Good Food vs. Bad Food

good food vs. bad food

I am sure you have heard it before: X food is good or X food is bad. Maybe you even think about food in terms of “good” and “bad” yourself. In this post, I want to give good reasons for why this way of thinking is not only mentally unhealthy, but how it can actually hinder your efforts of eating better.

Why do people think in terms of “good” and “bad”?

We long for simplicity

Let’s face it, life is complicated. People are longing for anything that seems simple and easy. We want a quick fix, a fast answer, an easy solution to our problems. We do not want to settle for: “It is complicated” or “It depends on many factors.” Dividing foods into two categories: good and bad, makes things easy. Eat the good, don’t eat the bad.

The world is inherently complicated

Fact is, nature does not care about what people want. Our bodies and therefore nutrition are simply incredibly complicated.

Why food is not simply good or bad

Amount matters

Sodium is essential to life and without it, we would all die. Most people understand, however, that too much sodium is not healthy. The same is true for pretty much any food, even “healthy ones”.

For example, parsnips have plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber. They also contain psoralens, which are potent carcinogens and mutagens. While eating parsnips in moderation is not a problem, eating too much could be harmful. Even drinking too much water can kill you!

Everybody is different

It is easily overlooked that we do not only look different from each other, but are genetically and biochemically different as well. Food allergies and intolerances are good examples.

Lifestyle can also make a difference. An athlete has different needs than a couch potato. This makes one food “good” and “bad”, depending on the person who is eating it. Another example is a bowl of whole grains, which may be healthy for one person, but may instead advance atherosclerosis in a person with insulin resistance or diabetes.

Food is not just about health

The terms “good” and “bad” most often strictly refer to health. But food is and should be more than just fuel. For most people, food has the potential to increase the quality of life and therefore happiness! When you eat food only for the health benefits, you might be missing out on overall happiness. And isn’t that what it is all about? What is the the point of living a long life when you are unhappy doing it?

Of course, if you strictly focus on pleasure and happen to enjoy the wrong kinds of foods, it can eventually make you very unhappy when you suffer the consequences. It is all about balancing and trying to maximize both pleasure and health. Besides, how “bad” is a food really, when it makes you so happy to eat it once in a while?

How “good vs bad” can be bad for you

Deciding what’s good and what’s bad

Of course, every decision we make is based on something. Sometimes, we place food in a category because we heard or read something about it. The thought process can go like this: X contains a lot of fiber, fiber is good, X is good.

Our ideas also strongly depend on past experiences. When our parents said: “Drink your milk, it is good for you”, it made an impression on us. Nowadays, our perception of food is also shaped by the media. There are literally hundreds of sentences published each day, mentioning how and why a food is either good or bad for us. It is hard to not be influenced, especially so on a subconscious level.

Information can be wrong or misinterpreted

The problem is that good information can be misinterpreted and other information is flat out wrong. If you decide that one food is bad and stop eating it, you might unnecessarily restrict your diet and lose potential happiness. On the other hand, if you decide a food is good you might eat it without really enjoying it, when you could be eating something equally healthy that you like better.

Even worse: you eat something thinking that it is healthy (everyone talks about the health benefits), when in reality it is not good for you.

Don’t get sucked in

Manufacturers know about the psychology of consumers and use it to their advantage. The recent shift to more wholesome food has resulted in product descriptions and ingredient lists that contain the word “natural”, “organic” and “pure”. Don’t be fooled. Natural does not equal healthy! Also, your body does not care if something was created in a lab or by nature if it is the same substance.

Feeling safe when eating “good” food

Another problem with this kind of black and white thinking is that it is easy to feel “safe” with certain foods. Too safe. Once a food has been deemed good, you might think it is ok to eat it as often and as much of it as you want. As mentioned before, this is often not the case, even with “healthy” foods.

The same kind of thinking often hinders people from losing weight. Many people are trying to find the one macronutrient or even the one food that is responsible for their weight. Some end up blaming carbohydrates, others choose to blame fat. The former then often overeat on “safe” fat and the latter overeat on “safe” low-fat foods. Both behaviors ultimately lead to weight gain.

Feeling guilty

Another obvious problem with the concept of “good” and “bad is that it leads to bad feelings. A lot of people have blacklisted so many foods that it is practically impossible to never get exposed to or eat any of it. And when a “bad food” is consumed, the person often experiences incredible guilt and a sense of failure. After all, if a food is simply “bad”, it is always “bad” and should never be consumed.

A better way of thinking about food

After all that talk about how not to think about food, the question emerges: how should we think about food? Here is an idea:

Every food plays a role

I like to think that every food plays a role in our diet. For each food there are healthy and unhealthy roles. This means the same food can be “bad” or “good” depending on the role it plays.

Roles differ by size and purpose

The difference between a healthy and unhealthy role can lie in the size of the role. A little sprinkling of cheese can be perfectly healthy. But when cheese plays a larger role in a dish — think fondue or cheesy casseroles — the role of cheese is not a healthy one in that particular dish. But of course, even an unhealthy dish can still play a healthy role in a diet overall — if the role is relatively small.

