Raise your hand if you've ever described a food as "good" or "bad." Or if you've ever said something like, I ate horribly this weekend. For many of us, talking about food and eating in this judgmental way has become second nature, often because of our experience with diet culture.
But that doesn't mean it's healthy for you. Using binary, moralistic terminology to describe food ends up making people feel guilty and bad about themselves, which may even escalate into more problematic eating, Evelyn Tribole, RDN, certified eating disorders specialist, co-creator of intuitive eating and author of the upcoming book Intuitive Eating for Every Day: 365 Daily Practices & Inspirations to Rediscover the Pleasures of Eating, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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Let's be clear: There's no such thing as "good" or "bad" foods, and your value as a human being doesn't depend on what you eat (i.e., you're not a good person because you ate an apple or a bad one because you snacked on a candy bar). Rather, there are foods that might trigger fear or anxiety for you (more on this later).
But here's the problem: The more you limit these scary foods (the ones you perceive as "bad"), the longer the list of forbidden foods tends to grow, Tribole says. And what often happens when you over-restrict foods is that you reach a breaking point, which can lead to uncontrolled bingeing.
What's more, this black-and-white thinking may spill over into — and negatively affect — other areas of your life, Tribole adds.
But the good news is that you can unlearn these problematic thought patterns. Below, Tribole shares six strategies to nix the negative, binary way of thinking and help you achieve a healthier, happier relationship with food and eating.
1. Identify Your Beliefs About ‘Fear’ Foods
Is eating a cookie scary or anxiety-provoking? If so, ask yourself: "What will happen if I eat a cookie?"
Identifying your beliefs about fear foods — and building self-awareness — is essential when it comes to transforming your relationship with food and producing positive behavioral changes.
Often, there's a lot of catastrophic thinking that goes along with this "bad food" mindset, Tribole says. In other words, you fear the worst will happen if you eat it.
To shift away from this perspective, take time to parse and examine your distorted beliefs and to look at the facts. For example, if weight gain is your fear, remember: One meal, one day isn't going to make or break your health, Tribole says.
And obsessing, worrying or shaming yourself over what you eat isn't good for your emotional and mental wellbeing, which both play a pivotal role in your overall physical health.
2. Get in Touch With Your Hunger and Fullness Cues
"Your body's so smart — it's wired to survive, and it needs to eat," Tribole says.
Consequently, your body sends you signals to tell you what it requires. When you ignore these sensations — like hunger or fullness — you end up disrupting trust with yourself, she explains. Conversely, when you connect with the sensations of your body, it helps get your needs met, both biologically and psychologically.
So, where do you start? Work on paying attention to the cues your body gives you. Tribole recommends rating your hunger (or fullness) on a scale of 1 to 10. While it sounds simple, this task might be difficult for people who've lost touch with their body.
If you're new to assessing your hunger and fullness, setting a time where you have one meal or one snack without distractions — where you can fully focus on what your body is telling you — can be very helpful, Tribole says.
And concentrate on feelings of satisfaction. So, for example, if you're eating a meal and it only sustains you for an hour or two, that might suggest what you ate wasn't enough food.
"Ultimately, it's not satisfying to under-eat or overeat in a way that makes you feel uncomfortably full," Tribole says.
The more you learn to connect to your body and heed its cues, eventually, over time, you'll cultivate trust in yourself, which often spreads in positive ways into other areas of your life, Tribole says.
3. Understand Where Your Desire for Food Originates
Sometimes we eat for a variety of reasons — we're sad, tired, bored — that have nothing to do with our stomach's signals. Once you can tune into your biological hunger cues, you'll be better able to distinguish a physiological need from other reasons you might feel like eating. Ask yourself, "What am I feeling right now? And what do I need right now?"
It might be that you're feeling lonely, which has been especially common during the isolation of the pandemic.
"We're wired to touch and to connect [a biological need known as skin hunger], and when we don't have that, we can be in this place of wanting," says Tribole. And if we're starving for connection, sometimes we seek out food as a way of self-soothing.
