Why You Need To Stop Demonizing Food

Demonizing food is when we place a negative judgement on a specific type of food or food in general. When we demonize food we are often judging food with a narrow mindset of what is “healthy” or “good to eat.” These judgments often align with external factors that diet culture has deemed “unhealthy” or “bad” which may include calorie content, sugar grams, fat grams, certain ingredients, extent of “processing,” etc. Everyone is different with their own food preferences and priorities. Some truly enjoy the taste of whole grain bread over white bread, some prefer to only buy organic produce, and others avoid certain ingredients because of something they’ve read. Some people don’t prioritize nutrition when it comes to food and that is OKAY too! Maybe price is more important than nutritional content. Someone may decided to leave a variety of items off of their shopping list to cut costs. They may choose to purchase the cereal that is on sale over other options and that is okay!

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Having the ability to have food preferences and the resources to honor those preferences is a great privilege. But when our preferences place a negative judgment on other foods or individuals who choose to eat those foods, we are moving into disordered territory. When we demonize food we are often looking at only part of the whole picture. We are judging a food based on only one or a few of its characteristics or ingredients and deeming the entire food “bad” or “unhealthy.” For example, I had a client tell me she stopped buying cereal because she can’t find a “healthy” one. She felt the sugar content in the cereals made cereal an unhealthy choice for her and her family. Yes, cereal has sugar (sometimes natural, sometimes added) but cereal is also a great source of carbohydrates (complex or simple), it’s a quick, cheap, and easy breakfast or snack, you can add other yummy foods to cereal to balance it out (milk, fruit, nuts, seeds) and there are so many different varieties that taste AMAZING. When we demonize cereal because of one ingredient (sugar -which I would like to point out is necessary for us to live) we miss out on so many more benefits of the food (convenience, taste, other nutrients).

 Choosing the most “nutritious” foods is not a moral obligation. Pursuing health is not a moral obligation. Yes, there is good evidence to support eating fruits and vegetables (along with all other foods), adequate hydration, and getting enough sleep can all be beneficial to overall health. BUT, you’re not “bad” for forgetting to drink enough water yesterday. You are not “bad” for staying up later than planned. No, you are not “bad” for not eating fruit with breakfast, or not having a fruit in a day, or week, or month, or a year. So often I hear in both my office and personal life “I was good” or “I was bad” today. When clients or friends say this to me it is almost always followed with a statement related to food or exercise. “I was good today, I ate a salad for lunch.” “I was good today I went to the gym.” “I was good today, I only ate the vegetables at the party and skipped the other appetizers.” Your WORTH is not related to how you eat or your activity level. Someone who is sedentary isn’t less than someone who works out regularly.

Demonizing food leads to internalized negative thoughts about others (and/or ourselves). Taking this cheeseburger demon thought loop below for example:

Cheeseburgers are bad -> fast food restaurants are bad -> people who promote and sell cheeseburgers are bad -> people who eat and enjoy cheeseburgers are bad -> *eats cheeseburger* -> I’m bad.

Not only do we miss out on tasty, great food options when we demonize and restrict certain foods but we also tend to have more negative thoughts in our mind space related to food and/or others who consume or enjoy foods we have deemed “bad.” Ever catch yourself staring at someone else’s grocery cart making judgements and assumptions on who they are/they’re life simply by looking at the food they decided to purchase that day? I sure have. But WHY? This comes from our OWN judgements about food and ourselves that we’ve largely adopted from diet culture but quickly seeps into those around us when we demonize food. Do we really care what they’re eating? NO! Should we let these people live their beautiful lives without strangers’ judgement? YES!

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More examples of demonizing food I hear all of the time (in my office and out of my office)

1) Needing to “get rid of” or “work it off”

This can range from “I’m going to go for a walk BECAUSE I ate a big dinner” to “I’m going to purge every meal” because I don’t want food inside of me. This feeling of wanting to get rid of food eaten is often related to desire to control one’s weight. The thing is, your weight is not a problem. Your weight does not define you. Our bodies will regulate our weight for us. We do not need to “manage” or manipulate our bodies. In fact, there is not ONE scientific study that shows we are able to manage or manipulate our weights/bodies effectively; meaning there is not one study that shows a large amount of people who engage in ANY weight loss program or plan who are able to lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off long-term. This tells us that calories in vs calories out is BS as this is often the foundation for weight loss programs. With dieting, “working off” calories does not lead to long-term weight loss -> it actually leads to the opposite as 2/3 of people who go on a diet will eventually gain MORE weight than when they started the program. You are allowed to and have the right to eat food, enjoy it, and keep it inside of you.

2) Good vs Bad foods (see earlier blog post: “Can I eat that?”)

In short, categorizing food into “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy categories often leads to restricting the “bad” foods and choosing to exclusively eat the “good” foods. Eating only the recommended fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and limiting certain fats isn’t balanced. We’re missing the simple carbohydrates (a PB&J on white bread, cookies), full-fat dairy (hello, have you ever had 5% Greek yogurt? Yum!), less-lean proteins (a late night burger, pork chops). These foods fit! Let us not forget the "restrict – binge cycle.” “Good/bad food” rules ->restriction-> binge -> feeling bad -> restriction -> binge -> so on.

3) Food blaming

I have a pimple, must be lactose. I have a stomach ache, must be gluten. I’m tired, must be the ice cream I ate last night. Health often promoted as being greatly related to food and activity when those are only 2 small parts of the overall equation. Genetics play a HUGE role in determining our health. I’m sorry to say there just isn’t enough scientific evidence to support that one way of eating or consistent exercise will cure acne, prevent someone from getting cancer, or prevent someone from developing high blood pressure. We often blame food for physical symptoms when there are many other factors that go into how we feel.

4) Commenting on other’s food

When we internalize certain foods are good/better/healthier and other foods are bad/worse/unhealthy we find ourselves often judging other’s peoples food choices whether it’s in our head or out loud. At the grocery store, dinner, family or friend event. Negative thoughts, judgment, and discrimination hurt ourselves and others.

How to shift/re-frame demonizing food thoughts

Food thought: I shouldn’t eat cake at this party because it has so many calories and will make me gain weight.

Neutral: I can eat cake if I want to.

Positive: I am allowed to eat whatever I want without judgement or guilt. I love the taste of cake and eating it with my friends/family at this party can make me enjoy my day even more.

Action: Have the cake if you want to and enjoy it.

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Food thought: I can’t believe *insert family or friend’s name here* is eating a second portion of dinner. That is so much food.

Neutral: They are allowed to eat as much or as little as they want of dinner, I don’t know their body and their body might need (or want) more right now.

Positive: *insert family or friend’s name here* is getting a second portion of dinner, it looks like they really enjoyed the food which is great.

Action: Avoid commenting on what or how much others are eating to help create a judgment free eating zone.

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Food thought: I really want the quesadilla at this restaurant but the salad is a better choice with less calories.

Neutral: Food is not good or bad, I am allowed to choose the quesadilla or the salad without judgement.

Positive: If I choose to order a food I truly crave in the moment I will feel more satisfied and enjoy my food and company more than choosing what I think I “should” choose.

Action: Order and enjoy the quesadilla.

Can you identify any ways in which you demonize food either for yourself or for others? I want to challenge you to reframe those intrusive thoughts and come up with a neutral action that you can take to shift this mindset. Standing up to diet culture and freeing yourself from food judgement is TOUGH. Let us know how you do with it and remember, we’re here to help you navigate this, so drop us a line if your finding yourself having a hard time. We’ve got your back.