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We are inundated with messages about what to eat and what not to eat. This is not a new phenomenon—it has been happening since at least the 1970s (if not earlier). With the internet and social media at our fingertips, we are receiving diet advice from so-called experts constantly. In spite of all this, Americans’ relationship […]
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“I can’t eat that because it is bad for me” or “That is a good food, so I can eat that anytime I want” are examples of the “good-food-bad-food trap.” They are common statements among the general public, and particularly dieters.
The good-food-bad-food trap is just as it sounds—dividing foods into different categories deemed either good to eat or bad to eat. Dieting and public health campaigns really reinforce this all-or-nothing thinking with a series of rules about what we should and should not be eating. While the intention behind this notion is good, it is actually quite problematic in practice.
Why is it a problem?
All-or-nothing-thinking (also called black-and-white thinking) is a mistaken belief that leaves you with only two options, despite there being many gray areas in life. Examples include “I am dumb,” “She hated me,” and “I won’t be able to handle that.” Those who struggle with depression, anxiety, perfectionism, and eating disorders often engage in this line of thinking.
Let’s take a closer look. After yelling at her child, a mother thought to herself, “I am a terrible mother,” which led her to feeling bad about herself. Furthermore, she probably has a million examples of how she is a good mother, such as when she takes care of her child when he is sick and reads him a bedtime story most nights. Instead of thinking “I am a terrible mother,” she could have thought “I wish I hadn’t yelled” or “I am not perfect and sometimes I lose my cool.” With these alternative statements, the stressed-out mom can then problem-solve about why she lost her cool instead of just feeling bad about herself.
Similarly, the good-food-bad-food trap leads to feelings of guilt if a so-called “bad food” is consumed.
First off, there are no magical foods that are all bad or all good. Oftentimes diets determine which foods fall into the good or bad category. If, for example, you are following a gluten-free diet, a piece of wheat bread may be deemed as a bad food. However, that same piece of bread may be deemed a good food on low-fat diet. With fad diets, it feels like the categories of good and bad foods are constantly changing.
Second, are a burger and fries from your favorite fast food joint really bad for you? As I dietitian, I can honestly say that they are not. While they don’t provide tons of vitamins, they do provide much needed fuel for your body. Maybe they even provide a little joy in your life. Doesn’t sound unhealthy to me.
Yes, one could argue that if you ate burgers and fries all of the time, it would be problematic, as your body wouldn’t be getting all its necessary nutrients. And trust me, after your fifth burger in a row, you probably wouldn’t want one anymore thanks to your body’s built-in nifty mechanism that promotes eating a variety of foods.
If you really deem a burger and fries as bad and say that to yourself, you are left with a feeling of guilt, which then makes you feel bad about yourself, then leading you to problematic behaviors. Perhaps you “make up” for eating the burger and fries by over-exercising or restricting your food intake at the next meal. Then the cycle repeats itself over and over again and makes you feel more hopeless or down on yourself. All because of that one distorted thought.
How to get out of the good-food-bad-food cycle:
Notice your thoughts. What do you say to yourself about what and how you eat?
If you do use all-or-nothing-thinking with foods, begin to challenge the thinking by asking “Is there a more realistic way I could think about this? What would I say to a friend about this thought? Can I be more descriptive rather than judgmental?”
Practice changing your thought to a more realistic and accurate one.
Here is an example:
1. Notice the thought. After eating an ice cream cone, you say, “Oh gosh, that was bad. I shouldn’t have eaten that. It wasn’t on my diet.” You may have feelings of guilt and become preoccupied with eating the ice cream cone. Perhaps you start to feel a little hopeless and even berate yourself. Maybe it even leads to your thinking “Well I already blew it,” and then you go on to overeat.
2. Challenge the thought with more accurate and realist thinking. “I really enjoyed that ice cream. I haven’t had it in a while. I should remember to eat some of my favorite foods.” Or “One ice cream isn’t going to change my body. Ice cream can be a part of a healthy diet.” Or “I wasn’t planning on eating that, but I did enjoy it.” Or “I would like to learn how to eat ice cream and not feel bad about it.”
Notice after you challenge the thought, your feelings of guilt may lessen. Save the guilt for when you have really broken a moral rule.
Challenging the good-food-bad-food trap takes time and lots of practice. Remember the first step is to notice what you are saying to yourself about your eating. Then change the thought to a more realistic one, which will lessen the guilt or shame, which will begin to shape positive behaviors that you want.
