Why The Good and Bad Food Mentality Is A Trap

This blog article is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical advice.

Bombarded with messages about “good” and “bad” food and not sure whose advice to trust?

You’re not alone. 

We’re saturated with diet advice and nutritional do’s and don’ts from every direction. It’s easy to find ourselves categorizing food and restricting ourselves just because a food is off-limits according to influencers, Netflix documentaries, or the latest “wellness” trends. 

With limits and restrictions on so many common foods, deciding what to eat can feel overwhelming – even anxiety-producing.

In this article, we’ll explore the good vs. bad foods mentality. We’ll investigate this binary thinking and its consequences. Finally, I’ll show you how shifting to a broader way of thinking about food can be a game-changer for your health.

Let’s start.

Good And Bad Foods: Diet Culture Messaging Is Sly

The other day I was listening to my favorite comedy podcast. This popular pod has millions of downloads, and, therefore, the hosts have clout and the trust of their listeners. 

One of the hosts was talking about her delicious vegan overnight oats recipe, a mix of steel cut oats, fruit and fibrous seeds.

One of the other hosts chimed in, reinforcing that the vegan host taught her that oats needed to be steel cut because instant oats and rolled oats had “chemicals” in them. The vegan host affirmed this. Steel cut oats were best and the other oats were, well, inferior, chemical-filled crap.

I paused the podcast. Was I hearing this right? Were these celebs ACTUALLY slamming…OATS?

Indeed, they were categorizing one cut of the grain as superior and other cuts of the EXACT SAME GRAIN as poison. One was good, the other two, bad.

Luckily, I have studied the nutritional content of these foods and how the body digests and uses their nutrients. So, I could cut through that diet culture BS like a warm baked brie. And I’ll set the record straight for you right here and now: the body can barely distinguish between steel cut, rolled and one-minute oats. Especially if you’re topping them with seeds and fruits.

But most listeners are not armed with biochemical science in their arsenal. They hear these messages and take them as truths, pocketing this knowledge for their next trip to the grocery store. They probably even think twice about the oatmeal they toss in their cart, whether or not they like the texture of steel cut oats!

Here is a comparison of the nutritional content of the three types of oats:

Good and Bad Foods: The Pitfalls of Binary Thinking

With the example above, you can see how this type of thinking is pervasive in our culture: diet culture. And it’s not useful. Categorizing foods as simply “good” or “bad” creates a food hierarchy that leaves no room for preference, flexibility, convenience, enjoyment or celebration.

Think about it. In a much more widespread trend, white bread, pasta and sweets (all carbs) have become the enemy of the 21st century. Processed foods = bad, whole foods = good. 

Conversely, a bowl of organic kale or Coho salmon are considered health heroes. Superfoods. 

We’re in a new era of superhero foods and super-villain foods. And, by default, those who eat whole foods and avoid processed foods are often perceived as virtuous, health-conscious, and morally superior.

In what has become a battle of nutritional good versus evil, this binary, moralistic thinking about food is actually quite harmful. It can lead to:

  • A restrictive mindset about food and eating
  • Food rules that become rigid
  • Guilt and shame when food rules are broken
  • A cycle of restrictive eating and binge eating or “cheat days”
  • An unhealthy relationship with food

Let’s explore these harms a bit more:

Pitfall 1: A Restrictive Mindset

The good vs. bad food narrative invades our mindset and our thinking about ourselves. We’re either “good” for eating a salad or “bad” for having a cookie, when, in fact, neither food has that effect on our morality or value.

Or we think the key to health is avoiding the “bad” foods. But this oversimplifies health and well-being, which is complex and multi-faceted. Health may have more to do with genetics, income, education level and trauma history than whether we eat dessert a few times per week.

Yet, this way of thinking and the restrictive behaviors that go with it seem to be popular and pervasive. It’s as if we’re constantly looking for a way to hack our health – eat this, not that and all will be well.

So we worry about “good” and “bad” foods, making up diet parameters as we go in the hopes they will save us from unwanted weight gain, disease and death. This practice can be both stressful and unsustainable. It can lead to a more restrictive mindset around food, making you feel like you can never truly enjoy a variety of your favorite foods. 

Pitfall 2: Food Rules

The diet parameters I referred to can easily sound something like this:

“I don’t eat any foods with added sugar. Sugar is poison.”

“You should only eat whole grains. Refined grains are unhealthy.”

“White potatoes will spike your blood sugar. Only eat sweet potatoes.”

“I only shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The aisles are filled with junk.”

When foods can only fit into two categories – “good” or “bad” – we are left feeling like we need to eliminate all of the “bad” foods from our eating. For many people, this turns into having rules about foods, like those listed above.

These food rules make eating difficult, especially social eating, like joining friends at restaurants, celebrations or potlucks. Celebratory foods such as cake or holiday foods often get nixed by the rules. Missing out can limit the pleasure and connection that foods bring when shared with loved ones.

Pitfall 3: Food Guilt 

But what happens when we inevitably break the rules? Eat the cake or the pizza? Or drink a cocktail? The answer: GUILT.

When every choice is either “healthy” or “unhealthy,” what does that say about us if we eat cake on our birthday? Or enjoy a bagel sandwich for breakfast? Did we “cheat” by having a slice of pizza or ice cream? Are we destined to be unhealthy for breaking the rules?

