The food police seem out in full force these days. Between restrictive fad diets and celebrities hyping their nutrition do’s and don’ts, extreme and unreasonable messaging and rules around food are more prevalent than ever before.
As a registered dietitian, people assume my job is to be part of the food police squad, passing judgment on what people put in their mouths and maybe handing out tickets. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Oftentimes, family and friends play that role for me — more than once I’ve been called out by friends for enjoying a slice of bread with butter or ordering a pasta dish for dinner (insert eye roll here).
Comments like this have everything to do with diet culture, which promotes feeling ashamed about how you eat and links thinness and even specific foods to moral virtue. Demonizing certain foods or even whole categories of food (“carbs are bad for you”) is everywhere and I find it upsetting to see so many people buying into this mentality. Why? Because it can have detrimental effects on holistic health, which is about caring for the whole person and meeting your physical, mental, social and emotional needs. This includes taking pleasure in eating and not feeling like you’ve constantly messed up if you ate the wrong thing. Does eating white bread make me a bad person? Of course not. You can enjoy white bread and some of the most delicious foods in the world and still lead a healthy life.
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Your body needs food to function.
Let’s start with basic science: food is fuel. All food provides our body with fuel, energy and nourishment. Your body needs calories to function, and so calories are not the enemy. Food also has nutrients your body needs, and different foods have different nutrients.
Make no mistake here — as a dietitian I will always encourage you to make nutritious choices to benefit your overall body and holistic health. While there are no “bad” foods, it is of course true that certain foods don’t provide much physiological benefit to the body as others. Some foods have ingredients that aren’t nutritious for the body, like trans fats and artificial additives.
But that doesn’t mean we should form strict and rigid rules around avoiding those foods for the rest of our life or attaching morality to food. You are not a better person if you eat a more nutritious food, and you are not a worse person if you eat something that is less nutritious. Life isn’t perfect and involves making choices that take your circumstances, tastes and preferences into account.
When we label foods as “good” or “bad,” even “sinful” or “forbidden,” we’re giving that food too much control and power, which has the potential to lead to disordered eating. Restricting ourselves from a food can ultimately backfire and lead to a binge-restrict cycle that’s unhealthy for your physical body, mental health and emotional wellbeing. Designating certain foods “bad” can also lead to unnecessary stress and preoccupation with these items.
Here’s my advice: Listen to your body; if you are craving a food and want to enjoy it, then know it’s okay to eat your favorite foods in moderation without guilt or judgement. Every single meal doesn’t have to be the most perfect, most nutritious meal of your life. One meal, snack or food does not define your nutrition status or self worth.
You can have too much of a “good” thing.
And as for the foods we label as “good,” whether that’s low-carb, low-fat, whatever, there is such a thing as too much of a so-called “good” food as well. Too much of anything, even water, can be detrimental to the body. Too much can mean literally too much in terms of quantity (consuming too much fiber, for example, can hurt your digestive system), or eating a particular food to the exclusion of other foods that will help you get the well-balanced nutrition you need. We’re not meant to eat one sole food or category of food every single day for the rest of our lives—the human body thrives on a varied diet that provides a plethora of nutrients and nourishment. Psychologically speaking, eating a variety of foods helps us avoid obsessing over a certain food or nutrient and also physically ensures we are meeting our nutritional needs and avoiding potential deficiencies.
This ties into one important concept I have learned in my career: food freedom and fostering a healthy relationship with food is crucial. Mindset and mentality around your health is everything, and that starts with getting rid of the cringe-worthy labels of good foods and bad foods. This negative, fear-based messaging is abundant in wellness and weight-loss circles. But research out of Cornell University has found that we tend to be more motivated by positive things we can do to prevent health problems, rather than fear-based messaging.
How can I rewrite my internal dialogue around food?
I always keep a focus of holistic health in mind when it comes to making lifestyle choices, and that includes what to eat. Disrupted wellbeing in one holistic health area (the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of life) affects all of them. If you have a very low body fat percentage by surviving off a diet of broccoli and grilled chicken but are miserable and highly stressed because you can’t go out to eat with your friends or feel bad when you “cheat” with a “bad” food, what’s the point? Sacrificing your mental and emotional needs for unrealistic body goals isn’t worth it and ultimately can cause you more harm than good.
Holistic health and wellness is about empowering you to be true to you, prioritizing your self-care and doing what makes you happy and what makes you feel good. A well-balanced diet and active lifestyle that includes a balance of varied nutritious foods and enjoying your favorite foods as well is designed to make you feel and function your best.
A big part of holistic health starts with honoring the mind-body connection; when it comes to the physical component of holistic health, learning to practice mindful eating is a great start. As you begin to eat more mindfully, you can learn to listen and trust your body to choose the foods that are best for it at that moment and will meet all your needs.
That’s why we have to learn to block out this messaging that encourages us to demonize certain foods. I always say that if the pursuit of health is causing you anxiety and stress, it’s no longer a healthy pursuit. Food should nourish us and make us happy, not create anxiety. Breaking free from this type of rigid mentality around food is imperative for developing food freedom. A good place to start is by examining your words and internal dialogue surrounding food, and remembering: food is simply fuel.
Anyone feeling like they are suffering from disordered eating or an eating disorder can and should reach out for help immediately. The NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237 is available daily via call or text, and officials also are on standby in digital chats, ready to help you find resources in your area. If you are concerned about a loved one, learn more about how you can help.
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