When it comes to nutrition, we often set ourselves up for failure by labeling our diets as “good” or “bad.” But then we take it a bit further by labeling a food, a day, or even ourselves as good or bad based on what we ate. The habit of attaching “labels” to nutritional decisions can seriously undermine attempts to develop a healthful and happy relationship with food.

At One on One, we recommend that clients remove the words good and bad from their nutrition vocabulary. What defines a food as “good”? For many of us, chocolate is good. It’s not one of our major food groups, but we like it and enjoy eating it in moderation. On the other hand, spinach is good due to its nutrient density and presence of antioxidants. Labeling foods as good can be tricky, but the real problems develop when we start labeling foods as “bad”. Labeling a food bad gives it power over us and immediately makes it a temptation. The more we fixate on avoiding that food, the more power it has over our thoughts, feelings, and eventually our habits.

Another problem with calling foods good or bad is that we potentially undermine the message certain foods send to our bodies.  According to Karin Kratina, PhD, RD, LD/N:

“When you label a food, you instantly suppress the natural flow of information coming back from the body. Your body regularly sends rich and complex messages back to you about the food you choose, and the quantity you eat. But you can’t hear it because you are caught up in mental calculations of the damage the food is doing.”

“If we are fixating on labels, we can’t hear our feelings of hunger and satiety as clearly, and despite our focus on food, we will be less able to give our bodies what they need.”

Of course some foods are more nutritious than others. But in the grand scheme of a balanced diet, there is a place for discretionary calories. The challenge is to find a way to keep the balance. Since strict good/bad labeling does not work and is likely to undermine your efforts, consider tuning out the guilt and tuning in to the messages from your body. Consider some of the following strategies:

  • Don’t assume that certain types of food are always good or bad.
  • Turn off the guilt. If there is no bad food you will not punish yourself.
  • Focus on fueling your body, not “giving in” to a desire.
  • Don’t listen to others around you when they start bashing foods.
  • Listen to your body. It will slowly start to tell you that it feels good when you consume nutrient-rich foods.
  • Start small and take it one day at a time. You won’t stop old ways of thinking overnight, but you can live in the present by doing the best you can right now.

Keep in mind that everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. What is healthy for you may not be healthy for someone else, and what is good for your body (physically and emotionally) at one point might not be beneficial at another point.

Labeling food is a very easy behavior to fall into; it dwells within us and around us. But remember that “good vs. bad” thinking could sabotage your efforts to be healthy and happy. As we all know, behaviors practiced over time become habits. Rather than trying to break the habit of eating “bad” foods, consider trying to break the habit of labeling foods at all! Replace it with the good habit of listening carefully to your body.