In our world filled with advice and information on eating, weight, exercise, and health, it can become very easy to feel that if we are not doing these things the “right way”, we are failing at our health, well-being, or more. Each of us has a relationship with food and our bodies which is highly influenced by our environment and culture.
We do not have to look very far to see advice around foods that are good and bad for us. This notion gives us the idea that if we eat a food that is labeled as “bad”, it will negatively affect our health and lead to many problems. Often this fear is not just about overall health, but also that it may cause weight gain.
Naturally when we see a food as good or bad, we begin to avoid the “bad” foods and try to eat the “good” foods. This can start to become very confusing as a food may be labeled as “bad” by one person and “good” for another.
For example, one person may see whole grain foods as good and another may be trying to avoid this “bad” food. Sources of information on these subjects vary from diet-based testimonials to headlines touting the foods that will cure all our problems to trusted friends and even health care professionals.
Sometimes it’s easy to spot what we call “quackery” or inaccurate information. If the claim seems like it is too good to be true, then it’s probably is not true. However, when we start hearing this advice from trusted sources and friends, it becomes more difficult to avoid the desire to try to conform to the given advice.
Are there any bad foods? The straightforward answer is no. Unless there is a true food allergy, no one food has the power to make or break your health or well-being. When we begin to pull back from judgement around food, we begin to allow ourselves the freedom to eat a variety of foods and enjoy them. Giving ourselves permission to eat all foods, also allows us the ability to nourish our bodies because we know we can enjoy foods in reasonable amounts as we will be able to eat those foods again at another time when our bodies alert us that we are hungry.
We also see a cycle of restricting and over-eating or bingeing when we label foods as “good” and “bad”. As an example, let’s take a food such as a brownie. In our society we often label this as a “bad” food. Often I hear that this food contains sugar and the judgement follows that sugar is bad. First, let’s challenge the judgement that sugar is bad. The sugar in brownies is giving our body carbohydrates.
One of the main functions of carbohydrates and in this example, sugar, is to provide our body with the energy it needs to function. When carbohydrates enter our digestive system they are often broken down into glucose. This glucose is then absorbed into our blood stream to be available by our cells to use for energy. This energy is what allows our organs and muscles to function. This includes our brain, nervous system, kidneys, lungs, and heart.
When our body does not have adequate amounts of glucose, we may notice more fatigue, light headedness, weakness, getting cold easy, and more. Brownies also give us fat which helps us absorb certain vitamins, maintains the integrity of our cells, can also be used as energy and makes food taste good!
Often, I will hear a response such as, “Okay, so I understand that a brownie gives me nutrients in carbohydrates and fats, but wouldn’t it be better if I had this in a food not as high in sugar?” While on the surface, this may seem like a good idea, here is where it gets tricky.
When we begin to not allow a food in our eating – especially one we enjoy, we begin to limit our ability to enjoy food and practice balance, variety, and moderation. By restricting a certain food, we may begin to crave that food and after a time give into this craving. This may then lead to overeating or bingeing on the food, then feeling guilty, and promising ourselves we will never eat that food again. Or, we may begin to restrict more foods that are similar or add more categories of “bad” foods and risk not getting the nutrients our body needs.
When our body does not get adequate nutrition and energy intake, the body puts mechanisms in place to encourage eating as a way of preventing starvation. As a result, this energy deprivation may lead to bingeing. Often the foods we binge on are those foods high in sugar and fat. Interestingly, sugar and fat are what our bodies are craving for energy.
An alternative to avoiding a food like brownies is to instead enjoy them, listening to our hunger cues and fullness; and practicing balance, variety, and moderation. By removing the judgement, we can experience the joy and satisfaction of a brownie while also knowing this is nourishing our body within the context of variety in our meal plan.
A colleague of mine often used the phrase, “what looks good, sounds good, tastes good” when choosing what to eat at a meal. We want variety and balance in our meal, but there is something satisfying and powerful in nourishing our bodies when it is food that we enjoy. Whether we are at the point where we can enjoy food or not, we can work toward freedom in allowing all foods to fit without judgement.
For many who may have anxiety and fear around food that is significantly affecting their life, seeking help from professionals will help give the understanding, tools, and support needed to move toward a place of freedom with food.
New experiences, nutrition education and support, psychotherapy, food exposures, meal plans, and more, are just a few of the things one may expect to find in a program designed to help address fear and food.
Allowing all foods to fit and challenging the judgements made around food lead to food being an enjoyable part of our life. This in turn gives us the nutrients our body needs so we can truly live our meaningful lives and find freedom.