“There are times when a piece of red velvet cake or a stick of licorice is just the food that will satisfy your taste buds. And eating these types of foods doesn’t mean you are an unhealthy eater.” – Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
What if I told you that labelling food as “Good vs Bad” could be making your food bingeing worse?
It’s been a while I wanted to talk about food labelling, why I don’t advocate for it and how it can cause you to lose control over eating.
I thought this was the perfect moment to do so, as I’m getting more and more clarity in my intuitive journey and deepening my understandating of how labelling food gets in the way when our goal is to nurture a peaceful relationship with food.
I’ve been listening to so many stories of women seeing food (especially certain types of food) as the enemy, as something to have a firm control on most of the time, because with no control the binge is always around the corner.
I can’t help but thinking that based on what I know now and what I’ve seen happening in other women’s life, the opposite is actually true.
The binge is always around the corner when you constantly try to have a strong control on food. Not in the opposite scenario.
A very common question which seems to come up once we start exploring the link between control, dieting and bingeing is this:
“How can I enjoy the food I label as ‘bad’ without bingeing on it?”
When I hear this question, I read in between the lines this other question:
How do I loosen the control I have on that food, without ending up choosing that food all the time and not being able to stop?
The belief you created after many years of dieting (officially or unofficially) is, indeed, that not bingeing on the food you like is impossible unless control is in place.
So, this is one of those cases where the answer to the question might already be contained in the question.
What if that answer is in the label itself?
The labels you attach to food don’t help
What if you took a step back and reflected for a moment on the labels you are attaching to food?
What I see is that the mere act of labelling food as ‘bad’ (or ‘unhealthy’ if you prefer) is enough to signal the brain that this same food should be something to constantly keep a close eye on, so you don’t end up indulging on it.
Precisely, labelling and controlling go hand in hand.
This important shift comes into my mind as I reflect on what makes it possible for me to have all sorts of foods in my press today, including those that once I considered ‘bad’ foods because they were my ‘bingeing’ foods.
How can that jar of Nutella sit in the press for days or weeks without ending up being eaten within one hour?
As usual, I don’t believe in universal truths and one size fit all solutions to fit everyone. So, the answer to this question might involve different elements for each of you.
However, I can share what appears to be quite powerful when working with bingeing that’s mainly driven by dieting and restricting , which is this:
Learning to let go of the food labels, of the moral value attached to food.
Plus, letting go of the desire to constantly control the type of food you eat each day.
The Good vs Bad.
The Right vs Wrong.
The Healthy vs Junk (or cheat).
All these labels come down to a mindframe that is typical of the diet mentality, which sees on one extreme the restriction and on the other the binge.
Sometimes you don’t even realise how much of your thoughts and behaviours around food are influenced by this dichotomy, every single day.
It just happens that year after year, meal after meal, messages after message and diet after diet, you can’t but filter what you feel about any food through these distorted lenses.
That filter ends up pushing you into some sort of black and white thinking about food, which is not so realistic.
You learn that nutrient dense food are the healthy ones which become your only choice when you are on the restrict side of the continuum. On the opposite side, the less nutrient dense food become “treats”, junk food which, more or less unconsciously, you associate with being on the bingeing side of that spectrum.
And for many of you that becomes the norm.
You shift with different degrees of consistency between these two extremes, ignoring what it would be like to be in the middle of that continuum.
Redefining your health values
What sits in the middle of that continuum is a different way of looking at food, and a new definition of what’s healthy.
A new definition where food meets the heart and all the senses and not just the stomach, where food is a matter of wellbeing, connection, pleasure not weight-loss, calories, macros, points, syns.
What I normally recommend to get closer to this middle is to get used to notice when judgment about food arises and practice reframing.
When thoughts such as “This is not what I should be eating” pop up, you can practice reframing that thought with something that better alignes with your path of wanting to make peace with food.
For example, say you’re out having dinner with friends and looking at the menu you notice some judgment like “I shouldn’t be ordering this” or “This is too much carbs”, you could reframe with something like:
“There’s nothing wrong in wanting to order this food.”
“This is neither good nor bad.”
or “What feels good for me to eat right now?”
By slowly dropping the labels and starting to see food as just choices, the desire to binge also loosen its hold on you.
If you’re thinking you can’t do this or that it’s just too hard because you tried it before and you know, I invite you to go back to:
- How you want your relationship with food to be different from now.
- Why this change is important to you.
Then take a first step. Just one.
Keep noticing your judgment when it arises. Keep asking yourself :
“What feels good for me to eat right now?”
Or “If I knew this food was always available for me, what would change?”
Believe me, it’s worth it. But you need to give yourself time.
Just like it did take time for me to get used to buy and store nutella in the press without wanting it all in one go, immediately.
Whatever direction this will take. Don’t lose faith in the process.
Because each single time you check in with these questions, you move just a tiny bit, but it’s that bit which day after day and meal after meal will move you forward to a different direction.
A word of caution if you have been or were diagnosed with an eating disorder such as binge eating disorder, for example.
Please, do pay attention if working with a professional, that the work you’re doing with them is not pushing you in the direction of labelling, of considering food, in any capacity, as morally right or wrong.
Keeping the diet mentality of pushing food into the good/bad, healthy/unhealthy compartments cannot but perpetuate the problem, because:
- It gets in the way of the process of habituation to all foods.
- It doesn’t take into account the emotional and psychological component, the sensory and social component of your food experience. These are just as important to build a peaceful and fulfilling relationship with food.
Imagine for a moment the relationship with a dear one. If that was to be just a mere exchange of tasks, favours and chores, with no affection or emotions. Do you think such relationship would work well? I guess the answer is no.
The same applies to food.
It’s important to take the time to understand what food makes us feel good physically, gives our body energy.
However, it’s equally important to consider the emotional and social component. Guilt, the feeling of being “wrong”, the push to hide what you’re eating, the turning down an invitation “because there’ll be food”, are not signals of a peaceful and balanced relationship.
One final note
Something I’ve realised over time, is that when we get closer to that middle ground, where there’s more food freedom and less telling off ourselves for eating this or that, we also tend to be way less judgmental of other’s food choices too.
When we’re immersed in the diet mentality, more or less consciously we try to convince the people around us of what’s right or wrong to eat. Sometimes we can deprive them of the ability to choose for themselves. We might feel envious for what others put on their table or make comparisons.
When, instead, the weight of the good/bad label drops, we are also more prone to let the people around us enjoy food without interefering. Is this not a positive aspect of sharing our food experience with someone else?
I like believing I gave you some material to reflect on with this article.
As usual, my intention is to ignite ideas and inspiration instead of giving a pre-packaged solution or a quick answer. It’s much more effective when you experiment and come out with your own findings and answers.
I’m also planning to deep dive into these questions related to food labelling and diet mentality inside the Mindful Body Women Circle, when the meetings will resume after the summer break.
If you’d like me to keep you updated, click here and I’ll add you to the waiting list so you can receive more info come September.
I’m planning to offer guided practices and questions for reflection in around these important topics. I want to help you experience food in a more intuitive and spontaneous way, dropping prejudices and strict rules.
I hope that sound exciting to you.
Have a lovely day!