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Good foods. Bad foods. How about just food and food neutrality?

"Words cannot change reality, but they can change how people perceive reality." - Jack Schafer Ph.D.

I think about this quote quite a bit in the health space. Think about your day-to-day and how many words you come across reading, whether they are from a book, an article, or even a social media post. We are heavily influenced by what we are exposed to; yes, even those of us who are independent thinkers can have our minds made up for us by what we read. In the health and nutrition space, this is often demonstrated by putting foods on a hierarchy. Think of the food pyramid circa 1992.

A table with 3 white plates of colorful food
Some delicious food from my trip to Barcelona

We have foods that are called bad, garbage, poison, junk, and all other negative associations that you can think of that we would probably place at the bottom. Yes, I know the bottom of the USDA food pyramid were the foods that we were told to eat in abundance, but in reality, our minds place negatives towards the bottom. Just work with me here. So why should we rethink calling these foods negative names? Are Oreo cookies the most well-rounded food out there? No. Would our bodies feel great after eating a whole box of them? Also no. Should they be called garbage because of this? My answer is still no.

We don’t eat food purely for nutrients. Food is representative of so many different aspects. One thing we absolutely love to do here in the States is compare our food and ways of eating to other countries. Especially the European countries. The last European city I visited was Barcelona back in February 2020 (my friend and I luckily got this trip in before COVID shut the world down). I remember the city's beautiful architecture, the fashion, and shopping, but I distinctly remember the food. The food was delicious, and we drank more sangria than we probably should have, but I remember how central the food was to the city. People sat down for full meals that included breads, sweets, desserts, fried foods, rice, and all other foods that we tend to demonize here in the States. I’m not claiming to be an expert on Spanish cuisine or culture, but I could observe and notice how central and integral food was to many. I noticed that people ate with joy and socialized with each other around the table. I noticed how when my friend and I made the mistake of eating at a restaurant one night, we were the only ones in there at 7 PM. We quickly caught on to hold our appetites until 10 PM, which seemed to be the normal dinner hour. Again, I am not an expert, but I am an observer.

And this isn’t just limited to one city or country. Back in August of this year, I traveled to Ecuador. One day, I wanted ice cream after a morning full of sweaty hiking. Imagine my shock when I got back to town and all, I mean ALL, the shops were closed down for lunch. That is how important food is, and it is completely normal to shut down and take the time to eat and socialize because food represents the community. Okay, what does this have to do with Oreos? Food also represents joy and memories, especially the fond, comforting ones. I often think of families who might be struggling to get by or someone who has had a horrible week. Those cookies aren’t just cookies but they are something that represents joy and comfort. When we are having a horrible day, week, or month, we are not daydreaming about broccoli. Yes, broccoli can be delicious, of course, but many foods that we want to soothe our souls are in the form of something hyper-palatable. Now, there are indeed other methods, of course, to soothe and comfort ourselves, which can be deep-dived into later on, but there is nothing inherently wrong about celebrating or consoling with food. Think about a birthday cake or once a client shared with me that she realized her fondness for Entenmann's baked goods came from the memories of her grandma and the time she spent with her, which brought her joy to think about. Food was part of the connection.

Food and morality

“Words have power. If I tell you this hamburger is 80 percent lean as opposed to 20 percent fat, then in some sense, I am communicating the same thing. But what people get from those two communications is very different: People perceive the 80 percent lean hamburger as much healthier than the 20 percent fat option. By choosing how you frame and talk about something, you are cuing others to think about it in a specific way. We can drastically change someone’s perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something.” - Lera Boroditsky.

I talked about the many representations of food, but let’s also discuss the morality of it all. We automatically equate that to our morality when we talk about "bad" foods. "I'm so bad today" or "I am the worst because I have no self-control." We are equating our worth with food and what we ate or didn't eat. What if we shift the narrative entirely and recognize that not every food is meant to provide us with an abundance of nutrition, and eating those foods doesn’t make us “bad” people? Broccoli is NOT the same thing as a donut. We know this, and saying that broccoli and donuts are the same in terms of attributes is not what food neutrality means. The neutrality aspect recognizes that broccoli and donuts are very different and have different benefits.

Broccoli provides vitamin C, vitamin K, fiber, and many more vitamins and minerals. We can recognize this. We can acknowledge how this particular food can help our body and nourish it. We can recognize this is just food and not a personal mark of our value when we eat it. Donuts can provide joy, comfort, and traditions and social connections. Not to mention a quick dose of sugar that could be beneficial for, say, athletes who need that burst of energy. Did you make donuts with a grandparent? Do you look forward to fall because of apple cider donuts? Do you have meet-ups with friends for coffee and donuts? These connections are also equally important. Remember the client I mentioned above who had fond memories of Entenmann's goods because of her grandmother? These connections are also memories that can nourish our soul.

Another move we make in attaching different foods to our morality is that we try to keep the "bad" foods out of the house. However, this can have the opposite effect of what we intended because we then consume more than we normally would of said “bad” food once they are within reach. And, of course, there is the blaming of ourselves for lack of control that quickly follows. It’s a last supper effect mentality. We have foods that we have decided to limit, but once we are within reach of these foods, we don’t know when the next time will be when we will allow them in our rotation, so we eat as much as possible to commemorate the moment.

In conclusion there are numerous factors as to why we choose food. Not every single choice is going to be centered around nutrients. Not everything is black and white, there is always a ton of gray area and a ton of nuance. We don't have to demonize certain foods, choices, or ourselves. Remember, food represents joy, comfort, memories, and social aspects, and all of these things are okay. Nourish your body and your soul with nutrient J (Nutrient Joy).

A table featuring 2 plates of sweet foods and 2 coffees
Delicious sweet breads and coffee from Barcelona

*Disclaimer - this is not to be used as personal medical or health advice in any form.


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