Good food vs bad food. What images have come to your head? Don’t tell me which ones, that isn’t relevant. The simple fact that your mind has automatically associated these words to specific products should make us think. If they aren’t good or bad morally (they’re inanimate), or by their usefulness (all of them nourish us), or by the satisfaction they provide us with (you can like a “bad” one more than a “good” one), or by their quality (a “bad” one can be better prepared than a “good” one)… Where did those adjectives come from?
Calories and nutrients
In the diet world, it seems like there are two prevalent trends: A) A calorie is a calorie, so what matters is total intake against total expenditure, they don’t care about the sources of those calories and B) We shouldn’t care about calories so much, the important thing is what kind of food we are consuming. We could sum them up like calories vs nutrients, or more plainly, quantity vs quality.
Obviously, regarding diets to lose weight, even if they introduce themselves as B, in the end their purposes have more to do with A. However, I’m not talking here in that sense, but in the sense of diets that aren’t meant to modify weight in a specific moment, but that are forever, to lead a healthier lifestyle. All of them are characterized by separating between good and bad food. Some of them do this in a clumsier way, excluding or reducing to an extreme whole nutritional groups (carbs, fats), or demonizing certain components to which only a low percentage of the population is intolerant (gluten, lactose, sugars) or kinds of food (for example those of animal origin —I’m not talking here about who do this because of their ethics—, GMO), etc. Others do it in a more subtle way: against processed food —in different degrees—, added sugar, fried food…
Back to the basis
In this way, while a big part of society eats without thinking, with the health problems that entails (obesity, cardiovascular diseases, hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, etc.), another one —not so small, and growing— lives obsessed by food. Either following each sensationalist headline of magazines or even newspapers about the latest “discoveries” on food, usually without foundation, or, and lately this seems to be the trend, adhering themselves to one of the groups previously described.
I think some of those groups are more right than others, and they do a good and needed job by making people question their nutritional habits and providing information so they aren’t fooled by brands marketing. But I think that every good education must start from the basis, and this time the zeal for putting up the fight has made them lose sight of the basis.
And the basis lies on the following: food is food. Every food provides us in the first place with energy (calories) to survive and, if there’s enough, to run, jump, dance, etc.; and in the second place, with nutrients, that fulfill particular functions in our organism and that we should try to balance. In addition, they are a source of delight and fun, when we cook them, when we eat them, when we share them. No food is bad in itself as food, because it can’t harm us by itself. And every food is better than zero food.
Learning to eat all the foods
When I started my recovery from my eating disorder, I tried everything: I was constantly changing brands of cereals, yogurt, cookies; I ate ice creams and chocolate bars without looking at the tags… And everything was a challenge and an achievement. It was a hard struggle, it created in me a feeling of guilt almost unbearable, I felt fat and filthy; but it also filled me with pride, it was like throwing a punch to that evil voice in my head. And with every bite, I invited Jesus with me. It was my way to give Him glory in my circumstances. Eating cake, grabbing chips, going for lunch at McDonald’s, and all the stuff that would make those health heralds put their hands on their heads, were for me a source of physical and mental health.
Although my way of eating now is very different from my way of eating at the beginning of recovery, I don’t regret the first one at all. In fact, facing the foods we are scared of, tasting everything we deemed forbidden and breaking the strict rules we had imposed to ourselves is a crucial step and a very beautiful one indeed. It’s the starting point to be reborn. And it’s so sad that for some people this step becomes even more difficult than what it already is (a freaking lot) because of the extremism of some movements or some of their members or “health promotion” campaigns that show everything as black or white.
Some things I’ve read and listened to aren’t just worrying because they might act as triggers for people with eating disorders or prone to them, but are straightaway sick. I guess that’s why orthorexia isn’t only rising but it’s also normalized and even praised by society.
What we should be teaching
That being said, I believe that nutritional education is key. In a second phase of recovery, something that turned out very useful and positive for me was learning about macronutrients and food properties, looking at the ingredients, knowing how to read nutritional tags, getting educated in nutrition through reliable sources to create a solid criteria in my mind, etc. After realizing how much I’ve mistreated my body for years, now I want to take care of it and give it the best. What’s more, I find that fascinating. Knowledge is power, and it has changed my way of seeing food, allowing me to appreciate it in a more objective way and therefore “demystify” it and don’t be scared of it anymore.
Everything has a time and a place. We need to teach that all foods are good before teaching that some foods are better than others. Lots of problems could be avoided by teaching how to lead a healthy diet, although always insisting in its beautiful and positive aspects: showing the value of respecting ourselves by taking care of our body, that eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring and tasteless at all, etc. It’s about acting with our body, not against it; of free and conscious choice and not about deprivation.