Rachel Turi, RD
Debunking “Good” and “Bad” Foods
Updated: May 9, 2021
“I ate so bad last night…I had a burger and fries.” I was so good yesterday, I only ate vegetables!” “Are bananas bad for me because of the sugar?” “Is juice good or bad?” “Cookies are so bad for you!”
How many times have you heard or said phrases like those above? We’ve all done it, whether we realize it or not. The amount of times I hear others labeling foods as good or bad, or labeling themselves and their eating habits as good or bad is shocking. Since when did everything become one way or the other? Why have society and unqualified individuals convinced us that when we eat “bad” we are “cheating” and eating “good” means we are actually probably depriving our body of everything besides vegetables and egg whites. I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know I disagree, as will any other qualified Registered Dietitian. By trying to label everything food-related as good or bad, the majority of humans have lost intuitive eating skills and no longer know what or how much to eat. A long explanation short- there is no such thing as good and bad food. It is all quite relative. For an athlete running a marathon, a piece of candy or a sugar-sweetened sports drink is one of the best things they can put in their mouths. Likewise, kale is less than ideal for someone who gets a terrible gut ache if they eat it. When we stop overanalyzing and labeling everything we eat, we will be far better off…and have a happier and healthier body!
The Down Side to Food Labeling
This obsession with labeling things as good or bad has caused a lot of problems in recent years. In an effort to be “good”, more and more people have harmed their bodies. The rise in anxiety and eating disorders parallels this rise in over-analyzation of food. When individuals think a food they’ve eaten or an eating behavior they’ve just done is “bad” it immediately causes feelings of anxiety, stress, guilt, and low self-esteem. Not only are all those feelings detrimental to mental health, but also to physical health. Stress and anxiety do a fair amount of harm to the body. Not to mention, stress can prevent weight loss. By that, I mean if you are stressing about whether you are eating “good” or “bad” in an effort to lose weight, you might just be causing the exact opposite to happen. This is also a very disordered eating behavior. If not caught soon enough, these “minor” behaviors can develop into a full-blown eating disorder. As individuals allow themselves to start labeling things as “bad” they take the chance of starting a cascade. As time goes, the brain is convinced that more and more things are bad. It can get to a point that you are so restricted that you’re missing a lot of vital nutrients in your diet. I’d argue these deficiencies cause far more harm than a cookie ever will.
Moderation vs. Total Restriction
As mentioned above, people commonly start labeling foods as good and bad as a means to lose weight. They develop a list of “bad” things that they cannot have. They must always stay away from those foods. If they eat those “bad” foods, they themselves are “bad.” Or so they’ve convinced themselves. But what happens if they eat one of these horrible, horrible foods? They eat more and more and more. When the body feels restricted from something, the temptation to indulge in that exact thing becomes so strong that it is nearly impossible to deny. So, when someone inevitably gives into that food it triggers a cascade of overeating. The mindset of “well, I messed up so I might as well just keep messing up the rest of the day. I’ll be better tomorrow” takes over. Most often, we overeat more in that one day than we would have had we just allowed ourselves to have some of those foods as we were craving them throughout the week. For example- say cookies are one of those “bad” foods. A coworker brings a tray of cookies to work on a Monday. We don’t dare touch the cookies because they are bad. Day after day the temptation grows. Finally, it is Friday. We can’t ignore the cookies for one more minute, so we have one. Before we know it we have had 8 cookies. Had we just allowed ourselves to have one or two earlier in the week when they first appealed, we could have satisfied the craving and been on our way. See the difference?
That’s a lot to take in. Now what to do about it? First and most importantly remember this- food is fuel for life. We cannot live if we don’t eat. Our brain, or athletic performance, our mental health, and our physical health will go down the drain if we do not eat. It’s as simple as that. Some foods are more nutrient-dense than others and can and should be eaten often. Some foods are best eaten less often or in smaller quantities. What foods fit these categories completely depends on the situation and the person. First, identify your situation. Are you running 70 miles a week? Some potato chips and gummy bears are helping you run longer and further. There’s nothing bad about that. Do you have diabetes? Sugary desserts and drinks in excess are putting your health at risk, so they would be best taken in less frequently. Second, remind yourself what food is. Fuel. Life. Energy. Enjoyment. Comfort. Food isn’t good and food isn’t bad. Lastly, don’t overthink it! The body was meant to get a variety of foods. Grains, starches, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, fats, dairy, and treats are all a part of a balanced diet. Again, depending on an individual’s body and situation certain things may or may not be a part of their balance. For example, someone with a dairy allergy shouldn’t eat dairy and someone who is vegetarian doesn’t need to eat meat to have balance.
Not sure what balance is for you? Or, do you relate to this article and realize you often label things as good and bad, feeling guilty when you consume these so-called bad foods?