And much of this "bad" vs. "good" mantra is one that happens in our own mind around food. Not only do we think about "bad food" and "good food," some us of even have "bad food days" and "good food days." As a result, we may experience ourselves as "bad" or "good," depending on whether we've had one of these corresponding foods, or corresponding food days. Sound familiar?
"Well it's true!" you might argue, "some food is bad and some is good - it's a fact." And I have to argue back: "Yes, some food is healthier for our bodies than others, but there is not one single food - even kale - that is going to get you into heaven or make you a virtuous person. And binging on a dozen chocolate cookies or several (dozen) donuts does not in any way, shape or form make you bad.
This bad-good mentality not only feels bad emotionally, but it actually interferes with KNOWING what your body needs. It takes you away from paying attention: attention to how your body responds to certain foods, attention to the messages of your cravings and your symptoms, and attention to what would best nourish you. And paying attention is really the only way of ultimately knowing what will feed your body best.
You are the real expert on your body. No doctor, no nutritionist, no "expert" is more of an expert on what nourishes you best than you are. But in order to become a real expert, you need to view your eating with compassion, with interest, with awareness, and with curiosity. Jumping into guilt or shame, or bringing it into the moral realm, simply short-circuits that "knowing."
The other problem with feeling guilt ("I did something bad") and shame ("I am bad") about food and eating is that it perpetuates a cycle of unworthiness, dieting and overeating. When you feel like you've done something bad or you are bad, you may find yourself engaged in punishment, self-sabotage, and deprivation. This becomes a vicious cycle, leading to more bad feelings and more of a need to "try to make yourself good" by eating "good" food.
And of course this strategy usually backfires. It's human nature to WANT exactly what you CAN'T have! (If you have children, you have seen this in action more than a million times, I am guessing!). So the more you try to be virtuous by abstaining from your favorite "bad" foods, the more you are likely to crave them.
And the opposite is also true: the better you feel ("I am worthy," "I am doing the best I can," "I deserve to eat food that is nourishing and tastes great," etc.), the better you will continue to feel and the easier it will be to feed yourself foods that truly enhance your health and wellbeing.
We feel guilty about enough things - let's agree that food does not have to be added to that list!
The truth is, we are all worthy - whether we eat sugar or not, whether we drink coffee or green tea, whether we eat meat or are vegetarians. We are all entitled to good health, to loving relationships, to happiness and joy, to safety and wellbeing. It is time to drop the guilt and the shame around food and eating. It is time to relegate food to its appropriate place in our life - to nourish and satisfy our bodies and our minds, to please our palate, and to share with loved ones.
Here are a few suggestions that might help get you off the bad-good rollercoaster:
1) The next time you find yourself eating a food you consider bad (but you actually like), STOP. Put it on a plate. Light a candle. Sit down. Enjoy every single bite.
2) Carry around your favorite "bad" food with you all the time. Welcome it into your life. Allow yourself to befriend it rather than making it the evil enemy. When you do choose to eat it, savor it. Notice how much you love it, and remind yourself that you can eat it anytime you want and that it's always there.
3) Take one full day to eat whatever you want without labeling. This is not a bad day or a good day, but just a day of exploration and discovery. Ask yourself what would feel most nourishing and pleasing in that moment, notice what your body (or mind) really wants. Take special note of how you feel - emotionally and physically - after each meal. What does this "freedom" feel like?
4) If you have children, acknowledge their love of sweets and "white" foods (or whatever), without making it a value judgment ("of course you love ice cream - it tastes yummy!"), while at the same time, setting limits as the adult ("I wish we could eat it all day too, but too much ice cream isn't healthy for our bodies or our brains"). We can teach our children about healthy nutrition in a way that leaves the guilt out of it.
So let Santa have his "bad or good" song, and keep that unhelpful concept out of your relationship to food. Consider valuing yourself right now, rather than waiting until you eat "perfectly" or reach your "perfect" weight or finally feed your children the "right" amount of vegetables. Let's celebrate this season by putting our judgments away, and recognizing the inherent goodness in ourselves and in each other.