From the very beginning, many of us are introduced to the concept of good food, and bad food. Even as a child, you may have found yourself sneaking guilty pleasures from the pantry when mom wasn’t looking, or hoisting your small self up to the cookie jar to steal a few Oreos. Perhaps some of us have even hid sweet treats in our bedroom, to avoid judgment and the inconvenience of being caught.
The guilt associated with “bad” foods accompanies us into adulthood. For many of us, it lingers in the back of our minds, and sharply reminds us every time we “cheat” on our diet, or cope with a rough day at work with some culinary comfort. Interestingly enough, while many of us experience the instantaneous reward of some foods, followed by an almost certain guilt, there is actually no true definition for what a good food and what a bad food really is. Like some things in life, most of us still think we know it when we see it. The question is: do we really?
Dichotomous Thinking: Good and Bad
Interestingly enough, the concept of good foods and bad foods has a name: Dichotomous Thinking. It means that we think about things in black or white, with no consideration for gray area. For example, one might say that kale is a good food and cookies are bad, and someone who was thinking dichotomously would probably agree with them. However, the simple truth is, one cookie – or two for that matter, isn’t bad for your health. In fact, they can be part of a very nutrient-dense eating pattern. It’s the context of your diet and lifestyle that help to paint the picture of your overall health; moderate enjoyment of comfort foods and treats will not break that picture. Ironically, we spend so much of our time agonizing over eating certain foods that we practically reverse the benefits of enjoying them in the first place.
Think of it this way: if you decide to take a break from work at your desk, you’d probably benefit from that break most effectively if you use it to clear your mind and get perspective. On the contrary, if you decide to take a break and spend the whole time kicking yourself for not working, you won’t enjoy yourself, you won’t get perspective, and you probably will not reap the benefits. Metaphorically speaking, this is a very similar idea to enjoying moderate intake of treats and comfort foods (notice here that I haven’t called them “bad foods”). Instead of demonizing these foods and labeling them, perhaps we should simply recognize that these foods can have a place in our diet, and won’t cost us a clean bill of health as a result. The key is ultimately moderation and mindfulness.
Moderation: What is it…really?
Moderation is literally defined as the avoidance of excesses or extremes. In dietary terms, the very opposite of moderation is binging, something we’ve all likely experienced. Research shows that we are very likely to feel the need to overeat something when we restrict it from our diet. The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest, we always want what we can’t have – there’s a cornucopia of idioms to describe how restriction often leads to overconsumption of the very thing we restricted. Now ask yourself – how often are the foods that you restrict things that you consider “bad foods”? Subsequently, do you ever find yourself overeating these foods when you can no longer withstand resisting them? Lastly, what would happen if you changed your perspective on good foods and bad foods, and recognized that all foods can be a part of a very healthy eating pattern?
How Can I Eat Mindfully?
A few tips to wrap up…
In order to prevent mindless overeating processes and encourage dietary moderation, food and nutrition experts recommend that you eat when physically hungry, eat slowly so that you can enjoy what you eat while allowing your body to detect when it’s full, and stop eating when you feel satisfied (not overstuffed). Lastly, be sure to enjoy your favorite foods when you truly crave them!
Emily Seferovich is a second-year graduate student in the University of Vermont Masters of Science in Dietetics program. She is originally from California, where she studied nutrition as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis. Check out her blog Euphoric Fork, for more food and nutrition-related content.