Shame on you! How dare you eat that slice of pie! This is so bad for me…well, there goes my diet, all my hard work… I’m such a weakling…I’ve got no willpower…I’m breaking the rules…oh well, I may as well have another piece.
Well, it’s what you’re thinking when you eat something “bad,” isn’t it? Berating yourself for indulging in your favorite dessert, gulping down feelings of shame and guilt?
This concept of good or bad food is a critical piece of our food beliefs that either keep us stuck in food rules or dieting mentality or….set us free to incorporate all foods with balance. Food is energy, food is vital, and food is neutral. Labeling it gives it power it shouldn’t have.
Who can blame you? With all the mixed messaging out there distorting views of health and nutrition, contradicting research, and multibillion-dollar companies targeting our insecurities through their fad diets, it’s no wonder you’re confused and struggling with what and how much to eat. Are you ready to make friends with you and foods?
DROP the “good” and “bad” labels and beliefs.
Have you been placing too much importance on food, allowing it to rule your emotions? It’s time to regain control and say no to counting calories, yo-yo dieting, and disordered eating. It’s time to appreciate food for what it is — fuel for growth, fuel for our brains, muscles. But how do you know what food is right for YOU?
You drop the labels. Try it….you’ll like it! It feels disingenuous at first…or most likely for a long time because we are bombarded with ”eat this, don’t eat that” daily from all kinds of sources (co-workers, parents, media, research…). Because we have been conditioned to think of food in these two categories it seems wrong to not label cake as bad. But cake is not bad…it’s the thought that cake is bad, that is bad! Our food beliefs hold us hostage or set us free. And when we have engaged in something bad, we must be a bad person. See where I’m going with this?
Dropping labels helps cultivate body trust.
Your body knows what it needs and sends cues throughout the day for you to translate into choices of what food or amount of food you need at that time . The problem with food labels, is that they suppress your body’s inner wisdom or biological feedback system, which makes it really confusing to interpret these signals. This hampers your ability to make informed food choices that align with what your body needs/wants. Note: sometimes this might be nutrient-dense food, sometimes this might be a treat. For example, I have always teetered on low iron. At times, I will crave a hamburger and will make a bee-line to the nearest best, juiciest hamburger in town! My body needs IRON. The most absorbable form of iron is in beef. Whew! That’s a lot of cues, interpretations and translations right there! If I obsessed that hamburger was “bad” food, I would have thrown myself into a complete state of confusion about the strong URGE or desire for hamburgers, how I shouldn’t have one and how bad I would be to even want that food, let alone, eat it! And if it’s bad food, then I should eat it in private or maybe even eat a couple of them in private….because I’m breaking the rules, eating something bad, I may as well do it up, right? Ugh….how exhausting is that?
When you ditch judgement and start treating food as neutral, you become aware of these cues your body is giving you, how to honor them, and how your body responds to certain foods when you allow yourself to follow through. You are freed to make decisions on what or what not to eat without throwing yourself into a state of turmoil. I know, this may sound like a crazy thought to some. It’s a process. You have to practice not labeling food for a little while before you test driving how you feel after eating a formerly bad food. To note: I am not suggesting you remove labels and eating without regard.
Labeling food “good” or “bad” moralizes it.
Morality is the distinction between right and wrong. The problem with moralizing what you eat is that your body’s feedback system gets blocked and your food choices are solely based on emotions. This is dangerous because when you eat something labeled as bad, you tend to eat with a guilty conscience, in secret, or in panic. When you eat food labeled as good, you tend to feel great about yourself.
Mark David, a nutritional psychologist, shares a fantastic example of what labels do:
A person walks into the room and I say to you, “Avoid that man. He is a bad person.” Chances are you will believe me. You will never get to know him, understand him, or experience his depth simply because of this initial judgement. The man might very well be a saint or potential best friend, yet labeling him as bad stopped the exploration process. The same is true for food.
Moralizing food runs much deeper than labels. Your body starts translating the food as bad, suppressing its natural biological flow of information about that food, and instead responds to the attached label. This means if you label it as bad, your body interprets it that way.
You are not defined by what you eat.
Your identity is NOT rooted in what you eat. Judging food before eating it has been linked to many health hazards like obesity, eating disorders, binging, etc. Picture this: you unwrap a chocolate, look around to make sure no one sees you, start eating it and suddenly you’re overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, shame and condemnation. Now you’re tormented with thoughts of being overweight, unhealthy, and not good enough. You become guilt, shame and condemnation. What happened? You have turned a food label into your identity.
What happens when you eat something new and you are unsure of how to label it? You have no idea if it is good or bad. You’re in another country and friends serve you food you’ve never heard of, seen or tasted. You eat it, and it tastes good…you allow yourself to explore it with some curiosity because you don’t know what it is! You, explore the flavors, textures. Then later continue to evaluate….how did it make you feel? Satisfied? Did it have a negative or positive effect on you? Did you have mega garlic breath? Did you have an upset stomach after? Was that a different experience than eating something that has preconceived good/bad labels? Compare this to a bad food: you may eat it quickly, privately or mindlessly, picking at it for fear of what it may do to you. Your preconceived judgement has robbed you of the opportunity to explore it with curiosity and understand its impact on your body.
You decide what’s good for you.
I am reminded of an article in the paper about a man who was celebrating his 100th birthday. There was a picture of him in the paper, smiling with his birthday cake made of donuts; a 1, 0, 0. Why donuts? Well, because for as long as he can remember he had enjoyed a donut every single day of his adult life. But wait, aren’t donuts bad for you??? I don’t know…this cutie cakes lived to 100 years old, at least! Hmmm….
I used to love garlic! Until, there came a day when it made me feel crampy and bloated. Each time I ate garlic it happened again and again. I had to take garlic out of my diet. But wait, isn’t garlic a superfood? Well, not for me. My body was providing natural biological feedback to me — I couldn’t digest it and I was listening. I know. You’re thinking that garlic isn’t a calorically dense food to fear and so no biggie, right? My point is, I could have easily blamed my ill feelings on the rich creamy garlicky sauces or breads that I used the garlic for. When eating without judgement, you can be a better detective to pinpoint the real food culprit. You too can do this with ALL food.
How to practice food neutrality
Conscious eating means engaging all your senses and creating an awareness of how food tastes and makes you feel. It allows you to take time exploring how your body responds to what you eat. When you start debating whether food is good or bad, STOP yourself and reframe it — it’s cake, it’s fries, it’s a donut, a fruit, or salmon. Allow yourself to eat in a safe space, slow down if you can, eat with curiosity…how does this actually make me feel when I’m finished?
Practicing food neutrality clears up confusion regarding what you should or should not eat, and often helps you realize that you don’t actually like the type of foods that have control over you.
The power of food neutrality is that when you say goodbye to judgment, ditch your deep-rooted beliefs, and admit that your interpretation of food may not be accurate, food no longer has a grip on you and you get to enjoy more foods with confidence!
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