I recently read a fascinating book on nutritional psychology called Nourishing Wisdom, written by Marc David (thank you for the recommendation, Sharon).
This book made me really think about something I had never considered before: many of us choose to label foods as either “good” or “bad”.
In fact, most of you reading this right now probably have a short list of foods that fit into one or the other category. Your personal list is influenced by many factors, including conditioning, your education, and a desire to seek the “perfect” diet.
The motivation to label foods as good or bad is sensible. By giving a particular food a label, it creates a more clear rule that you can use to determine whether or not to eat that food. This could in turn lead to a healthier diet.
But the effect of labeling foods in this way is far more complex, both on a personal level and as a society.
So let’s get this out of the way now: food is inherently neutral. A food cannot be morally good or bad, regardless of the effects it may have on your health (more on this later).
Consider, for example, a knife. Two people can look at the same knife, with one of them seeing an attack weapon, something to be feared, perhaps even banned, because it is so dangerous. The other person can look at the knife and see it as a tool to cut vegetables with. The knife itself is neutral, but we attach some moral value to it based on what we perceive its effects to be.
Food is the same. Everyone has different nutritional needs and desires, and a label of good or bad simply cannot capture the complexity of our relationship with food.
Do you feel guilty or judge yourself after eating certain foods? Do you ever tell yourself that you “earned” a food you would normally consider off limits?
If so, you are labeling foods, and it is likely having negative effects on you.
What Happens When You Label A Food “Bad”
Once you’ve labeled a food “bad”, you begin to fear it. It takes up a bigger and bigger slice of your consciousness as you spend more and more time thinking about this banned food.
Consider what happens when someone that you spend a lot of time with insults you. Perhaps your experience is different, but I know I feel an immediate, instinctive hatred towards that person. I’ll replay the insult over and over in my mind. A fifteen second interaction can occupy my mind for a full day! I’ll keep focusing on that interaction until somehow it gets mentally resolved (oftentimes by making the unhealthy, hasty, and usually incorrect judgment that the offender is a total asshole).
The same things happens in your mind when you’ve labeled a food as bad. You spend an unnecessarily large amount of time thinking about it, which causes a serious craving for it. Usually, this craving results in eating the food, and mentally “resolving” the conflict.
Of course, at this point you will feel guilty for eating a “bad” food, and transfer the judgment of the food to yourself. Now, you are a “bad” person for eating that food, and you need to punish yourself with guilt. Can you see how this is not a healthy mental pattern?
If you don’t label/ban a food in the first place, the sort of rebellious pleasure you feel from partaking in it largely goes away, and cravings for that food are drastically reduced or even eliminated. Why do you think binge drinking is such a huge problem in American teenage culture (drinking age 21) versus an almost non-issue in Europe, where drinking ages are significantly lower?
Labeling foods also suppresses the flow of biological information you receive from eating food, making you less conscious of its effects on your body. Allow me to explain.
Let’s say you label a particular food, chocolate, as bad. Now, if you consume chocolate, you won’t experience the signals that your body gives you when you eat it because you are too preoccupied judging yourself or feeling guilty. The real effects of the food are not so simple to discern.
Perhaps eating a little bit of chocolate makes you feel good, but eating more than a certain amount makes you feel sick soon after. Perhaps eating chocolate gives you an energy boost, or maybe it makes you feel sluggish. You’ll never know if you aren’t paying attention! Even if the food does have negative effects, you will fail to analyze them properly if you have already pre-judged the food.
Labeling a food as “good” is just as bad. Once it has been labeled, you begin to eat the food more out of duty or a false sense of moral obligation, and this decreases the pleasure you get from eating mindfully. It also blinds you to any possible negative effects of the food, and prevents you from properly analyzing the positive effects.
By getting bodily feedback from your food, you learn to make connections and draw conclusions about what you eat and how it makes you feel. This knowledge is incredibly useful.
If you decide that a food makes you feel bad, just stop eating it! There is no need to label the food as bad, you can simply abstain. Or maybe the food tastes so delicious that you want to eat it in spite of how it makes you feel. That’s fine too! You can consciously decide to eat that food occasionally, no big deal. Take responsibility for your eating, and make your eating decisions as conscious as possible.
The Current State Of Nutritional Science
I’d like to take a moment to criticize the current (dismal) state of nutritional science. I’ve tried to keep this section as non-technical as possible…with limited success :)~
What’s The Problem?
Have you ever noticed that what we consider a “fact” about nutrition seems to change all the time? Butter used to be considered healthy, but then most people changed their minds and decided it was unhealthy because of all the saturated fat. You should eat margarine instead! But then the trans fats in margarine became public enemy #1, and you should now avoid margarine. But didn’t trans fats used to be considered a healthy choice?
