all. Here’s how these types of labels can be harmful to you without even knowing it:
1. It gives food too much power
Food is just food. With our internal dialogue constantly defining food as “good and bad”, we allow it to have too much control over our minds. This can and often does lead to disordered eating, where one becomes obsessed with dieting “the right way”.
It often gets to the point where it wreaks havoc on both mental and physical health. Not to mention, the pattern of restricting your every craving is also the fastest way to a cycle of restricting overeating. Once you stop seeing food as the overwhelming influence in your life and carefully incorporate your cravings into your regular diet, you will take away the desire to always love it and possibly overeat it at some point.
2. It gives you all or nothing stress.
You’ve already been so bad this week, you’ve gone over your calories twice. Does this self-talk sound familiar?
If you beat yourself up for eating “bad” food, you’re doing yourself more harm than good. Stress is linked to all the diseases that plague Americans the most, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. By moralizing food in this way, you are putting pressure on yourself to have the “perfect” way of eating, which is something that will never happen and is simply impractical.
3. It makes you forget that food isn’t just about nutrients
Yes, food nourishes your body with protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, food is also a source of joy, culture and community. As the holidays approach, we’re reminded that one of the best parts about Thanksgiving dinner is getting your family to gather around and bond over laughter and conversation over a comforting dinner. You probably didn’t eat the healthiest meal of your life that day, but what you ate and who you ate it with probably fed your soul.
Food is also an essential part of any culture. When traveling to another state or country, trying food local to the area is one of the best parts! It helps you connect with and understand your surroundings because food is often rooted in heritage and tradition, and it’s okay to experience that. By not recognizing it, we further perpetuate the stigmas that exist about ethnic foods. As a Western society, we have a distorted belief about what healthy and “good” food means. We usually think of green smoothies and grilled chicken. Then, foods from other cultures are considered “bad” or unhealthy, such as Mexican and Indian. These views, unfortunately, are still very popular, despite foods like avocado toast, quinoa and turmeric rising to the top of the wellness culture list as they originated in Latin America and India, respectively.
You can recognize that some foods provide significantly more nutrients and health benefits than others, as long as you don’t moralize said foods and create a vicious cycle for yourself. Obviously, certain conditions, disease states, and allergies/sensitivities will make some foods off limits or need to be reduced. But if you only find yourself with self-imposed restrictions because food culture says so, it’s much more mentally healthy to be able to go on a spontaneous trip with your family to get ice cream without dreading the aftermath. Moralizing food also hinders progress in how we negatively view cultural foods and puts you at greater risk of developing disordered eating patterns as well.
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