Why do we label foods as 'good food' or 'bad food'?

Why is salad a good food and pizza a bad food? Why do we label foods as being 'good' or 'bad'? How does that then make us feel after we eat foods that we put in one category or the other? A great first step in changing your relationship with food for the better is to answer these questions personally and see what comes up for you. How can we change the language around food so we have less shame and negative relationships around our diet choices?


The way we label food has a huge impact on how we think about food and ultimately influences our relationship with food and the diet choices we make. Imagine for a second that whenever you see or think about bagels, all you can think is "that is such a bad food" or "if I eat that then I am being unhealthy" or "I saw on TV that bagels will make me fat"? How much pressure do you feel not to eat the bagel and in the end shame if you do end up eating a bagel? But guess what? Bagels do have some nutrition qualities that are healthful for our bodies. First of all, they are made with grains which is our bodies' first source of energy through their carbohydrates. Second of all, bagels are particularly high in protein for a grain product and provide us with a very healthy amount of fiber. They are also made with yeast which is helpful for developing gut health and depending on what is on top of them can have different vitamins and minerals. Now after all that, do bagels sounds that 'bad'?

Like I mentioned, the problem with labeling foods as good or bad is that we may not only limit our diet choices but be especially hard on ourselves if we eat so called bad foods. It is also very likely that if we deprive ourselves of certain 'bad' foods then when we do eat them we may overindulge and binge on those items. This creates a relationship with food that is based on fear of making the wrong choices or resentment for not being able to enjoy your food. Food is yummy, food nourishes us, let's try to be friends with our food.

New research is even showing that foods labeled “healthy” in a grocery store and portrayed to the public in that way are in many cases hiding some “bad” food characteristics. A recent study published looked at 80 million food and beverage purchases (that's a lot of data!) and found that 48% were labeled low-fat, low-calorie, low-sodium, or low-sugar. Although almost half of foods had these 'healthy' food claims, compared with those without claims they actually had WORSE nutritional profiles overall! Not only are we telling ourselves that foods are good or bad, but so is marketing, and in many cases inaccurate at that! 

What can you do to take those first steps to establishing a healthy relationship with all foods and breaking down those labels?

1. Make a list of foods that you consider 'bad'. Now, pick one or two and look up their nutritional profile online (or ask me, I would love to help). Next, try eating a small amount and while you do mindfully think about how that food can nourish your body. If it's potato chips, a candy bar, or pizza, it doesn't matter, their can be some positives to trying it even if it is for pure taste satisfaction! (This can lead to serotonin production = happiness).

2. Practice reading labels so that you can compare the health claims on the front to the actual nutritional quality of the food. (I will discuss label reading here soon, or please ask!)

3. Like I discussed a few posts back, practice some mindful eating exercises with a bite of a 'bad' food and with a a bite of 'good' food. Try to realize that although you once labeled them as one or the other, now they are just nourishing food, and provide you an equal amount of enjoyment, yummy!

4. Find a new recipe that combines a food that you have previously labeled 'bad' and one that you labeled 'good'. Meld those bad boys together and break down those barriers! Think bagels with salmon and cream cheese, or homemade pizza topped with arugula, figs, fresh tomatoes (Trader Joe's has great ready-made dough), or even nachos turned taco salad with spinach, queso fresco, and pico de gallo on top!

5. Practice the 80/20 rule! I live by this rule and so do most dietitians and nutrition professionals I know. This means 80 percent of the time try to eat a balanced diet with lots of whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and 20 percent of the time have a little more fun with food and indulge in your favorite dessert or movie snack!

In the end, remember we want to break down these labels not only for ourselves but also for those who deal with food insecurity. If somebody has limited access to foods so is only able to buy convenience foods, we don't need them to feel shame or embarrassment for giving their bodies energy and doing the best they can. Just like we don't want ourselves to feel shame anytime we are in contact (or thinking) about food! Food nourishes, food brings people together, and food is integral to our everyday lives, so let's love all food, alright?