"Order grilled chicken instead of steak… or better yet, get fish. Always order salad instead of fries, and always get your dressing on the side."
These "rules" may seem so common nowadays among health-conscious Americans. But in the last few years, new rules have started to emerge. "Don't ever drink chocolate milk. Only buy organic milk. No wait, adults don't even need to drink milk at all." I could go on and on about foods that have become taboo—whole eggs, bread, and even fruit have been labeled as "bad" for one reason or another.
If you ask me, food policing has gotten completely out of control, and it does not help people. There is a difference between providing practical advice and demonizing certain foods and the people who eat them. Let me be clear. It is my life's passion to help people maintain their health and wellness. I want them to have energy, feel great, and take care of themselves. I believe a healthy and balanced life is possible for everyone. However, I also believe that in order to have it, you don't have to eat perfectly, earning an A+ in nutrition for every meal and snack.
There is one main reason why is it wrong to label foods as "good" or "bad": Guilt. When you feel like you should be holding a pitchfork while eating your meal, you are not enjoying it. You feel awful, like you're being bad, and you'll never reach your health goals. Or worse, you won't let yourself have a food that actually tastes good to you because you are afraid. That's a lot of baggage that is not only unnecessary, it's misguided. One meal, one food, one choice does not make a person healthy or unhealthy.
In fact, struggling with guilt or anxiety over foods is less healthy than learning how to let yourself enjoy them in moderation. If you feel stressed about going out for happy hour or attending your niece's birthday party—there will be cake (with real sugar in it) after all—you waste your time making food the enemy when it doesn't need to be. You really can have it all: healthy eating habits that include all your favorite foods. Yes, even the "bad ones." But you have to let go of food guilt. Here are a few steps to guide you.
1. Make a list of five foods you enjoy, but you feel guilty about eating. Write down why you feel guilty about each food. Then read your reason. Is it rational or irrational? Is it scientifically true? Is it something you would teach your son or daughter to believe?
2. For each of the above foods, I want you to write something positive about it. It can be about the taste, something about the nutritional value (cheese, for example, has calcium and is good for bones), a memory it evokes, or whatever you come up with.
3. Pick one food at a time from the list, and plan to eat it. If it makes you feel more comfortable, just take a small portion, or balance out the indulgence with other healthy foods.
4. Get comfortable, and get to eating. Take your time. Write down notes about the taste, texture, and your feelings. If any amount of guilt comes up, you have to chase it away. You can use your list of positive statements about the food to do this. Do this as much as you need in order to feel at peace with the food again. Then, when that food is no longer considered "bad," add it back to your diet with confidence. Choose your moderation—what, when, and how much of it you will eat.
5. Probably the most important step… reject all the stuff you read or hear from people about "guilt-free" food or "bad" food. Take it back to the science, and your own common sense. Does one food really make a person unhealthy, or is it all the choices we make every day that add up to our holistic health?
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Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, helps empower people to build healthy lifestyles. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Scritchfield is a Washington, D.C., based registered dietitian and fitness expert who encourages clients to find exercise that feels great, learn to manage stress, and establish lifelong eating skills that balance individual nutrition needs with hunger and pleasure. Visit her blog at: www.rebeccathinks.com.