Even if the amount and frequency of a certain food is the same, the role can still differ by purpose. If you eat one cupcake because you love the taste and it makes you happy and satisfied, the cupcake plays a healthy role. On the other hand, if the role of the cupcake is to numb your feelings or to simply fuel an addiction, the cupcake plays an unhealthy role.

The role most foods should play

Optimally, most foods that you eat should play a role of nourishing your body and protecting you from disease. Of course, it is a major bonus when it also makes you happy, because it is delicious and satisfying.

Other roles food can play

It is also perfectly acceptable when a food’s sole role is to enhance the flavor of a dish. A sprinkling of cheese is the perfect example. Cheese, like most other foods, is not inherently bad. It is also fine to sometimes indulge in something that simply tastes good.

Some foods play a role of indirectly promoting health. When a sprinkle of cheese helps you to eat your broccoli, which you would not eat otherwise, the cheese plays a healthy role.

Sometimes the role of food goes even deeper than just health and flavor. Food is linked to traditions, can bring back memories, and can strengthen human relationships. A birthday cake, for example, has special meaning to a lot of people. To eat it once a year is perfectly healthy.

Understanding what truly matters

While it is very unlikely that eating something like cake once a year will have an impact on your health, having the wrong mindset — even just once — does have a negative impact on your mental health and happiness.

In sum

Labeling food as good or bad does not really make things easier. It often leads to unhappiness and sometimes even poor health. If you truly want to lead a healthy life, start by improving your relationship with food and with yourself. The rest will follow naturally…

– Christina

Let me know

Do you think of food as good and bad? If so, has something changed after reading this? Why or why not?

44 comments

  1. I LOVE this! I am going to tweet this…every person NEEDS to read this!!

  2. This is SUCH a great post. I think people want to know what they “can and can’t” or “should and shouldn’t” eat just to make it easer. Everything in moderation!

  3. SO true……too many people say this is bad and that is bad when we are all individuals with different needs and wants. I like how you said we need to start improving our relationship with food.

    • Thank you! I have seen so many people who have this love/hate relationship and it makes me so sad. I wish everybody could get simple joy from eating. Unfortunately, changing the relationship with food is not easy.

  4. What a great post! And soo true. As an RD, people are always asking this question…is this food good or bad. Like you had mentioned, it is not always this black and white. There is where I find being an RD such a challenge.
    I am all for the approach…everything in moderation.

    • Thank you so much!

      I can totally relate! On one side you want to improve their relationship with food, but telling them there is no bad food can also backfire. They could take it as an excuse to keep eating foods that are not good for them. How do you tell someone not to eat something without using the words bad? And sometimes (eg. sugar addiction, soda) people need to give it up all the way first before they can get better. So tricky! Food is so personal to most people, tied in with so many emotions and rooted in deep habits… one of the hardest things to change. But that is why it also feels SO good, when you do achieve good things.

  5. Shelley says:

    wow- this is a FANTASTIC post. It sums up a very healthy relationship people should have with food. seriously, this is amazingly written.

    • Thank you so much Shelley! That is so kind of you to say. I guess it was worth all the time I spent writing it!

      I just read your story on your blog. I will definitely be following you on your journey! You sound like a great person!

  6. Karin says:

    Boooh! for some reason my comment never showed up.
    I love this post because you’re feeling exactly the same like me. Life isn’t simple so why would food be easy? It’s only logical that different people need different diets. People just sometimes wish for a quick solution (which is obviously non-existant) for everything.

    • Sorry about that. Do I need to fix something? Glad it worked now.

      Thank you so much again for mentioning me on your blog. I really appreciate that!

      I am glad you liked this post, you are right!

  7. […] be true but there are also a bunch of amazing posts. You should all go and read her most recent one “Good Food vs. Bad Food”. Watch out guys! The mountain people from the tiny European country are here to take over the […]

  8. I love this post! I struggled so much for most of my adult life dieting and eliminating foods, etc and always gaining the weight back because I put food into categories and had a lot of guilt associated with eating.

    I finally learned that you don’t have to abolish foods, but just control them. I also learned to accept the fact that it is okay to love food! There isn’t anything wrong with loving food, it’s good stuff.
    Once I got rid of the guilt associated with eating, it became much easier to keep the weight off.

    • Thank you so much Lori for your thoughts and words!

      Congratulations on your transformation! I am sure it was NOT easy. The things you describe are so common, I really hope people who read and struggle with the same thing, will know that it can be overcome. You are an inspiration!

  9. Carolin says:

    Great post! I can totally relate to all of what you said. So many times I get confused with thoughts like, “i think this is not good”, but are not really sure why. Or I feel guilty after I ate certain foods, like pasta or cheese etc. because I think they’re not “good”, even though I know that I need some of these nutrients as well, just in the right amount. So I loved reading this whole post because I could relate to it so well and I will try to keep what you said, like the food’s different roles, in mind! Thanks Health Foodie! :)
    I always enjoy reading your posts! Keep up the good work!

