One of the points I get the greatest amount of pushback on when discussing anti-diet principles is that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods.
And look, I get it. It’s completely understandable that this seems preposterous to people.
From an early age diet culture pushes the idea that there are foods that promote health and foods that harm health. My son is in preschool and just came home with a packet promoting ‘healthy habits’ featuring the message ‘eat good foods’ alongside pictures showcasing the ‘good’ foods. I was fortunate enough to have seen it and have a discussion with him about why this messaging is problematic, but most of us didn’t have that opportunity growing up, so we internalize it.
Even if you’re not actively engaging with diet culture, you hear its messaging everywhere – from your co-worker, your family members at holiday gatherings, from a random influencer on social media, from your morning news, even kids shows. All of this makes it too easy for these messages to become a part of our internal dialogue around food.
Given all of that, it’s no wonder people fret so much over the foods they eat and worry their health will suffer if they give themselves permission to simply eat what sounds good.
But the truth is, aside from the fact that food plays a pretty minor role in impacting overall health and well-being, it has no morality. There are no foods that are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If you’re rolling your eyes and getting ready to click out of this post, bear with me.
Even diet culture can’t decide which foods to promote and which to pick on year after year. In the 90s, fat was the enemy. In the early aughts it was carbs. Once those elements proved incapable of keeping diet culture’s promises long-term, fat was re-embraced, then it was ‘whole foods’ then ‘superfoods.’ And on and on it goes.
The ‘food is medicine’ is another heavily espoused mantra in today’s diet culture. It can be alluring, particularly if suffering from a chronic condition or serious health issue, to feel like food might be the answer where all other medical interventions have failed (as someone who suffers from chronic conditions, I really get that). And while of course nutrition can play a role in overall health & well-being, the pervasive belief that all we need for good health is to eat the ‘right’ foods and avoid the ‘wrong’ foods, is not supported in the research and ultimately does harm.
For better or for worse, food is just food.
As I frequently say to my son, all food contains energy, which we need to live. Some foods keep us feeling full for longer and some for shorter. Some foods are crunchy, some are sweet, some are sticky, some are savory, etc. – all are important and none are ‘better’ than another.
A piece of fruit, for example, is sweet, full of fiber and refreshing but won’t satisfy your hunger for any sustained period. Same goes for a piece of candy or a cupcake, though both would be satisfying choices if you’re craving something sweet. A sandwich or a burger, on the other hand, are more likely to offer prolonged satisfaction, so if you need a meal that will sustain you – those options would be more useful. None, however, are better or worse, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy – they just contain unique tastes, textures and nutrient mixes that are helpful for different situations.
I like to compare it to choosing footwear. It’s impossible to say boots are categorically better than sneakers or that sneakers are categorically better than sandals. All of those options serve different purposes for different people and can be useful in different circumstances. And sure, sometimes our choices will give us blisters or make our feet hurt, but rather than berate ourselves for making the ‘wrong’ choice – we use it as a learning for what to do next time. We choose our footwear based on what makes the most sense for us in any given moment, without guilt, shame or blame, and should do the same with food choices.
And you don’t just have to take my word for it, research also supports rejecting dichotomous (good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, right/wrong) thinking around food.
Nutrition & public health studies show that the individuals with the best health outcomes consume a variety of foods – including those most demonized by diet culture (processed foods, added sugar and refined grains).
And not only that, but when compared to dieters or those who try to exact some external control over their intake, intuitive eating is associated with better mental and physical health outcomes (lower body fat, cardiovascular risk, triglyceride levels, food-related anxiety, thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, body preoccupation, body shame, self-silencing, and negative affect and positively associated with high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, interoceptive sensitivity, enjoyment of food, body appreciation, self compassion, life satisfaction, positive affect, proactive coping, and self-esteem) (1, 2, 3).
Diet culture demonizes certain foods while elevating others. The antidote to this is understanding that food and eating are neutral and do not carry moral value. You are not a good or bad person based on what, when or how much you eat. Lifting the shame and guilt that results from morality around food choice is not only beneficial for your health, but is key to enjoying a calm relationship with eating.
Content warning: These study, as with most scientific studies, contain some stigmatizing language so if this is something that will trigger you, I encourage you to skip clicking through to the links I’ve included.
- Hazzard, et al. (2020) Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010–2018. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4
- Linardon J, Mitchell S (2017) Rigid dietary control, flexible dietary control, and intuitive eating: evidence for their differential relationship to disordered eating and body image concerns. Eat Behaviors 26:16–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.01.008
- Tylka, T. L., Calogero, R. M., & Daníelsdóttir, S. (2015). Is intuitive eating the same as flexible dietary control? Their links to each other and well-being could provide an answer. Appetite, 95, 166–175.