Let me start by asking you two questions:
Question #1 – What food do you associate with the word “healthy” and “good”?
Question #2 – What food, on the other hand, do you associate with the word “unhealthy” or “bad”?
If you’re anything like me, chances are you answered something like a salad, broccoli, or avocado to the first question.
For the latter, you probably answered something like pizza, ice cream, and fries, and chocolate. Simply food that most of us enjoy, but feel guilty about when having it.
And that my friends, is the “good food” vs. “bad food” approach.
For the past 8 years, I considered food to be my worst enemy. I didn’t see food as fuel, I didn’t see it as something that I can actually enjoy.
No. In my mind had a (not so) imaginary list of foods that were “safe” to eat and a list of “evil” food that I need to avoid at all costs.
And as my anorexia got progressively worse and worse, the “bad food” list kept expanding. If I ate something from the forbidden food, I felt so guilty, ashamed, and disgusted with myself. Those feelings can hardly be compared to anything else I’ve experienced.
Right around the age of 18-19, I developed a binge eating disorder. Binge eating for me was a whole nother level of twisted food mindset. After each and every binge, I tried to stick to a very strict diet, I tried restricting and counting the calories, and most of all, I promised myself that I will avoid eating junk food and I’ll NEVER EVER binge again.
But as we all know, the more you deny yourself something, the more you think about it. And the more you think about it, the more you want it and the more you crave it.
Whenever I managed to go a day sticking to some crazy diet, what would follow was a crazy binge where I didn’t eat just some junk food. I’d buy and eat literally bags of junk food.
I was in denial and believed that the only way out of this was restricting myself, losing weight, and “getting my willpower back”. So, my life turned into a never-ending battle between me, myself, and food.
I became terrified of food – all I could think about was how much is all the food making me fat, sick, and making me lose any kind of control.
To me, food was no longer just food – I associated food with morals, emotions, shame, disgust, and feelings of success, and feelings of failure.
That’s how fu**ed up the “good food” vs. “bad food” mindset can be.
I think such a mindset can never be healthy.
Why approaching the food as good and as bad is essentially wrong
The “good” vs. “bad” food approach is pretty self-explanatory, but how I see it, is that it’s an approach where you label food as good and as bad according to factors like weight gain, weight loss, emotions, fear, socially acceptable, healthy, clean, junk, etc.
You’re probably going to have different labels and different reasons why you consider this type of food or that type of food as either good or bad.
The “good food” is food that you essentially consider safe to eat – maybe it’s the food you believe won’t make you gain any weight, maybe it’s food that fits your diet rules.
The “bad food” label, on the other hand, refers to food that you believe you shouldn’t eat, food that you forbid yourself. It’s a food you believe will cause you to gain weight, it’s a food you may associate with negative feelings; but usually, it is also food that we would LOVE to eat, but we feel like we shouldn’t.
My “bad food” category was food that I loved but also food that I binged on – things like chocolate, cookies, pizza, ice cream, any kind of pastry, carbs in general, sweet things in general, soft drinks, granola, etc.
The rule I tried to live by was “You can eat food that is good (aka healthy), and you can never EVER touch food from the bad category.
So, why do I think this approach is so wrong? Because it:
- assigns moral values and emotions to food
- makes us afraid of food
- can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food and to can contribute to disordered eating
- is not sustainable
1) Assigning moral values and emotions to food
Many of us love and enjoy food. Many of the great memories we have had been created with our loved ones, our families gathering together, leading interesting conversations, and having fun, all while been surrounded by food.
Ultimately, food is JUST food; it is the fuel that our body and our brain need in order to function properly. The food itself doesn’t come with a moral label or emotional label.
It’s us who assign a label to the food. Unhealthy. Healthy. Sugary. Fatty. Low carb. High card. Low fat. Sugar-free. Fat-free.
And I believe one of the reasons why we associate food with different labels is the diet culture. We’re being fed with thousands and thousands of ads every single day, claiming this is what you need to eat to lose weight; these types of food we should avoid at all costs, and these superfoods will save your life.
So we buy into that idea that this is what we ultimately should be doing – that we should have a category of food that is diet-friendly and food that we should avoid.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about what we eat. We should. We should care about what we eat and what we feed our bodies with. But what we should pain attention to is the variety of food that we eat, having a rich diet, not a diet based on eating just a few eatable and eating them over and over. We should care about where our food comes from, and whether we’re eating enough.
