Moving away from the terms good and bad food during weight loss
January 6, 2018 11:29 AM   Subscribe

I've been trying to lose some unwanted weight that has had bad physical and mental effects on me, with the help of a nutritionist. She tells me that treats are healthy in moderation. For example I can have one small thing a day. My problem is I can't stop thinking about treats and carby stuff as "bad" because they could potentially affect my weight loss progress. Likewise, I see things like veggies as good. That seems like a harmful mindset. Any suggestions on moving away from this good/bad dichotomy?

I gained this weight from a combination of eating too much junk food and from a medicine side effect. I have a few other issues surrounding food: I reward myself for eating well by eating junk food. Sometimes I mindlessly overeat or eat more than I feel I should and end up feeling very guilty. I worry that I'm doomed to stay fat and even gain more weight. Overall this seems like a bunch of issues that have compounded together.
I'm trying to eat more vegetables and nutritionist approved snacks like fruit so I don't overeat too much calorie dense/sweet stuff.
posted by starlybri to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible for you to tune into how certain foods make your body *feel* vs labeling them good or bad? I'm not sure if this is universally possible but I feel physically better if I'm eating vegetables and protein vs sugar/a lot of white flour. Like, it's not my brain saying "good job" or anticipating how my body will look far in the future, I literally feel better day-to-day in terms of energy and my gut.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:35 AM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is very variable for different people. Some people find it easier to just decide sugary treats are completely off limits so you never have to renegotiate with yourself. This bright line approach works great for my best friend. She finds her addiction to sugar/cravings subside and it's just easier to decide that sugar is "not consumable" than having to limit herself to for example one small treat a day.
For me, it's the opposite. If I make a rule like that I immediately want to break it. The forbidden thing becomes more foregrounded in my mind. It's better for me to decide that I'm going to have, for example, one small dessert after dinner. But yes, that can start to mushroom into more.
But in either case, I think it's important to remember that they are not good and bad in a moral sense. They are possibly better or worse for your achieving your goal because the treats provide calories without nutrition. And your goal should be health as well as weight loss, so it's better to use your calories to nourish yourself.But it's important not to associate "better" and "worse" for a goal with "good" and "bad" in a moral sense.
posted by velveeta underground at 11:38 AM on January 6, 2018 [9 favorites]

This is not something that works for everyone, but are you using a calorie tracker? There's a bunch of apps for this, MyFitnessPal is one of the more popular ones.

In terms of reframing mindset, the reason I suggest it is that it gives you a target for the day, and you can use whatever you want to fill it. As long as you're hitting your goal, you should see progress. The math is the math and you can't beat the math.

Naturally, there are healthier and less healthy ways to hit that goal. But by reframing food as just a plus/minus number, and being able to easily see what you have room for, you may be able to relax about having the occasional brownie or whatever.

Also helpful: thinking in terms of weeks rather than days --- nobody's gonna be perfect all the time, so try conceptualising in terms of hitting a weekly goal rather than a daily one. You may have a treat and go over one day, then skip a cracker or five over the rest of the week and be able to stay on track.

Calorie counting isn't for everyone ---some people find it too fussy, and others become obsessive. But it can be a really good way to learn about your own rhythmns and see yup, as long as I'm doing say 1650 a day, I lose about half a pound a week, etc.
posted by Diablevert at 11:41 AM on January 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

Your mileage may definitely vary, but for me, it's ok to think about good food, especially if I don't frame "good" in moral terms. So strawberries are a good food because they're delicious, and they have lots of fiber and vitamin C. Carrots are a good food because they're crunchy, which is a texture I like, and they have tons of vitamin A, which will make my eyes healthy. Hummus has fiber and protein. Avocado has lots of good fats, which I need to properly digest fat soluble vitamins. Good foods are foods that I enjoy eating and that provide things that my body needs. Other food isn't bad, but I try to focus on eating lots of good food, because it tastes good and makes me strong and healthy.

For me, though, the absolute most important thing has been realizing that the world won't end if I get fat. There are a lot of worse things to be than fat. I know and love several fat people who have full, wonderful lives. Once I stopped being terrified of being fat, it was a lot easier to reframe my relationship to food in ways that worked better for me.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:44 AM on January 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'd keep "good." What's wrong with "good?" "Good" is great. I'd stop using "bad" by further subdividing it into "worth it" and "bullshit."

Then a piece of free grocerystore vanilla cake with a pile of crappy marshmallow icing with the corporate logo sprayed on for the annoying thricemonthly office party crapfest for whatever reason we can dream up because we want to pretend that work is not hell is "bullshit," but a small chocolate lava cake shared with a friend after dinner is "worth it."
posted by Don Pepino at 11:47 AM on January 6, 2018 [27 favorites]

If it's just a matter of how you label food that's bothering you, could you try to think about it with a little more nuance? So, instead of good and bad, maybe look at specifically what you're eating. For example, say you're eating a sandwich. Carbs might be "bad", but coupled with the protein in the cheese, you're helping your bloodsugar stay more even and keeping yourself from getting hungrier later, which could be helping your goals. Or let's say you have a cookie. You certainly shouldn't eat ALL the cookies, but I find telling myself that I can't have ANY cookies is like telling myself not to think of elephants, it's all I can think about. Being allowed to have some "bad" food can help take the intensity off the cravings and make it feel like less of a big deal.
posted by Bistyfrass at 11:51 AM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

The problem with labeling any food "good" is that it automatically implies that other foods are "bad."