If you find that you're looking to food when you're lonely, you might first try connecting with your skin receptors through stretching or applying body lotion to see if this satisfies your skin hunger, Tribole says.
And if you do munch on a snack because you're feeling lonesome or blue, that's OK too.
"One of the biggest traps I see people fall into is really starting to judge and shame themselves because they ate when they're not biologically hungry," Tribole says. But beating yourself up is counterproductive. Instead, focus on the fact that you were connected enough to your body's cues to know the difference.
Remember, this process is about learning and discovery, says Tribole, adding that there's no pass or fail here.
4. Scrap the Scarcity Mentality
The best example of the scarcity mentality can be demonstrated by the toilet paper shortage that occurred during the first few months of the pandemic, Tribole says. As lockdowns loomed, and store shelves emptied, many people focused on what they couldn't have, and as a result, they became increasingly obsessed with hoarding toilet paper.
We see the same thing when it comes to eating, she says.
"When you really believe you can't have a particular food, especially when it's coming from a diet mentality, there's more of a likelihood that you'll focus on that food." And just like the scarcity mentality led to hoarding toilet paper, it can also cause bingeing of food.
So, how do you scrap the scarcity mentality? Make peace with all foods, Tribole says. In other words, unless you have a life-threatening allergy or medical condition that requires you to limit or eliminate a certain food from your diet, recognize that all foods can have a place at your table.
By doing so, you root yourself in a place of abundance rather than scarcity.
"There's a paradox that happens when you have permission to eat a food — it takes away the urgency," Tribole says.
Because the once-scarce, off-limits food is now available all the time, there's no rush or pressure to eat (or binge) it. Instead, you can ask yourself, "Do I really want this food now?" and "If I eat it now, am I going to really enjoy it?"
Essentially, when the urgency subsides, you can better make the decision to eat (or not eat) a food based on what your body needs and wants.
5. Reintroduce One 'Fear' Food at a Time
To help you make peace with scary foods, you might start by creating a list of all foods and then rank them in terms of the most to least anxiety-provoking, Tribole says. Once you do this, you can begin to systematically introduce one food at a time. Set a time to eat the food and really notice how it tastes, how it feels in your body and what emotions come up for you.
The idea is to habituate yourself to foods that you see as "bad" or those that lead to out-of-control eating. When you habituate in this way, you eliminate the novelty of the food, or the thing that makes it very appealing and exciting, Tribole says.
The issue is, people who constantly limit their eating don't ever experience this habituation effect. By always restricting the food, you create a great deal of urgency around it that can result in opportunistic overeating.
"And sometimes there's so much excitement, there's not even that much tasting," Tribole says.
Believe it or not, excitement — and guilt — can interfere with a food's taste, and ultimately, the satisfaction you get from it.
Conversely, when you slowly reintroduce foods, you sit with the food and focus on the sensation you get from it. And you might even be surprised by what happens.
"I've had some clients discover that they don't even like this food or it's actually no big deal," Tribole says.
Essentially, once you eliminate feelings of excitement and guilt, you reduce the food's power over you, and you can connect to what's really going on in your body.
6. Prioritize Non-Weight-Based Health Goals
While weight loss may be a common gauge in the progress toward our health goals, this approach might not be the best way to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Research has shown that restricting food — in the form of dieting — actually predicts more weight gain, Tribole says. What's worse, dieting is also linked to negative body image and an increased risk of eating disorders, she adds.
All this is to say, concentrating on dieting — and the number on your scale — may be more harmful than helpful.
For those who really want to pursue health, Tribole recommends shifting your mindset from weight loss to other non-scale goals.
"We need to focus on non-weight-based health goals such as getting enough sleep, having enough downtime, engaging in self-care and moving your body in ways that feel good," she says.
Prioritizing in this way — and ditching toxic diet culture — will help you improve your overall health, both physical and mental, in a sustainable way.