Ditch the Food Labels: Be Curious & Neutral

I was in the grocery store recently when a mom told her young child to put back a box of granola bars he wanted to get because "they have way too much toxic sugar in them." 

I've heard plenty of times people say no to dessert at restaurants because they don't want to be "bad" or eat the dessert but then feel guilty.

Food labels - labeling food as good, bad, "clean," healthy or unhealthy, or even labeling your dinner as gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, whatever-free on Instagram - are so common these days. It's so normal to talk about food in this way that we don't stop to question why we do it. Even food companies label or market food this way - I've seen brownies in the store labeled as "guilt-free brownies." 

The problem with food labels is it adds morality to food. Instead of simply enjoying a cookie, we label it as "bad" or "unhealthy." This leads to guilt and feeling ashamed or bad about ourselves for eating it. 

We shouldn't have to feel guilt or shame around eating. Food is only food, and it shouldn't have the power to determine how we feel about ourselves. Food labels often lead to feeling powerless or out of control around food, and how we feel about ourselves depends on how or what we eat (or don't eat).

Instead, start to get curious about these food labels and beliefs. 

When you notice these thoughts pop up, ask yourself "Why do I think this food is good or bad?" Explore your beliefs about that food to see if it is true or not. 

Often, these beliefs are taken from what you have heard or read about food and nutrition. Unfortunately, media and the messages we hear are negative, fear-mongering, and shaming. If you watch the news about nutrition, you may notice that what is deemed healthy or not is changing on a monthly basis. There is a lot of focus on extremes, such as cutting out all sugar or eating a 100% plant-based diet, rather than taking a balanced approach to eating. 

Many of the messages we hear are inaccurate or taken out of context. A lot of the nutrition studies you may hear about may be done on rats (not humans) or are small studies that can't be applied to the general population.

Find space to explore new beliefs, such as:

  • Food is not good or bad.
  • All food has a purpose. Food can provide energy, nutrients (vitamins and minerals), pleasure and enjoyment, social bonding and connection, and more. For example, enjoying a piece of cake for your birthday can be a pleasurable experience, chance to connect with family, as well as provide your body and brain energy (calories and carbohydrates).
  • All foods can fit.
  • You can trust yourself around food.
  • Your body is wise and can tell you when it's hungry, full, and what it needs.
  • No one food has the power to change your health. Eating a salad will not make you automatically healthy. Eating a cookie will not make you unhealthy.

Get curious about your current food beliefs, and explore trying out new ways to think about food.

A good way to start is with food neutrality. Instead of labeling food, just notice what it is and observe. If you're eating a salad, notice the crunch or flavor of the veggies. If you're eating a cookie, observe the sweetness or how the chocolate melts. 

Let go of whether or not society feels the food is good or bad, and notice what foods you like or not. This process can be a chance to explore the foods you taste-buds really enjoy (or not), the combinations of foods that are pleasurable, or the foods that are energizing to your body.

Instead of choking down kale because it's a "superfood," don't eat it or find a way to eat it that you enjoy. If you enjoy cookies, bake your favorite recipe as it is rather than trying to "healthify" it by cutting back on the sugar or butter.

Curiosity opens up possibilities in your relationship with food. It helps you tune into your body's wisdom rather than judging how you eat based on messages from our diet culture.

Make it a practice to explore with time. 

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