    • I am glad you liked it!

      I think once you learn more and more about nutrition, it becomes easier to combat these feelings with rational thoughts. As long as you know “why” a food might be bad you can rationalize it better why it won’t make a big difference if you do eat it this time.

      I think a big part for me, why I never feel guilty eating anything is because I feel very confident in my diet overall. I know that I am eating so many foods that are good for me, I don’t worry about eating the “wrong” thing. When I do eat something bad (something I don’t tolerate) I don’t fell guilt, only regret while I am in the bathroom. haha

      I really hope that at some point you will not experience food-related guilt anymore. Eating is so much more fun this way!

  10. Oh my goodness, how crazy is it that we made such similar posts on the same day!!! :) Yours is great; I love your philosophy and outlook on food and healthy eating!

  11. great post! I hate when people autmatically have labels for food so its a danger zone, or something they can NEVEr have. There shouldn;t be a food that is completely off limits! in moderation and balance, it is ok to have everything…and of course this will make you happy! food should not make one miserable but rather SMILE :)

    thank you for your sweet comment on my blog!

  12. celine says:

    what a great post, Christina! so happy to finally found out about your blog.

  13. What a wonderful post and beautiful blog! This is such a healthy approach to food – my biggest pet peeve is when people identify “fats” as bad, bad, bad and stay away from nuts and oils. There’s nothing healthier than pure olive oil sprinkled over a light, refreshing salad!
    I’m new to your blog (and new to my own, I just started writing!) but I really look forward to reading your updates from now on!

    • Thank you Steph! That is so good to hear.

      I agree, fats are so important. But their fear is probably a result of the low fat trend from the 80’s. I blame the media for things like that (and some money hungry people). As soon as there is one study that indicates something, they make a shocking headline out of it and blow up everything. Science just does not work like that and most scientists know what one study does not mean, THIS IS THE WAY IT IS. Most people are just victims in this. Of course, not everybody can be an expert on science/nutrition and evaluate everything for themselves. And those fears they are hard to remove… :(

      I just checked out your blog, it is gorgeous and the food looks great too!

  14. This is such a great post! So many people have a poor relationship with food because they are focused on foods being “bad”. Its important to acknowledge the fact that food is not just fuel! Like you said about the flavors, the traditions! Not enough people realize this! Thanks for this post!!

  15. Angie says:

    Hi Christina! A friend linked me to this post and I’m so glad she did! I read it this morning then went to yoga. Upon returning from yoga I was STARVING and started to make my lunch (chicken sausage stir fry with spinach and veggies). I really wanted some cantaloupe and found myself thinking “No. It’s BAD to mix fruit with this lunch”. I thought of your post and put the cantaloupe on my plate then sat down to re-read your post with my healthy lunch. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Having been on low-fat, low-carb, low calorie diets, etc… It’s often hard to get my mind around what healthy eating is – there are just too many “diet experts” voices floating around in my head! I’ll be back to read more! ~ Angie

    • Hi Angie! Thank you so much for your story. That made me so happy to hear! So glad you ate that cantaloupe. Good for you!

      I am so sorry about your past weight loss experiences! It is SO hard to resist letting all these things we hear affect us. No matter how skeptical or knowledgeable we are, some things make an impression on us…they stick with you somewhere. But I do think it is possible to override a lot of these thoughts and I hope this blog will help in the process.

      I strongly believe that no matter whether you want to lose weight or just eat healthier, it ALL starts with a good relationship to food and a wanting to nurture your body and mind.

      I will definitely have more post like this and about weight loss. Thank you so much for reading along!

  16. coco says:

    I totally agree, there’s not good or bad food. Everything in moderation is good and too much of “good” food can be bad as well. Listen to our bodies is the most important way to go. :)

  17. […] me this link to Christina’s post on Good Food vs. Bad Food – It really made me think about how I catorigize my […]

  18. Theresa says:

    Great post! I totally agree, but I still find it hard to reconcile what I know with how I feel. I do eat in moderation, try not to label foods, but the many years past of labelling foods and the myriad of subconscious influences of what/how to eat has made it hard sometimes. Years of my parents trying to help me ‘control my weight’ resulted in the phrase, “empty calories” that resonates in my mind when I see delicious sweets and baked goods. Trying to get rid of this mentality is an ongoing struggle, but I have made improvements thus far. I hope one day to completely shed this inner struggle of guilt – to have what I would like without denying nor over-indulging.

  19. Mackensie Hampshere says:

    Wonderful posts, they’re not very good.. Sorry :(

  20. […] Good Food vs. Bad Food | Health Foodie – Feeling safe when eating “good” food. Another problem with this kind of black and white thinking is that it is easy to feel “safe” with certain foods. […]

  21. […] Good Food vs. Bad Food | Health Foodie – Feeling safe when eating “good” food. Another problem with this kind of black and white thinking is that it is easy to feel “safe” with certain foods. […]

  22. Tania says:

    Great article. Perfectly explained.

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