The diet culture and most diets, in general, are indeed based on restrictions and on weight loss being the main goal.
What’s probably even worse is that through the “good” and “bad” food labels we associate food with our self-worth – eating food from the good category ultimately makes us feel good about ourselves, it makes us feel praiseworthy and proud for having this much self-control and willpower.
Whereas eating the “bad” food makes us FEEL like we are bad like we have failed like we are disgusting and shameworthy.
Here are just a few examples of attaching labels/emotions to food:
- I shouldn’t eat this food, it will make me fat
- I shouldn’t eat this food, it means I messed up my diet
- If I eat this, it means I’ll need to workout extra hard or extra hour in the gym tomorrow
- But it can also be feelings like “I feel sad, angry, frustrated, lonely; so I’ll comfort myself with food”
2) Being afraid of food
The “good food” and “bad food” approach teaches us to be afraid of food.
But should food really make us feel guilty?
Should we feel terrified of eating a piece of chocolate or of having a bigger dinner or of not eating that many vegetables that day?
That’s what the whole “good vs bad food” approach creates in us – the fear – fear of food, associating negative emotions with what we eat.
There are also other labels that we, and the diet culture use – such as clean eating, cheat meals, cheat days, junk foods, but also labels such as healthy and unhealthy food, which I find a little problematic.
It is true that some food is richer in nutrients than others, but ultimately, too much of anything won’t be good for you, no matter if it’s considered healthy or unhealthy.
Eating kilograms and kilograms of broccoli won’t be healthy, neither will be eating kilograms of chocolate.
Neither is exercising without taking a day off or working for hours straight without taking any breaks.
Nothing in life, including food, is just black and white.
I believe, at least from my personal experience, that trying to avoid food that you really really like, simply because you labelled it as bad or as unhealthy, doesn’t really work; and there’s no reason why we couldn’t have the food we like.
Like anything in life, even your relationship with food is about finding some sort of balance and moderation, and about finding what works for you.
3) Good and bad food approach can contribute to unhealthy relationship with food and to disordered eating
I’m speaking from my perspective but I feel like approaching food as good or as bad can be one of the triggers for developing an unhealthy relationship with food and developing an eating disorder.
According to the Healthy Place article on the good food versus bad food approach, the more food categories we eliminate from our diet, the more afraid of food we will become. And that, again, can contribute to us developing an eating disorder.
Speaking from my experience, the good food/bad food mindset was the main reason why I’ve struggled with binge eating for so long (for over 6 years). I found it too hard to let go of that mindset, and I kept coming back to the idea that I need to restrict myself and I need to avoid the bad category until the end of my life in order to recover from the binge eating disorder, which is, of course, a completely false belief.
4) It’s not sustainable
I’m not a fan of diets*, just because I feel like they ruined so many lives, so many body images, and they had broken so many minds.
*Just to clarify, I’m not talking about health-related diets that you need to stick to because of health problems; I’m talking about diets that are promoting quick weight loss and unhealthy techniques.
Depending on how they’re built and who they are built for, diet plans can serve as a guide for people who never cared about what they eat ever in their life. Diets can give us a sense of control.
But I’d say 99.9% of diets are based on restricting certain types of foods, claiming that one type of food is better than the other and that some types of food are pure evil.
I think most diets don’t work because the way they’re set is unsustainable. With diets comes the idea of “cheat days”.
I hate cheat days. I HATE CHEAT DAYS. On cheat days, many people let themselves go and they indulge in everything they’ve been denying themselves off, only to restrict themselves again later on. If you need to cheat on your diet, then how it can be good for you? Would you feel comfortable in a romantic relationship where you would cheat on your partner every couple of days? Probably not. Chances are you want a relationship that’s sustainable.
With the good food/bad food approach, it’s easy to feel like you’re breaking the rules when you eat something that’s either on your “bad food” list or that’s not necessarily considered to be “diet-friendly”.
But should you really feel like you’re breaking the rules for having a piece of chocolate? No. That’s why I think most diets don’t work. They contribute to the all or nothing mindset, and to the mindset that’s typical for binge eating – “I already messed up, so I may as well eat everything, it doesn’t matter anymore”.
what is the possible solution to breaking free from this mindset?
