By: Alyson Cara

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: Have you ever labeled an individual food good or bad, or even declared a day good or bad based on what you ate? How often have you labeled yourself good or bad based on what you ate? Many of us fall into this all-or-nothing mentality. But the habit of attaching labels to nutritional decisions can seriously undermine attempts to develop a healthful and happy relationship with food.

I recommend that clients remove the words good and bad from their nutrition vocabulary. What defines a food as “good”? Personally, I think chocolate is good. It’s not one of my major food groups, but I like chocolate and enjoy eating it in moderation. I also think spinach is good due to its nutrient density. Labeling foods as good can be tricky, but the real problems develop when we start labeling foods bad. When we label a food as bad it begins to have power over us, and when a food has power over us we are setting ourselves up for failure. A “bad” food immediately becomes a temptation. The more we fixate on avoiding that food, the more power it has over our thoughts, feelings, and eventually our habits. That is the power we give to so-called bad foods.

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

There are additional problems with these rigid divisions of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, and/or legal/illegal food. 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 instead 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 one day at a time. You won’t be able to stop this way 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.


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