It’s no wonder that we, the public, are so confused about what constitutes good or bad nutrition. Our “knowledge” of nutrition changes all the time. It might even be more accurate to say that most of what we “know” about nutrition is merely opinion rather than fact.
If you are at all interested in this issue, I highly suggest you read this fantastic article by Gary Taubes. Go ahead, check it out. In fact, I would consider it required reading for anyone who wants to improve in this area.
Anyways, back to the problem with nutritional science.
The vast majority of studies that are reported in the media and from which we tend to draw our nutritional advice and recommendations from are epidemiological/observational studies. In this type of study, participants record their lifestyle factors or diets over time, and researchers use statistical regression to find relationships within the data. Besides the important fact that peoples’ self-reports are notoriously inaccurate, this type of study only measures correlation, and says nothing about causation.
In order to make a real, accurate judgment of cause and effect in science, we need to use randomized, controlled experiments. In this type of study, the participants are randomly divided into groups, one of which is the control (placebo) group, and another the experimental group where a single variable is changed. If there is a different (statistically significant) result between the groups, then we can conclude that the treatment was the cause of this result.
Unfortunately, doing this type of experiment can be very challenging for many nutritional problems. The human body is very complex, and it’s not always obvious how to isolate a single variable to study. There can also be ethical problems with trying to ascertain harmful effects of certain interventions (imagine subjecting thousands of people to industrial pollutants to see if they cause cancer).
My “Vegetarian” Experiment
An example might help clarify this. When I first started college, my diet changed drastically. Because I keep kosher and there wasn’t much kosher meat around, my diet became much more vegetarian than it had been through high school. Within two weeks, I noticed that my mood had improved, and I just felt all around more healthy. I attributed this to my “vegetarian” diet, and considered becoming a full fledged vegetarian.
But I hadn’t just eliminated meat from my diet. Many other things changed. Most notably, I went from eating eggs on occasion to having a huge omelette every morning! Upon closer inspection of my diet and some personal tests, I realized that this was more likely to be the real cause. But I still can’t know for sure.
Had I become a vegetarian and eliminated eggs and fish from from my diet, who knows what would have happened? My erroneous conclusion likely would have had a negative impact on my mood, energy levels, and overall feeling of health, though that is just my hypothesis. Note: I’m not claiming here that a vegetarian diet would affect everyone negatively.
Factors That Encourage Our Use Of Labels
But it is these erroneous conclusions that are reported in the media as fact. In reality, there are nutritional studies that support nearly any conclusion or viewpoint, including conflicting ones. But the media, the government, and the public tend to harp on a specific subset of them. This is partly due to special interests. Why do you think the old USDA food pyramid recommended 6-11 servings of grains per day when grains barely existed throughout most of human evolution?
On the other hand, we need not be think of this as a big conspiracy. Much of the problem can be attributed to ignorance. Most of the journalists who report on these studies don’t know how to interpret these studies, and very few people in the general public are familiar with this at all.
Be mindful that most of what we consider nutritional dogma today is based off these flawed epidemiological studies. For example, saturated fats are generally regarded as harmful and a cause of heart disease because of Ancel Keys’ famous Seven Countries Study, which was purely correlative. A more modern example of this epidemiological problem would be The China Study, which “proved” that plant based diets are healthier than animal based diets. According to the author, T. Colin Campbell, “the science is clear” and “the results are unmistakable.” Well…not according to science!
The government is increasingly making laws that either ban certain foods/ingredients or encourage people to consume more or less of them. These laws are mostly based on interpretations of these observational studies, aka opinions. NOT facts. NOT real science. These laws could have the best of intentions, but their main effect is to stifle real scientific inquiry into these foods. And, of course, they hinder our ability to analyze the effects that these foods have on ourselves (see Bodily Feedback section).
So, what was my point in mentioning all of this? You need to understand that the labels that you have in your head are a product of factors that are not based on reality. Take responsibility for your health, and use your own observations about how a particular food affects you, not what you read in a newspaper or saw as a government recommendation.
Food For Thought
In order to internalize the mindset of not labeling foods, it can be useful to ask yourself a few questions and do some self-experimentation.
- Think about the foods that you have currently labeled as good or bad. Are there people who would disagree with your judgments? Why?
- Have you ever labeled a food and then switched your view of it later? Why?
- How do you judge yourself when you don’t follow your diet, and how does this judgment affect you?
- Think of instances in your childhood where you were told that a particular food was good or bad. Did you believe what you were told then? Do you still believe it now?
- Finally, eat foods that you have labeled as “bad”, and observe how they make you feel. Drop your preconceived notions of the food, and try to analyze it as a scientist would.
These reflections should help you begin to separate foods from the labels you have given them. As a result, you will have a much healthier psychological relationship with eating.