People love to label foods as “good” or “bad.” Just as common is labeling ourselves as good or bad based on what we eat. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone say something like, “Oh I’ve been so good, I’ve been eating salads all week long for lunch!” or, “I was so bad last night—I had a cupcake after dinner.”
Comments like this seem innocuous enough. Fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and moderate amounts of healthy fats are often lauded as “good,” while cookies, cakes, sodas, refined carbs, and salty snacks get relegated to the “bad” list. After all, if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight, it makes sense to focus on eating nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods and limit the number of “treats'' you indulge in, right?
The thing is, categorizing certain foods and food groups, a behavior born out of diet culture, can lead to a cycle of guilt, shame, restrictive behaviors, and even a general fear around food. Labeling foods as good or bad, and then judging ourselves for one cupcake or a week’s worth of salads, is a cognitive distortion psychologists call "all-or-nothing" thinking, a form of thinking in extreme terms. By viewing food as either "good" or "bad" we set ourselves up for automatic failure if we do not choose "good" foods 100% of the time. It can also detract from the true purpose of food, which is to fuel our bodies. In other words—the exact opposite of what we at Found want for anyone on a weight care journey! With that in mind, let’s dig into the effects of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” and look at why ditching those labels might be the best thing you can do for your health.
1. Creates an overly restrictive mentality.
If someone says, “Quick: Think about anything but pizza,” what do you immediately think about? This simple exercise illustrates why fixating on certain foods you can’t have is counterproductive. When you forbid yourself from eating pizza (or cookies or fries), you’re more likely to start obsessively thinking about those foods because you’ve decided you’re not allowed to have them.
2. Makes you crave certain foods more.
When you label foods as “forbidden,” you might tend to want them even more. That’s not to mention that so-called “bad” foods tend to be the ones many of us turn to for immediate gratification during times of stress, sadness, or boredom. Let’s take ice cream, a classic “bad food,” for example. When you tell yourself ice cream is something you “shouldn’t” have, you’re automatically setting up a bad relationship with it. When you do have some, you might stress out and go overboard. But if you instead have a small bowl of ice cream once every other week or so, it becomes part of your routine—and suddenly it’s no longer this indulgence you’re trying to avoid at all costs. That frees you up to really savor ice cream in moderation, and you may even eat less because you don’t feel like you have to “get it while you can.”
3. Triggers stress, guilt, and shame.
Food has no moral value, but if you label it as “bad,” you might reflect this negative outlook upon yourself. For example, saying something like, “I’ve been so bad. I ate so many sweets over the holidays!” can trigger a cycle of shame and guilt. Shameful feelings might distract you from eating intuitively and keep you from listening to your body’s natural hunger and full cues. Tell yourself you’re “bad” for eating a piece of cake at a birthday party, and you might start to lose respect for yourself, and then make less-than-healthy “healthy” choices over and over. Once you’re in this negative mindset, it’s hard to stay motivated to look after yourself and give your body what it truly needs.
4. Keeps you from truly enjoying the food you love.
Labeling foods as “bad” can trigger guilt when we eat them, but calling other foods “good” is really no better. We’ll start to see the latter as bland and boring, imagining, say, that a fresh, homemade salad for dinner is nothing more than a “makeup” for the fries we ate at lunch. When you stop labeling foods good or bad, you bring back the joy and satisfaction of eating—and start to lay the foundation for a healthy relationship with food.
5. Interferes with your social life.
Overthinking which foods you “should” or “shouldn’t” have can lead to stress and anxiety around food particularly in social settings. If you’re trapped in negative thought patterns around food and certain food groups, that can get in the way of your ability to stay present and enjoy spending time with loved ones.
Notice your inner dialogue when it comes to certain foods or food groups and consider making a list of foods you tend to label as “bad” and “good.” Go through the list and consider how each and every food has its own nutritional profile, as well as social and cultural aspects that inform how we view it both individually and as a society. Make some notes about each food, and how it makes you feel. You might observe how labeling a food in a binary way—either “good” vs. “bad”—ignores the bigger picture of its flavor, how much you may or may not enjoy eating it, and whether or not it’s part of a family or cultural tradition.This is why we recommend viewing foods as “nutrient dense” or “less nutrient dense” instead of “good” or “bad.” Educating yourself on which nutrients foods provide and why they are beneficial may help you see them differently.
Reframe negative self-talk.
After recognizing which foods tend to be triggers, continue practicing that same self-awareness and intentionally turn negative self-talk into positive affirmations. For example, “I’m so bad, but I really want to eat this pumpkin pie!” becomes “I choose to enjoy a piece of my mom’s famous pumpkin pie, and savor every bite, because it reminds me of her.” This can help lead your decisions from a place of empowerment—and recognize that you’re in control of your choices.
Choose foods based on how they make your body feel.
Rather than attaching words and value to your food choices, try to make decisions around foods based on how they make you feel in your body. Before a meal, instead of saying what’s “good vs. bad” or “healthy vs. unhealthy,” you can ask yourself:
“What’s going to nourish my body, mind, and soul right now?”
“How can I add more color to my plate?”
“What would keep me full and energized all afternoon?”
This is intuitive eating at its most basic: You fuel your body with what it needs at the moment, and that allows you to make healthier choices for both your body and mind. In doing this, you can eventually view food through the lens of self-care, rather than self-control.
It takes practice to adapt a new approach to food and break the habit of “labeling.” It’s not easy work. Take it one day at a time, and be gentle with yourself! If you start to feel lost, remind yourself that while certain foods may be more or less nutritious, what you eat does not make you good or bad. Here are a couple of scripts you can repeat to yourself if you start to feel stuck in old patterns:
“Eating a salad does not make me ‘good.’ It makes me a person who ate a salad.”
“Eating a piece of cake does not make me ‘bad.’ I’m worthy of enjoying cake.”
Found is the largest medically-supported weight care clinic in the country, serving nearly 190,000 members to-date. Members receiving medication plus behavior change support at Found have lost at least 13% more weight, and in some cases up to 229% more weight, compared to people receiving the same medication in clinical studies. To start your journey with Found, take our quiz.