There are no good foods and bad foods, there are just foods.
I believe this, AND I recognize that holding it to be true in my own mind is a work in progress. It’s diet culture bullshit that teaches us to create restrictions–we can or ought to eat these things, we can’t or shouldn’t eat those. It can also be anti-diet bullshit–labeling foods that are perceived as diet foods as bad while their full-fat, full-carb, full-whatever-folks-might-associate-with-not-dieting-counterparts are good.
In the short term, food moralizing creates boundaries we can adhere to, and it feels like progress. But that sense of progress is an illusion. Food moralizing makes eating healthfully harder in the long run. Researchers have found over and over again that it increases the likelihood of binge eating, emotional eating, and makes the “off limits” foods more appealing and more salient in our minds.
I believe it. I know it from observation of myself and those around me. It looks like who thinks she’s “addicted” to carbs, and by carbs, she means bread, and by addicted, she means she’s caught in an endless binge and restrict cycle. It looks like folks cutting out “carbs,” going keto, or going gluten free even though they don’t have a documented gluten intolerance. It looks like bodybuilders I follow making weird almost-foods–steamed protein powder and coconut flour “cakes” with fat free Greek yogurt “frosting” on top–because it “fits their macros,” even though I’m pretty sure it has the same calories of a far more delicious actual cupcake.
And it looks like me lapsing from time to time into more restrictive mindsets–tempted to more closely monitor and control what I eat and when I eat it or telling myself I should be embarrassed for eating something enriched with whey powder. I am not immune to diet culture (or anti-diet culture) and the messages we are all bombarded with.
And while I still have these thoughts, I rarely find myself acting upon them anymore. I have the thought, the urges swell in me, and then I see what is happening, and I replace those notions with moderation. It’s a work in progress, but that’s ok. I don’t need to be perfect. (Perfectionism can be a form of diet culture, too.)
I recently shared my protein cocoa recipe, although honestly, I was torn about it. To me, it’s mostly a fun way to add a bit of protein to days when I haven’t quite gotten as much as I would prefer. But I recognize that these sorts of foods can be used by folks to reinforce diet mindsets–this cocoa is now less bad and no longer off limits, because it has protein in it. There absolutely will be people who use this recipe to reinforce their food moralizing and self-harm. And I also know there are anti-diet folks who will see it, judge it and me, and say that I am also harming myself for “improving” homemade cocoa with some protein. They will project their own food moralizing onto my choices.
But if we truly believe there are no good foods and no bad foods, that means my protein cocoa is not bad, either. It’s just food. Or, a beverage, as the case may be.
To me, the “good” and “bad” of it is in how we are using these foods, what we are telling ourselves about them, and whether or not they support our mental health in addition to our physical health. That bodybuilder steamed cake thing sounds awful to me, but if he genuinely enjoys it, finds it satisfying and it meets his emotional and psychological needs for food in addition to the physical, then I don’t really care. I am skeptical that it could, but I’m not in his head, and I can’t honestly judge that decision.
This time of year, so many people are trying to “clean up” their diets. Trying to “make up” for the holidays. Trying to “reset.” I actually don’t have a problem with the idea of a reset, per se, but again, the tricky part is the how and the why. There is another way besides restriction and food moralizing, and not only is it kinder to us, it is likely to be more successful in changing our habits long term: we can practice unlearning the dichotomies and create spectrums.
The ladies at Balance 365 call this “good, better, best.” Here’s how I’ve been applying this during the holidays for when I want something sweet: Good–eat a satisfying serving of cake (or cookies, or whatever) and move on without self-judgment. Better–make some protein cocoa or have a piece of really good chocolate and move on. Best–have a piece of fruit or a sparkling water and move on.
Over the years, I have made dozens of different protein mug cakes, protein bars, protein cookies and the like, hoping that I would find them to meet my desires for something sweet without leading to overeating. They were never as satisfying or as delicious as I wanted them to be, and more importantly, they failed to help me have a more healthful attitude about food. Now, when I want cake or cookies, I eat cake or cookies, mostly without self-judgment. This takes a lot of the power out of the food, and it helps me make healthier decisions day to day. I’m actually less inclined to eat those foods that I used to think of as bad. They have less power because I’m more neutral about them, and I know I can enjoy without guilt or shame them whenever I want to.
Foods aren’t good or bad. We aren’t good or bad for eating them. Over time, we can learn to make choices not based upon what we should do but rather based upon what we genuinely want. Both choosing the rich treat and choosing a less-caloric or less-appetite-overriding alternative are healthy choices when we make them for healthy reasons. I’m still a work in progress, and I’m ok with that, but these strategies go a long way into helping me feel satisfied and comfortable with my eating decisions, and if you struggle with food moralizing, maybe they could help you, too. Be kind to yourself out there!
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