Diet culture often uses scare tactics, promoting the idea that eating certain foods (like carbs) will lead to illness (like diabetes – but that’s a myth). This can create anxiety and fear around eating, making us question everything we put into our bodies

Struggling with guilt after eating can trigger negative emotions or anxiety and depression, which can take a toll on your health. Constantly judging yourself for your food choices can also damage your self-esteem and body image

Guilt trips after eating certain foods are no fun and damage your relationship with food. Food guilt leaves no room for pleasure and enjoyment in eating.  Worse yet, when taken too far, food guilt can lead to anxiety about eating, catastrophic thinking about our health, and possibly Orthorexia Nervosa, the obsessive pursuit of healthy eating, or other eating disorders..

Pitfall 4: The Binge-Restrict Cycle 

When we label foods as “off-limits,” we often end up wanting them even more. Sometimes it’s all we can think about. 

So, we spend the week “being good,” but when the weekend comes, we have a “cheat day” to relieve the extreme cravings we feel for forbidden foods.

Or maybe we start the day off really well, but by the end of the day, we succumb to cravings. Then, in a cloud of shame, we start the next day off with restrictions again.

Constantly restricting can trigger an unhealthy obsession with food, making you crave the forbidden foods more, leading to intense hunger. This combination is a recipe for binge eating, the very thing you may have been trying to avoid in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.

Pitfall 5: An Unhealthy Relationship With Food

These patterns together –  a restrictive mindset, rigid food rules, guilt and shame, and cycles of binging and restricting – all add up to an unhealthy relationship with food.

Eating isn’t about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Nourishing ourselves is one of life’s necessities, but also one of its greatest pleasures. Feeling guilty about enjoying food isn’t healthy or helpful. And trying to avoid certain foods (forever) out of fear is unrealistic. 

It’s important to remember that food is just food. It’s meant to be enjoyed and to give us energy.

A healthy relationship with food is about finding a balance and enjoying what you eat without the guilt. A brownie might not be the most nutrient-dense food, but it can still (and should) fit into a balanced diet! 

Shifting Away from the Good and Bad Food Mentality

Saying goodbye to the idea of “good” and “bad” foods is a big step toward a healthier and happier relationship with eating. Here are some tips to challenge and dismantle societal and internalized beliefs about diet culture: 

1: Challenge the “Food Police”

Start questioning the rules you’ve been told about food:

  • Who says certain foods are “bad”? Is this based on facts or trends?
  • Do you feel guilty for enjoying food? How is that guilt serving you?
  • What are your food rules giving you? Food worry? Anxiety?

2: Listen to Your Body, Not the Trends

Your body knows what it needs better than any diet guru out there. Begin tapping into your natural cues for hunger, fullness and satisfaction. If you’re craving something, it might be your body’s way of telling you what it needs (or what it’s been missing). 

Clients I work with tell me that once they tap into their cues, they crave a wider variety of foods than when they had strict food rules.

3: Find Your Own Balance And Variety

What works for someone else might not work for you. It’s okay to create a way of eating that feels good and is sustainable for you. Food freedom is all about enjoying all foods and understanding that healthy eating looks different for everyone. Variety and balance provide a wide range of nutrients, supporting your overall health. 

4: Celebrate Food Diversity

Try foods from different cultures and cuisines. People all over the world enjoy different dishes and flavors. Each culture has its own array of foods that are considered nourishing and wholesome, reminding us that healthy eating is not one-size-fits-all. Appreciating the wide range of flavors and nutrients available can enrich your diet and break down food rules.

5: Create a Positive Food Environment

Surround yourself with people and messages that support a balanced view of food. Social media feeds full of diet culture can be replaced with more positive, food-neutral or body-positive content. Beware of scare tactics (like “bananas cause belly fat”) or “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. 

6: Slow Down and Enjoy Your Food

Eating is one of life’s greatest joys! It’s a chance to explore new tastes, celebrate traditions, and simply enjoy the flavors you love. Every meal is an opportunity to treat yourself well. So, next time you sit down to eat, take a moment to savor each bite and appreciate the deliciousness of your food. Slowing down and savoring your meals can also help you become aware of your natural fullness signals.

Intuitive Eating: The Antidote to Good And Bad Food Thinking

Instead of rigid diets and food rules, I teach my clients to eat with mindfulness and develop their eating intuition.

Intuitive Eating offers a kinder approach to self-care, eating, nutrition, and movement. This approach is built on 10 principles. Some of the principles help us reconnect with our biological signals and inner cues of fullness, hunger and satisfaction. Others help us care for our emotions, our need for movement and our nutritional needs.

Intuitive Eating is not “eating whatever, whenever”. But there are no food rules. All foods fit.

When you practice Intuitive Eating, you learn to trust your body, enjoy your food without guilt, and nourish yourself in a way that feels positive and sustainable. 

This approach not only supports your physical health but also improves your relationship with food, making eating a joyful and stress-free part of your life. 

Final Thoughts on Good And Bad Food

Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” can trap us in a cycle of guilt and restriction, affecting not just our eating habits but our overall well-being. It’s clear that this black-and-white thinking about food does more harm than good, limiting our enjoyment and understanding of what it truly means to eat healthily. 

Instead, embracing a more inclusive, balanced, and flexible approach to eating opens up a world where all foods can be enjoyed guilt-free, and where eating becomes an act of joy and nourishment.

Let this be the sign to let you redefine what food means to you. Discover your own values around eating, separate from societal pressures. Building a positive and inclusive relationship with food involves allowing all foods to have a place in your life.

Ready to break free from the diet mindset and improve your relationship with food? I’m here to help! Let’s work together to explore the principles of Intuitive Eating, develop mindful eating practices, and help you finally make peace with food.