Were You “Bad” Today? And Why is it so Hard to be “Good”?

Chef’s Salad: Good or Bad?

My daughter was visiting yesterday and was telling me about a weird conversation she had with a woman in line at Subway. After going to the gym she had decided to run in to get a grinder (she is like me, we hate spending money on food we can make ourselves) but sometimes saving time is more important. So she ordered her grinder and the woman behind her says “oh you are being so good!” Huh? “you got vegetables on yours!”……”but I like vegetables on mine….”my daughter said.

The woman goes on to say something about the fact that my daughter had on work out clothes from coming from the gym. That made her “really being good” in this woman’s eyes. The discussion led to this stranger sharing that she had been “bad” for almost 3 years, had not exercised but was just starting again. She was going to make herself eat vegetables, too. But not today. Today she would be bad.

I know I have talked about the language of dieters, of the moral judgement (of oneself) depending on if certain foods are consumed, or if food is “burned off ” with self-induced and not-too-fun “exercise”. But this lingo means so much more if you ask me. It is another one of my triggers to shake my head and feel sad, angry, not sure what. This language goes back decades, and is so ingrained in our culture that when you don’t buy into it, YOU are the weird one. YOU don’t get it, don’t fit in, aren’t normal. Of COURSE there are bad foods and good foods, people tell me.

I can debate why any food you can name is “good” if you happen to like it. “Good” is just a word and can mean different things to different people. To the dieting woman at Subway, “good” meant eating vegetables and exercising. To me, good means something very different. If a food tastes good to me, well then it IS “good”! If you want to talk about how different foods contribute to your health, that is a different story. I happen to believe that since all foods have energy (calories) they are good in at least that respect. If you were hiking in the woods with no food or water, and stumbled upon a picnic basket with Twinkies and Koolaid, I’d call that pretty good.

No, the problem is not just in your interpretation of the words, it is how they make you feel. It is the emotional response you get (and often the behaviors that follow) when you have this judgmental belief system. It ruins people’s entire days. Entire weekends. Entire vacations. The word “good” and the word “bad”. It reinforces the belief that we need to restrict ourselves of certain foods if we are to be healthy (meaning thin in many people’s minds). Most people believe that if you eat certain foods then you are likely to gain weight, and if you eat other foods, you will be thin. I can’t tell you the number of comments I have gotten depending on what someone sees me eat. A friend of mine once commented “You must have a good metabolism! You eat so much candy!” when in reality, I happened to buy a bunch of penny candy while on vacation (it brings me back to my childhood, when we had a corner store that really truly sold penny candy….that cost a penny). So when I happen to go to a store that has Mary Janes and squirrel nuts and caramels, I always buy a few. It just struck me funny how a small little candy is supposed to make you “fat”. I don’t have a high metabolism. I just really enjoy that candy and the reality is a piece of that candy has less calories than an apple. But I am sure if I ate 3 apples, nobody would comment.

The other thing that often baffles me is what different people consider “bad”. To some of my patients, rice was bad. To others, rice was “safe”. Potatoes can go either way I have found. Some people think they are “fattening” however some don’t. So depending on who you listen to, potatoes can be good or they can be bad. Same with rice, and bread, and olive oil, and nuts. It is pretty confusing.

I have wondered where this all started, and from the decades of research on binge eating and “disinhibition” I know that it most likely has come from our dieting mind-set. It may have started with the labeling of foods by Weight Watchers of “legal” and “illegal” way back in the day (they don’t do that now, now you have points….still, crazy if you ask me. TOO MUCH THINKING). But probably before that, depending on the fad diet of the year. No wonder everyone is so confused. One year fat is the “bad” food and the next year “carbs” are bad. Why don’t people ever stop and wonder: how is it that bad food keeps changing?

My suggestion is this: have you entertained the thought of thinking about health? If you have, then is the obstacle that you just don’t like “healthy” food? Consider this: you may be so obsessed with unhealthy food mainly because you have been trying to avoid it. If you let yourself have it in moderation when you really truly wanted it, do you think you would want it so much? Or, maybe you truly have never developed a taste for healthy foods. There are so many people who grew up on canned vegetables and Mc Donald’s burgers. I have worked with many families who really have not tried fruits and vegetables because they did not grow up with them. I also have worked with people who just don’t know how to cook, and so spaghettios and Ellio’s Pizza are mainstays. We know that exposure to healthy foods (such as fresh fruits and vegetables) over time really makes you eventually love them. We call it the “Rule of 20” which means that if you keep trying something (say broccoli) that it takes 20 exposures to really know if you like it or not. Research actually has mostly focused on children, and it could take as little as 10-15 tries. The bottom line is, that you just can’t know unless you keep trying. I am on my 7th try of beets, and I still don’t like them. I won’t give up though. Thirteen more tries…over time.

The other problem is, we do get used to certain types of foods, and our bodies actually learn to crave them. For example, eating really high fat, fast foods on a regular basis can actually affect your body in a way that makes you tolerate them more and crave them more. But when you eat lower fat foods, or if you never eat fast foods, you may find you get a stomach ache when you do eat them. I am not saying we should never ever eat fast foods or high fat foods. But I do think it is important to take a look at your overall habits. If you never ever eat fruits and vegetables because you think you don’t like them, then you might want to just consider starting to try them. NOT because they are “good” but because we know eating more of them makes us healthier. You can still have those burger and fries, but learning to also like a salad on the side is a huge step toward being healthier. Experiment with cooking vegetables different ways. Read cookbooks or check out cooking websites for new and interesting ways to make vegetables. Just because a dish is “healthy” or “good” does not mean it does not taste fantastic! My favorite thing to do is experiment with cooking healthy foods and coming up with something amazing. For example, last night I made “ratatouille” which is sauteed garlic, onions, peppers, eggplant, squash and zucchini in diced tomatoes. But added some spicy turkey sausage, shredded carrots, several herbs from my garden, some leftover red wine and grated Italian cheese. I melted some mozzarella on top, we had rice and adobo seasoned grilled chicken. It was heavenly. Good? I’d say! and not because it was healthy, but because it tasted wonderful!

Here is my challenge to you: for one week, can you catch yourself when it comes to talking about food? When you go to eat something “bad” can you re-frame your words? Instead, say “this is yummy”. Try to tune in to your body and hunger and eat an amount that makes your tummy feel content. No need to stuff yourself, because you are not being “bad”. You are enjoying something that tastes good to you. Also, instead of avoiding something that you never eat unless you are “dieting” and being “good”, can you try it anyway? have a yummy salad. Try a new fruit. Don’t miss out on exposing your taste buds to good food just because you are “off” your diet. Who knows…..you may discover a new favorite. Stop labeling food. All foods are equal.

Well, except beets maybe. But I won’t give up.

Oh, and that chef’s salad in the picture? It was good!

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