In general, the first step of changing one's thinking or behavior is noticing that it's happening. You might try just noticing when those judgments come up in your mind. If you can approach that with a spirit of curiosity ("Huh, there's that judgment about food again, interesting, I wonder what's going on?") rather than panic or further judgment ("Why can't I stop thinking like this?!? I shouldn't be thinking like this!!! I'm a bad person for thinking like this and my nutritionist is going to be mad at me!!!"), you might find that it starts to untangle itself on its own, at least a bit. Even if it doesn't, you might find that there are certain triggers you notice, like you tend to do it more when you're tired, or sad, or lonely, etc., and then you can work on the triggers.

Good luck! Taking moral judgment out of eating can be an immensely healing thing.
posted by lazuli at 12:05 PM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does it help to to redefine “bad?” Carrots are good food. A small piece of chocolate is good food. A battery is bad food. Plastic bags are bad food. Etc.

I did thing with something similar: redefining “bad” so it became slightly absurd and lost its power. Not sure it will work with food, but worth a try!
posted by a hat out of hell at 12:12 PM on January 6, 2018 [7 favorites]

The archives at Shapely Prose might also be helpful reading. From Devouring the World:
So sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not. But the one thing I know for sure is that the more I eat what I want and just let it go, instead of moralizing about it — even if what I want is a gigantic Italian sausage sandwich or a plate of onion rings or a bag of Cheetos — the less I fear I am on the brink of devouring the WORLD. And the less I eat myself sick. And the more I eat nutrient-rich food because I crave it. And the more I can truly distinguish feelings of hunger from feelings of deprivation.
posted by lazuli at 12:14 PM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

How about ‘big’ food and ‘little’ food. For example you could have a big bowl of veggies with a pat of butter, or you can have a ‘little’ food of two Oreos. I LOVE the act of eating itself, so ‘big’ tends to win me over, as I can eat for 10 times longer. That satisfaction is worth a lot.
posted by Vaike at 12:29 PM on January 6, 2018 [13 favorites]

I recently asked for fitness/nutrition podcasts and synecdoche mentioned Foodist. The structure seems to be that each episode is a discussion with one guest, either a "coaching session" or a "success story." I've only listened to a couple of the episodes but they have both touched on this. I am currently listening to this episode and it specifically talks about moralizing of food, which seems directly related to your question. The other one I've listened to so far talked about finding other (non-food) ways to meet whatever need the junk food is filling in someone's life.

That said, I also think that velveeta underground's comment above is valid: for some people moderation works, while for others it is easier to just set a bright line. Gretchen Rubin (who likes to divide things into categories) talks about abstainers vs. moderators. Foodist falls clearly into the moderator category, but if you happen to be an abstainer then maybe neither that nor your nutritionist's advice will be ideal for you.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 12:33 PM on January 6, 2018

The problem with questioning the notion that some foods are bad is that some things unfortunately still defined as food really are bad, in the same way that cigarettes are bad, and continuing to eat them regularly, like continuing to smoke cigarettes, is going to kill you. That's why I would like to see those things redefined as "bullshit." There's a transfat ban and they say for best not-dying results you should eat none of it, ever, but those splodey biscuits I used to eat by the truckload still have a little bit of partially hydrogenated oil in them. Sugar really is bad for you, too, so you should not eat the free office cake as often as it is offered, particularly when it's the kind of office that also offers free drug-rep cookies, staff meeting danish, dear old Mister Jenkins's bag of Sweet Sixteen donuts that he buys at the gas station every Thursday when he fills up and trots around the office offering everybody, and candy dishes on every other desk. Is the sugar part of a special treat that you or somebody made a special effort to make and it is going to be delicious? Worth it: eat the treat! Is the sugar free and available every day for zero effort? Then it's not a special treat, it's bullshit, it's going to kill you, don't eat it.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:34 PM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have been trying to move away from these terms as well. Eating "bad" food made me feel like a bad person, and then I would eat more junk to feel better. So now I have reframed food as "always" food and "occasional" food. Now, "bad food" just means cage eggs, or palm oil, or chocolate produced by child labourers.
I am also trying to separate food from emotion - if I recognise that I am eating due to stress, anxiety, or boredom, I have a bunch of other strategies on hand to alleviate these feelings, instead of using food.

