Why we should avoid labeling food as good or bad

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Have you ever referred to certain foods as “bad” or “good?” Maybe you say things like, “I was so bad today—I ate two pieces of cake!” or “I was good all weekend—I stuck to my diet.” If this type of good/bad dichotomy is part of your vocabulary, you aren’t alone.

Diet culture, the belief that body weight and appearance are more important than your well-being, is largely responsible for the way we view and talk about food, including assigning moral value to it. But this practice is extremely harmful, on both a personal and systemic level, causing shame, guilt, and even leading to disordered eating.

Last updated on 
April 21, 2022
In this article

The problem with labeling food as good or bad

Food is not inherently good or bad. There is no reason to feel guilty or ashamed for eating some foods and self-righteous for eating other foods. Food is fuel for our bodies, but it is also something meant to bring pleasure and joy. And, no matter what you eat, you aren’t a bad or good person because of the food you choose to consume, though proponents of healthism might try to convince you this is true. 

Healthism is a set of beliefs that values an idealized concept of health, the achievement of which, through culturally acceptable means and methods, is the most essential pursuit in life. And health, as such, is a morally superior state of well-being. (1)

Healthism puts the responsibility of achieving optimal health on the individual. Healthism holds that health is solely within the individual’s power through lifestyle changes–such as what we eat and how much we engage in physical activity, instead of considering all the biopsychosocial factors and systemic issues that influence a person’s physical and mental health. These include culture, the media, disease, genetics, social status, oppression, discrimination, etc. (1) Additionally, this attitude often conflates health and thinness, which we now understand are not synonymous and that thinness is not an indicator of health.  

Labeling certain foods, like desserts or pizza or nachos, as “bad” or “junk food” leads to profound feelings of shame and guilt. And once you shame yourself into believing that you’re a bad person because of your food choices, this can lead to psychological distress, anxiety, and depression.

On the other hand, if you’ve come to think of yourself as a good person simply because you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables–which are labeled as “good” and “healthy” and “better” for you, this can cause you to judge and stigmatize others who don’t make the same choices as you, ultimately contributing to the perpetuation of shame.

It is classist

Fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and higher quality foods tend to be more expensive than processed and lower quality food. As such, not everyone can afford to purchase organic food or a lot of fruits and vegetables each week. When grocery shopping, they must make purchases that fit within their budgets. And often, that means buying processed foods that have a long shelf-life and can go a long way. It may also mean eating fast food. 

This is especially true in food deserts, which are areas with little to no access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and other higher quality food. These areas tend to have a lot of fast-food restaurants. Without access to grocery stores selling nutritious foods, families are forced to take the bus or travel far just to have the opportunity to purchase healthy meals.

Labeling food as “junk” or “bad” –or even “unhealthy”--inherently marginalizes people of low socioeconomic status and positions them as “immoral” and “less than.” This is an extremely classist practice that leads to further oppression and prejudice.

It could influence eating disorder development

Viewing food as inherently good or bad, moral or immoral, and even healthy or unhealthy, causes an immense amount of shame in those who eat “bad” or forbidden foods. This shame for having failed their diet or eating the wrong thing can then lead to disordered eating behaviors to compensate for the “bad” food. These disordered eating behaviors might include restricting calories, using laxatives or diet pills, self-induced vomiting, and excessive exercise. 

Shame can also lead to binge eating episodes, in which people consume a large amount of food in a relatively short period of time. And, typically, these binge eating episodes compound the shame, resulting in a cycle of shame and disordered eating. While someone engaging in disordered eating may not necessarily meet the clinical criteria for a full-blown eating disorder, disordered eating behaviors can increase the risk of someone developing an eating disorder, like anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

It goes against intuitive eating

When we assign certain foods moral value and eat in such a way that supports this thinking, we go against intuitive eating, which involves listening to our body’s hunger cues and eating until we are satiated, or satisfied. When you eat intuitively, you are free to eat whatever you want when you want it, as long as you are listening to your body’s signals. You are the expert on your body and what it needs. But diet culture and food shame hijacks your intuitive eating system and teaches you to ignore your body’s hunger cues in favor of moral choices related to food.

And when you ignore your hunger cues by depriving yourself of what it needs, you often end up compensating later by eating far more than you typically would, especially of the “bad” foods you were trying so hard to avoid. But engaging in intuitive eating can help you re-establish body wisdom.

There are many benefits of intuitive eating, including: (2,3)

  • Improved body image
  • Improved quality of life
  • Better self-esteem
  • Improved mental health
  • Weight maintenance
  • Decreased depression and anxiety
  • Decreased risk of disordered eating

Alternative language to adopt

It may be difficult to change your language surrounding food types at first. But if you commit to not using value-laden language you will have a healthier relationship with food. Instead, try to describe food by its inherent qualities. Its flavors. Its textures. Its aromas. Spicy. Salty. Sweet. Savory. Juicy. Crunchy. Dry. 

Because food is not inherently good or bad. It may taste bad. It may smell bad. It may go bad. But it’s not inherently bad. 

Yes, some have more vitamins and minerals than others. But they all still serve some purpose for the body to function. All foods provide energy. Fiber cleans out the colon. Protein may power the body for longer, because it takes longer to break down. But sugar fuels the brain and gives it a quick fix when it needs it right away. 

When you tune into your body’s built-in hunger cues, your body will tell you what it needs. And sometimes it’s not about needs. It’s about wants. And that’s perfectly OK. Food provides pleasure, too.

So listen to your body. If you’re craving a piece of cheesecake, allow yourself to eat a piece of cheesecake. And don’t just eat it, but enjoy it. Encourage yourself to note the sensations you experience when eating it. Eating, of course, should be about nourishing our bodies, but it should be about nourishing the soul and spirit, as well.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Crawford, R. (1980). Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life. International Journal of Health Services, 10(3), 365–388. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45130677
  2. Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. (2014). Review Article Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17(8), 1757-1766. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002139
  3. Schaefer, J.T. and Magnuson, A.B. (2014). A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 114(5): 734-760.
  4. Bruce, L.J. and Ricciardelli, L.A. (2016). A systematic review of the psychosocial correlates of intuitive eating among adult women. Appetite 96: 454-472.

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