The perils of labelling food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’

By Lucy Braude, Clinical Psychologist

Labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ has become so common many of us don’t realised we are doing it. We also might use these same labels to describe ourselves according to what we eat. For example, how many times have you heard people around you say things like:

  • “I know muffins are so bad…”
  • “I heard avocado is actually really good”
  • “I’ve been good all week, I’m having dessert tonight!”

So what’s the problem with this? If you are trying to lose weight, surely it makes sense to avoid the ‘bad’ foods and eat the ‘good’? While it is a great idea to concentrate on eating low calorie, nutritious and filling foods (hello veggies!), and to limit the number of treats you eat, referring to our foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can have negative effects.

Firstly, what do we actually mean when say a food is good or bad? Are we referring to taste, pleasure, calorie count, sugar grams, or protein content? Each food has a range of nutritional, social and cultural aspects to it, and if we label food in this black and white way, we are not taking in the whole picture. For example, is a small piece of birthday cake, enjoyed on your birthday, surrounded by family still ‘bad’? If we think this way, what will happen to our enjoyment of the cake? What will we think of ourselves after eating a ‘bad’ food?

Labelling foods as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ can make them forbidden and exciting, making us want them more! Also, eating a food we have labelled as ‘bad’ can lead us thoughts like “Oh I’ve fallen off the wagon again”. You might then feel guilty and ashamed.. In this mindset, it becomes harder to look after your body. You might feel like eating more “bad” food, promising yourself you will “start again” tomorrow. You might not feel exercising, or preparing the healthy meal you had planned for dinner.

Unfortunately, the same goes for labelling ourselves for our food choices. Think about it, does eating a high calorie food really make you ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’? Did you hurt anybody, steal something or lie? Likewise, does eating vegetables really make you a good person? Putting moral labels on food is risky, because we will inevitably eat these foods at some stage and telling ourselves we are “bad” because of this tends to induce significant shame, impacting our mood and what we eat next.

So how should we talk about food? If you are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss, there are of course foods that are more helpful to eat than others. However, thinking and talking about these foods in terms of factual qualities (e.g. low calorie or high calorie) or frequency of eating (‘everyday foods’ vs ‘occasional foods’/’treats’) will help you to avoid language that affects how you see yourself, how you feel and how you eat.

See if you can give these phrases a try:
• “I know muffins are a treat food”
• “I’ve heard avocados are actually very nutritious”
• “I have chosen mostly low calorie options this week, I am going to have dessert tonight!”

Good luck!

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