We all have different reasons why we approach food as good and as bad. We label food differently, we categorize food differently.
There’s no one size fits all approach to changing the good versus bad food mindset. Some of us will need a help of a professional, some of us will deal with this on our own. None of these options is wrong.
I’m not an expert, so I’m gonna share more general tips and share what helped me when I was trying to ditch the good and bad food labels during my eating disorder recovery.
#1 Expand your diet
The #1 thing that helped me to ditch the good food/bad food approach was expanding my diet, and incorporating a variety of eatables into my life.
It may sound like an obvious thing to do but at the same time, it’s one of the hardest things to do. You’ve been used to eating the same types of foods again and again, and you just abandoned so many foods that could be nutritious from your diet because of your fear.
Because it may often feel like you’re breaking your own rules like you’re going against everything you believed in so far, incorporating new eatables into your life may not be easy from the beginning.
Expanding your diet goes hand in hand with ditching the good & bad food labels.
I personally find it easier to start small and have a little piece of something that I’ve been avoiding for so long. The negative emotions will come, but it’s important not to pay attention to them, and to not let them affect you and make you feel guilty.
In time, it usually gets easier.
I was terrified of avocado for so many years. At the same time, I’ve seen so many people praising it. So to enrich my eating habits, I searched for different recipes on Google and Pinterest, came up with few ideas that I’d love to try and I’ve tried them. And I liked it, kind of. But even if you would end up not liking the food, at least you’ve tried it, and you did one step towards breaking free from that fear you have of food.
If the way you eat is black and white, you’re gonna get bored of it, and you’re gonna search for ways how you can “cheat” on your diet.
Expanding your diet doesn’t mean you need to eat everything and anything, all day every day, and that you should just eat whatever and don’t care about what you put in your body.
It means you should ditch the extremes that we either eat 100% good or 100% bad. Everything that’s done in extremes is unhealthy, so keep that in mind, try to introduce new foods, new recipes, and new food combinations into your diet and see how that goes.
#2 Ditch the food labels
I don’t know about you, but I no longer want something as simple as FOOD to have such a huge amount of control over me and dictate my self-worth, my mood, and my decisions.
I want food to be just the necessary fuel to help me function, I want food to be something that I enjoy, not something I’m afraid of.
We need to stop approaching food as good and as bad because it inevitably leads to approaching ourselves as either bad or good – depending on what we ate.
Eat to have energy, eat to feed your body, and eat to feel physically and mentally good.
Ditching the food labels is essential to get rid of the negative association with food.
In my case, therapy was really helpful. Being a binge eater, I found it really hard to “stay away” from the “bad” food, from the “junk” food, because in my mind it meant I’m never going to be able to eat that “bad” food again.
If I would, I would automatically associate it with messing up. To me, it meant I just sabotaged all of my previous efforts, and because I slipped up, it didn’t really matter anymore if I ate a few cookies or the entire box, and 2 pizzas, a pint of ice cream, and 2 boxes of chocolates on top.
What has helped me a lot was trying to focus more on what binge eating and restricting does to my body and to my mental health, rather than whether or not it’s going to make me gain weight.
#3 Learn to listen to your body
Learning to listen to our bodies is probably the hardest thing to do. Our bodies and minds are pretty messed up from the constant dieting and labelling of food.
Fortunately enough, our bodies are smart – smarter than we think. If we let them, they will guide us and show us what they need.
For a long time, I wasn’t able to tell when I was hungry. I couldn’t tell whether I was eating because I was hungry or because I was just bored, or craving something. But listening to our bodies can help us navigate through the journey of enriching our diets and ditching the good food versus bad food labels forever.
Remember that nothing in life is black and white, neither is food, and neither should be your approach to it.
SCHURRER, Mary-Elizabeth. Good Food Vs. Bad Food Debate and Eating Disorder Recovery. Healthy Place. 2018. Available at: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2018/05/ed-recovery-and-the-good-versus-bad-food-debate
KUZEMCHAK, Sally. Why There Are No ‘Bad Foods’. Parents. 2018. Available at: https://www.parents.com/recipes/scoop-on-food/the-problem-with-good-and-bad-foods/JEAN, Laura. Good Food vs Bad Food. Eat with Awareness. Available at: https://eatwithawareness.com/good-food-vs-bad-food/