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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Can we conquer the good food - bad food misconception? Yes. With truth and respect.

woman in background is pulling a salad toward her and pushing back a piece of cake

One of the misconceptions about food and nutrition that drives nutrition professionals crazy is when people categorize food as all good or all bad. This black-and-white, all-or-nothing, dichotomous thinking prevents people from having a flexible and healthy relationship with food and eating.

This type of thinking is considered a cognitive distortion, which refers to thinking about ourselves, others, or something else, in this case, food, with a negative bias. It is unhelpful and can contribute to disordered eating patterns.

In this post, we’ll explore how we can deal with the good food – bad food misconception and conquer it with truth and respect.

Go ahead and categorize food, but not as all good or all bad.

Classifying food into different categories begins early. Children know that foods go in different food groups, are associated with certain meals such as breakfast cereal, are known by the country where they originated, the season or holiday in which they are eaten, and more. These categories simplify our thinking and can be helpful.

The two categories that are intended to be helpful, but are not, are when we categorize food as either good or bad. “Good” food is sometimes labeled as a superfood and often described or categorized as natural, organic, whole, clean, or unprocessed. “Bad” food is often labeled junk food and may also be categorized as a snack food, treat, ultra-processed, convenient, packaged, etc.

These categories may have been inadvertently promoted by nutrition messaging encouraging eating more “healthy” food and avoiding “less healthy” food components such as added sugar or trans-fat. The first editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans strongly emphasized “reduce” when describing what and how much to eat.

More recently, nutrition professionals have been striving to adopt more food-neutral messaging such as “all foods can fit,” which was the National Nutrition Month slogan way back in 1997. The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines still advises limits, but the emphasis is much more positive.

Why is food not good or bad?

The words good and bad can refer to multiple attributes of food. They can refer to its nutritional quality, taste, appearance, safety, and more. These labels are often more subjective opinions than objective facts. One person’s “delicious” is not the same as someone else’s.

Even in the attribute of nutritional quality, all foods can contribute to a healthy, balanced diet. No one food contributes everything needed for survival, with possibly the exception of breastmilk in infancy. Once weaned, we need a variety of foods for a variety of reasons.

Food fuels us with calories to satisfy our hunger. It provides nutrients to satisfy our bodily needs. It provides pleasurable tastes and other sensory qualities to satisfy our appetite. The act of eating brings people together to satisfy our need for belonging and connection. And much more. All food is good.

Why is the good food - bad food misconception unhealthy?

When food is demonized, guilt is associated with eating rather than pleasure. Food that is meant for enjoyment may be avoided unnecessarily due to being labeled as “bad.” These foods may be overly restricted, eaten secretively, or used as rewards for eating “good” food.

Conversely, “good” food may be eaten out of a sense of obligation rather than desired or enjoyed. When eating only “good” or “healthy” food becomes an obsession, it is called orthorexia nervosa.

Ascribing to the good food – bad food misconception does not allow one to have a healthy relationship with food and eating, which is flexible and relaxed, balanced rather than extreme.

This misconception also perpetuates food snobbery by elevating more expensive and exclusive foods marketed as whole, clean, organic, and unprocessed. Wholesome and convenient foods such as canned beans, jars of pasta sauce, or fruit yogurt may be demonized and unnecessarily avoided.

Conquer this misconception with truth and respect.

Where have you seen this misconception rear its ugly head? One location is cafeterias that use traffic lights to designate healthy and less healthy choices. A red light indicates “bad” food and a green light indicates “good” food. A better approach is to market all food as desirable, albeit with different merits.

Any gathering of people involving food will often illicit dietary comments such as “I don’t eat carbs,” “I’m avoiding red meat,” or “I only eat organic strawberries.”

Ignoring the comment can be an acceptable choice, but if you want to respond, a question may be the appropriate choice. To these comments, one might respectfully ask, “Is that hard to do?” Allow them to elaborate and they may open the door to further discussion by indicating that they don’t really want to… avoid carbs, red meat, or conventionally grown strawberries… but feel they should.

If that is the case, you can provide truthful evidence that carbs are not only okay but a preferred fuel source, red meat can be eaten healthfully and responsibly, and non-organic strawberries can be safe. On the other hand, if their opinion is firmly held, further discussion may only lead to an unproductive argument. Use your discretion and combine truth with respect.

illustration showing foods considered good with a green check mark and foods considered bad with a  red x

Good food – bad food is one of many common misconceptions about food and nutrition. In next week’s post we will explore further the related misconception that certain foods or food components are not just “bad,” they are dangerous.

A previous post explores numerous reasons why people believe misconceptions.

“All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.” ~ David D. Burns

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