Oct. 15. 2021
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

The problem with the good food versus bad food mentality, and how you can switch this dialogue up. 

Some things we eat are good and some things are bad, right? It honestly sounds like a fact at this point.

We’ve heard it labeled this way by health practitioners, social media influencers, parents, friends, and coworkers alike. While they may be well-intentioned in their statements and explanations, they’re unknowingly perpetuating an imbalanced and negative mindset.

This mindset is doing much more harm than good in the long term of creating balanced eating habits.

Here’s why. 

Good Food Versus Bad Food

What does this really even mean? 

In the context of dieting, “good food” is often characterized by foods that are nutrient-dense. They may also be called “clean”, “correct”, “right”, or “perfect”. It’s typically defined by those that are associated with positive health outcomes when consumed regularly. Think of lean proteins, fiber-rich starchy carbohydrates, fruit, non-starchy carbohydrates, and health-supportive fats. 

On the other hand, “bad food” is usually used to describe those items that have little to no nutritional value, or those that may be associated with negative health outcomes when consumed regularly. People will typically label them as “off-limits”, “wrong”, or “not good”. Typically we think of “bad foods” as being those items like traditional pizza, ice cream, candy, hot dogs, chips, or others of that sort.  

The question becomes, are any of these actually good or bad?

What Does It Mean To Sign Morality To Food? 

When we believe certain items are good while others are bad, what we’re unintentionally doing is assigning morality to our food. 

If one choice is good while the other is bad, emotions and feelings start to get mixed in with nutrition choices.

To further demonstrate this way of thinking, if you eat items that are “good”, you may then believe that you made a correct, right decision in doing so, and you, therefore, may feel pride, excitement, and feel that you are a better person or good for doing that. 

Whereas if you eat items that are “bad”, you may then believe that you made an incorrect, poor decision and doing so, and you, therefore, may feel guilt, frustration, resentment or that you’re less than, not good, or a bad person for eating that food. 

Why You Should Stop Assigning Morality This Way

So what’s the problem with assigning morality? 

When we assign morality to our food, those emotions, and feelings we just talked about, begin to control our choices.

If we’re presented with two options: a “good” option and a “bad” option, the dieting messaging we’ve been told for years tells us to always choose the “good” option and judge and dismiss the “bad” option. Right?

When it comes to food, discouragement often manifests itself as a restriction. 

Let’s discuss restriction with an analogy of a little kid in a candy store. I’m sure we’ve all heard this analogy before! 

The little kid is walking through a candy store and picks up a piece of candy. Before the kid even has a chance to ask, the parent says, “Don’t even think about it! We’re not buying anything today.”.

In turn, what do you think the little kid is thinking in response… “I want the candy SO badly!”. Right?

The exact same thing happens with adults when food is restricted as a result of assigning morality to food. When we diet, restrict or regulate our food choices, we end up increasing our focus and attention on that food item, making it even more desirable. 

What Happens When You Assign Morality to Food 

Food items that are “bad” and therefore “off-limits”, “wrong”, “incorrect”, or “not allowed”, seem so much more enticing than they normally would.

We can’t have them, so we want them even more! Especially if they’re food items that we inherently enjoy. 

As humans, we’re not hardwired to restrict any certain food forever. Eventually, we’ll encounter or choose to have those food items we’ve restricted once before. When this happens, and we finally get our hands on those food items again, one of 3 scenarios generally takes place. 

These 3 common scenarios are what we see take place with Mindful Nutrition Method students most often. They are a loss of control, rationalization, and irrational guilt.

Let’s use pizza as an example for these scenarios. 

After restricting pizza, we finally find ourselves in a position where we’re having it. Maybe it’s at a party, a work event or we simply “give in” and buy it for ourselves. 

1. Loss of Control

In the first outcome, we’re so excited about finally having the food item, that we lose all control. We end up eating so quickly and have so much. We’ve mindlessly eaten and before we know it, we’re overly full, the pizza is gone, and we don’t even remember what it really tasted like. 

Where does that leave us? Feeling stressed, guilty, overwhelmed, and upset. 

So what do we do in return? Restrict once more. Attempt to exert more control. 

“I can’t believe I had all that pizza, that was way too much. I’m never having pizza again.”

And the cycle repeats itself. 

2. Rationalization

In the second scenario, we go into the situation knowing that we’re doing something “bad”, so we try to rationalize with ourselves. 

“Ok, I’m not supposed to have pizza so I’m just going to have it all right now, finish it off, and never have it again.”

The result? You’re left feeling overly full, guilty, stressed, and confused. “Why did I eat so much, I didn’t need all that food! I’m never having pizza again.”

And the cycle repeats itself once more. 

3. Irrational Guilt 

Lastly, maybe you don’t lose control. Maybe you don’t rationalize with yourself. Instead, maybe you have what you would describe as a normal amount of pizza for your unique needs. 

But still, after the fact, you’re riddled with guilt. You still feel as though you made a terrible mistake and that you’re never going to reach your health and wellness goals. 

And finally, the cycle repeats itself. 

What If I Have A Food Sensitivity? Or I’m Simply Tending To My Health?

This is one of the most common questions we get when discussing the assignment of morality to food. And for good reason! 

“If [insert food item you’re sensitive to] makes me feel crummy, then it’s bad and I should never have it.” 

This is something I hear quite often. The problem with this statement is how it makes us feel, and how it makes us act in response.

Whenever I have a client that expresses this sentiment, 90% of the time they’re struggling to stay away from the food item they’re sensitive to. Despite knowing that the food item makes them feel terrible, they find themselves going back to it time and time again. And they don’t just have a small taste of it, they eat far more than they originally set out to. Think of the ‘Loss of Control’ scenario we just discussed above!

What I often find is that the severity of their feelings towards the food item perpetuates this cycle. They’ll say things like, “Ugh! It’s so bad for me but I just keep going back and back, it’s addicting! I just need to stop having it altogether and never have it again.”. 

The crucial differentiation we have to make here is that the food item itself isn’t to blame. It’s not inherently bad, and it’s not the food’s fault. 

When we know something doesn’t make us feel good, but we feel compelled to reach for it anyway, it may simply be because we told ourselves it was off-limits. Or, we’re using food as a coping mechanism for something else. 

We need to mend the relationship with the food item. Yes, there are foods that are more nutrient-dense that we should consume on a regular basis to support our long-term health, but there are also foods that may not be as nutrient-dense, but we really enjoy them anyways. And that’s okay.

How to Remove the Good Food Versus Bad Food Mentality

So, how do we prevent these scenarios from taking place? How do we mend the relationship with these food items? We remove morality from food and implement key tools that will remove the good versus bad food mentality. 

Instead of viewing food as good or bad, right or wrong, we view food as simply food. Food is nourishment, enjoyment, or a combination of both. Morality has no place in our food decisions.

Eating in this way is exactly what we teach in our Mindful Nutrition Method. We teach you how to reflect and take intentional, mindful action that creates the right amount of balance between nourishing yourself and enjoying food.

We walk you through the steps for healing your relationship with food and teach you how to build a new relationship that allows for growth, stability, and support.

You can watch our free masterclass to learn how to be more balanced with your food choices so you can be free from food and diet obsession, maintain a balanced weight, and cultivate a positive relationship with food and your body. 

Watch The Free Masterclass