Why I Hate “Guilt-Free” Food—And You Should, Too

le-pain-quotidien photo

The other day, I was walking out of work when I saw the chalkboard above inside a restaurant near my office. Can you see what it says? Here’s a closer look just in case:

LPQ Chalkboard (1)

Basically, it rates different menu items on a scale of how guilty (or not guilty) you should feel about eating each of them. (You’ll notice that the cheesecake isn’t included here.) The chalkboard made me so angry! One of the things that we make sure to do at WomensHealthMag.com is to never, ever refer to foods as “guilty pleasures” or “guilt-free.” The terms may seem innocuous—and you’re probably so conditioned to consider certain foods as “good” and others as “bad” that you don’t even think twice about clicking on a “guilt-free chocolate cake” recipe on Pinterest or picking up diet ice cream at the store.

But here’s the thing: When you classify certain foods as “good” and others as “bad,” you’re assigning a judgment to the food. The implication is that you’ll be virtuous if you eat carrot sticks—and that you should feel poorly about yourself if you have potato chips instead. The reality is that foods aren’t inherently good or bad—these are just values we give them. All foods can fit into a healthy diet—of which balance, variety, and moderation are key—and there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t want to eat kale salad and tofu at every meal. It’s when people start to shame you—or you start to shame yourself—for not eating “better” that you begin to develop a really dysfunctional relationship with food.

Think about it: Let’s say you’re at the restaurant pictured above and you really want some cheesecake. But instead, you order the chia pudding. You may feel virtuous for a few minutes—until you realize that chia pudding didn’t actually satisfy your cheesecake craving. At all. So then, when you get home, you eat a few cookies—after all, you were “good” earlier at the restaurant, so you deserve it. But cookies still aren’t cheesecake. So you either have yet another treat that doesn’t hit the spot, or you go to bed unsatisfied and having eaten chia pudding (which—no offense to chia lovers—I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

You may think that there’s a valid reason that foods have been classified as “good” or “bad” in the first place, and in many cases that may be true. Yes, carrots have a reputation for being wholesome because they’re loaded with potassium and vitamin A. And if you like eating carrots or are in the mood for them, that’s great. But in many cases, we’ve labeled foods as virtuous and force ourselves to eat them when they may not actually be any better for us—or our labels are glossing over nutritional nuances. If I were to ask you if low-fat dressing is better for you than full-fat dressing, what would you say? Sure, low-fat dressing typically contains fewer calories, but full-fat dressing actually helps your body absorb more of the nutrients in your salad’s veggies than nonfat or low-fat dressing does, according to research. What about raw tomatoes versus cooked? Though it may surprise you, fresher isn’t always better: Studies suggest that an antioxidant called lycopene, which may help lower your cancer risk, is more readily available in cooked tomatoes than raw ones. Of course, cooked tomatoes often come with added salt—so the “better” choice nutritionally often depends on your specific health concerns.

All of which is to say that nutrition is a tool, not a weapon. Yes, it can be useful to know that chia seed pudding is healthier than cheesecake. But if cheesecake is what your body is telling you it really wants, having a slice isn’t going to kill you. So the next time you start associating guilt with food, I hope you’ll pause for a second and remind yourself that eating a grilled cheese or a brownie doesn’t make you a lesser person—and eating a spinach salad doesn’t make you a better one. If you’re making a mindful decision about what to eat, then you’re most likely going to consume whatever you choose in an amount that’s at least close to what your body needs. And that’s going to be better for you—both mentally and physically—than training yourself to tune out your true cravings.

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