Another alternative to the "good and bad" that I sometimes use is "feeding my grateful body the fuel it needs" vs "indulging my lizard brain".
posted by Naanwhal at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Sometime foods" vs "Anytime foods." Binge all you want on a fruit and veggie platter, with a couple cubes of cheese and a two squares of dark chocolate tossed on there. That's a lot of anytime foods with a couple sometime foods tossed in there for good measure.
posted by erst at 12:44 PM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I wonder if it's helpful to think of food in terms of affordability. I can afford to buy a coffee every day. I cannot afford to buy a car every day. Buying a car is not bad, it's just not sustainable for my budget. In terms of my health, I can afford to eat a cookie once a week or maybe even once a day, depending on the cookie in question and my goals/needs. A dozen cookies every day is not immoral, and for Michael Phelps it's probably within budget, but it's just not going to get me where I want to go.

Sugar can make me crash very easily with none of the "high" I hear other people describing. So for me it's a matter of timing and experience. The aforementioned grocery store cake will eff up the rest of my day and is NOT worth my while. It doesn't even count as a treat. It's cheap and overly sweetened and boring. I like my desserts to be luxurious, of excellent quality, and when possible shared with friends. I like to be demanding and picky about what sweets I'll eat and when, and broad-minded about my veggie intake.

So - affordable/expensive | nourishing/luxurious | productive/unproductive

As I say every time I hear someone say "this is so bad" through a mouthful of something wonderful: Genocide is bad. Dessert is delicious.
posted by bunderful at 12:49 PM on January 6, 2018 [10 favorites]

What about "for now" and... "not for now?"
posted by fritillary at 1:12 PM on January 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also think of them as “sometime foods,” thanks to Cookie Monster. That’s about as accurate and non-judgmental a term I can think of.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:18 PM on January 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I do "sometime" and "anytime" and "much" and "little" instead of "good" or "bad". It works for me. But the only thing that has every helped me lose weight was writing down every single tiny little thing that went into my mouth in the day. Everything--including the slug of 1% milk that goes into my coffee. It's pretty unpleasant, honestly, but it works.

I do allow myself a couple of "no counting at all" days in a month. I find that after three weeks of monitoring and limiting what I eat, the days when I don't pay attention are still days that I only eat small portions of every thing because I just feel full faster.
posted by crush at 2:01 PM on January 6, 2018

My two suggestions are ‘more healthy’ and ‘less healthy’ or, depending on how you think of it, ‘satisfying’ and ‘not satisfying.’ The reason this second pair might be tough is that for many people an entire bag of chips trips that ‘satisfying’ button. Maybe ‘affirming?’ Because choosing a tasty veggie dish affirms your goals? I don’t know what the alternate word might be.

Separating the food=reward pathway is actually very hard, so please don’t beat yourself up for struggling with it. There is no moral failing here, despite what marketing and western attitudes toward bodies will howl in your ear. You know that, but it’s worth repeating. You are not failing when you make choices. You can gather information for the future about how your choices feel and in the future you can make different choices.

Also, even if you discover that you’re better suited to ‘abstaining’ than ‘moderating’ you can think of it as abstaining ‘for now.’ Sure, many people give up cookies forever. But telling yourself that it’s forwver means that if you have a cookie then you’ve lost ‘forever,’ and many people count that as a failure. So ‘for now’ allows you to be active in future choices.

One more thing. Does it help for you portion things? To really see what a ‘serving’ of different foods really looks like? It can be very tempting to think of a ‘snack size’ thing to be a serving, br often it’s two or three servings. Which is frustrating.

Oh oh. Another One more pair. Maybe advertised vs ad free? This doesn’t capture all the nuance, but Keebler is spending lots of money to keep us thinking about cookies. The carrot lobby (as far as I know) doesn’t have that kind of reach. Someone who is insanely rich has an interest in you eating more cookies. Many small farmers have an interest in you eating more veggies. That might com close to moralizing, so maybe it’s not helpful.
posted by bilabial at 2:16 PM on January 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

I really appreciate all the suggestions. I'm more of a moderator, so the anytime/sometimes foods or big/little thing makes sense to me. I hadn't thought of those ways to frame it. I'm definitely going to put them in use.Thank you everyone!
posted by starlybri at 2:57 PM on January 6, 2018

Marked best answers for the things I found useful.
posted by starlybri at 3:03 PM on January 6, 2018

My recovery-from-ED mantra has been "Food is not a moral issue." I think the trick is not only to not divide foods into good or bad, but also not to buy into that mindset that EATING a "good" food makes you good and a "bad" food makes you bad. It can really take a toll on your self-worth, and that's not good for you either.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:20 AM on January 8, 2018

I use a calorie counter (like Lose It) when I'm focusing on managing my weight. I don't think about good vs bad food, I think about which foods have a greater caloric cost, and weather it's worth the 300 calories while I'm staring that oatmeal cookie in the face. The calorie counter has also made me acutely aware of the calorie content of most foods that I eat. Most food that are considered "bad" are most likely high in calories. (I know there's a whole good calorie vs bad calorie argument that I won't get into here.)
posted by slogger at 11:01 AM on January 8, 2018

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