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There's no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' food

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Ditching rigid thinking about food and healthy eating helps us to create a happier, more sustainable diet.

It’s the kitchen-witching hour … after dinner, the kids are in bed, she’s prowling through the cupboards searching for the perfect Netflix-viewing snack. She’s craving chocolate but it’s not “healthy”, so instead she grabs some nuts, they’re “healthy”, then a piece of fruit, then just one biscuit – not quite so healthy but surely not as “bad” as the chocolate she really wants.

By the time the Netflix session is over, she’s eaten several more biscuits and a pile of popcorn, before caving in and eating the chocolate. And, after scoffing a few squares, racked with guilt, she decides to eat the whole bar – best to get rid of it, so she won’t be tempted by chocolate again tomorrow.

Prowling the kitchen, eating foods we don’t want, while circling the real object of our desire is a common problem for many dieters – not because we want chocolate (or cookies, or crisps), but because we see it as a problem and make it into a bigger issue.

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By the time we’ve completed a full stocktake of the kitchen pantry – eating everything we deem “healthy” in our quest to avoid the “wrong” snack choice – we can eat two or three times as much as we would have if we’d just cut to the chase and eaten the chocolate in the first place.

“But chocolate isn’t a ‘healthy’ food,” your brain screams. “Chocolate is bad – you shouldn’t eat it!”

In reality there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food, not least because no single food, snack or meal defines your entire relationship with food or eating. This type of black-and-white thinking – an apple is good, chocolate is bad – has been linked to a greater likelihood of failing to stick with healthy-eating goals long term.

Case in point: Dutch researchers measured the relationship between black-and-white thinking, eating behaviours and weight status among 241 adults, asking them how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “I view my attempts to diet as either successes or failures”, “I think of food as either good or bad”, and, “When dieting, if I eat something that I had planned not to, I think that I have failed.” Those who strongly agreed with these statements were more likely to fail in their attempts to stick to their healthy-eating goals.

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Ditching rigid thinking about food and healthy eating helps us to create a happier, more sustainable diet as we release ourselves from the guilt and self-sabotage – “I’ve eaten some chocolate now, I might as well eat the whole bar, and a tub of ice cream, too!”

This type of catastrophic thinking – viewing or presenting a situation as considerably worse than it is – is a recipe for disaster in our relationship with food and our body.

If we banish inflexible rules – and chocolate isn’t “bad” or the “wrong” food – then we can enjoy some without first eating a pile of nuts, fruit, biscuits and popcorn. We eat less food in total, and more of the food we really enjoy.

Eating intuitively – giving ourselves unconditional permission to eat what we want, when we want; eating for physical rather than emotional reasons; and acting on our hunger and fullness cues – has been linked to improved psychological health, and in some studies, to improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels, along with improved dietary intake.

Food freedom, contrary to popular belief, actually allows us to settle into a happy middle ground, rather than swinging like a pendulum from rigid healthy eating rules to, “To hell with it, I’ll eat anything and everything in the pantry.”

So yes, eating the “wrong” food is sometimes the right choice, because in doing so, we break the black-and-white rules that push us further away from a healthy, relaxed relationship with food and eating.

Pass the chocolate, would you?

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.