If you live in the Austin area, please call for a free 15-minute phone consultation at (512) 293-5770.
Starting a new diet can feel like starting a new romantic relationship—exciting, hopeful, and thrilling at first. Dieting promises that when the weight is lost, life will really begin.
The reality of dieting.
Just like a new relationship, starting a new diet usually feels really good. There is ease in following a new diet because you don’t have to feel preoccupied about what to eat. While there is effort in planning meals, there is this sense of relief that goes along with it. This dieting euphoria can last for a while. Just like a new relationship, starting a new diet usually feels really good.
But unlike starting a new relationship, dieting almost always turns out bad (Dieting has a 95% failure rate long term). Life sets in and the diet begins feels too restrictive. The diet can make social engagements harder to navigate. The scale may not reflect your efforts. Or you biology might take over and you might feel just darn-right hungry. You may “go off the diet,” not because you lack willpower, but because the diet is just too restrictive.
Dieting involves following a set of external rules about how to feed yourself. Would you follow external rules when choosing a mate?
And just like a “bad” relationship, dieting can leave you feeling worthless and shameful and can undermine your self-confidence because your biology just can’t hack the diet (again, not because you lack willpower, but because of dieting is an ineffective intervention). Unlike a relationship, our society tells us that not being able to follow a diet is some personal failing.
Motivation to go on a diet can start with the intention of improving health. But dieting can have the opposite effect. Dieting is a risk factor for developing problematic eating behaviors, such as binge eating, purging, unhealthy exercise habits, and even full-blown eating disorders.
If you choose a bad mate, hopefully, you break off the relationship. But often with dieting, you keep going. That is what our culture tells us to do—just try harder.
Image what your life would be like without dieting.
When contemplating a breakup with a partner, deep down inside, you may wonder “What if I can’t find anyone else? What if this is good at it gets?” Once you break off the relationship and the sadness wears off and the wave of grief is surfed, you realize you are better off. You find yourself connecting with friends, family, enjoying hobbies, and dating again.
You realize that your life is better off without that relationship, and that yes, in fact, there will be others.
Giving up dieting will feel the same way. You will experience loss of what “may have been” if you had met that magic number (your weight loss goal). You will experience feeling torn between giving up dieting and pursuing that dream of weight loss. Maybe you were able to lose weight in the short term, but gained it all back. Remember re-gaining the lost weight is not because you are flawed, but because the intervention of dieting is ineffective.
You may experience feelings of isolation because it is normative to diet, talk about it, and post about it on social media.
If you do stop dieting, your weight may fluctuate or it could stay about the same. Everyone’s body is different. Eventually, your body weight will stabilize.
But you will definitely gain the following if you stop dieting:
1. Less preoccupation with food. You will most likely stop thinking about every morsel you put in your mouth, stop over-planning what foods to eat, and stop calculating how much food and what type to eat when.
2. Less guilt for eating. Your body needs fuel to survive. Food is our fuel. Diets are made up of a set of strict and often unobtainable rules, and when the rules are broken, guilt sets in. Guilt makes us feel bad, which doesn’t really help us take care of ourselves.
3. Reduced risk of developing a full-blown eating disorder or other problematic eating behaviors. Studies have shown dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder.
4. Reconnection with exercise in a holistic way. Oftentimes, exercise is paired with dieting, and when the dieting stops, the exercise stops. Movement provides so many benefits, such as stress relief, reduction of anxiety and depression, pain relief, recreation, and community. Often when exercise is paired with dieting, it becomes a dreaded task or punishment, disconnecting us from the ways in which exercise can feel good.
5. Reconnection with food. Instead of using strict guidelines of a diet to guide your food choices, you can use your internal wisdom to guide your food choices. That is to say, you can eat foods that you like, notice how different foods affect how you feel, and begin to notice your hunger/fullness cues.
Tips to stop dieting:
During a break-up with a partner, often a little extra support is helpful. The same goes for breaking up with dieting. The following tips can support you in your non-dieting journey.
1. Books such as Intuitive Eating, Intuitive Eating Workbook, and Health at Every Size.
2. Listening to non-dieting podcasts.
3. Professional help from a therapist or dietitian experienced with the non-diet approach to eating.
If you live in the Austin area, please call for a free 15-minute phone consultation at (512) 293-5770.