My Dad likes to say “If I had a nickel for every time I (fill in the blank)”… Well, if I had a nickel for every time one of my clients said to me “I ate something “bad”, so the day was ruined, so I ate (fill in many blanks),” I would have many, many, many nickels. While we’re at it, I would also like a nickel for every time a client said “I was really good all week, but I was bad all weekend,” by which she or he is referencing food choices, not some kind of looting spree or a local bank heist.
Let’s unpack this black and white thinking a little. (Some of you will recognize the exercise of identifying distorted thinking and challenging it as CBT, short for cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m a pretty big fan.)
For my first victim, I’ll address the idea that a food can be bad. Or, for that matter, good. Thinking about foods in this way is at the heart of many people’s struggles with eating; in my experience this is due to two main factors. The first is that most people want to “be good” which usually means to be loved, or accepted, and is a pretty deep psychological need related to early attachment experiences that plays out across our lifetime. We do not want to “be bad”, in terms of being rejected or unworthy. It’s sadly far too easy to develop some psychological or emotional problems in the I-am-loved-or-not-loved realm, and that stuff is messy and painful.
What I’ve seen in my practice is that often people are playing out this psychodrama with food. Over time, they begin to think of foods as good and virtuous or bad and sinful, with plenty of help in making these judgements from advertisers and the diet industry, and in turn think of themselves as good and virtuous, or bad and sinful based on their choices. It’s simple: it’s black & white. It’s a lot easier to finally feel like you’re a good person because you ate salad today than to sit in therapy for 8 weeks or 8 years talking about how hurtful it was that your Mom got weird and distant and depressed when you hit puberty, but slowly come to see that as a result of her own insecurities and decide that you really are a good person after all, no matter what you had for lunch. Unfortunately, going the I’m good because I ate salad route often backfires into a pattern of disordered eating based on deprivation, binges, regret, rinse, repeat.
The second factor I see being really problematic with good food/bad food thinking is that it gives the food an enormous amount of power, which in turn completely disempowers the eater in question. When my clients talk, I see images of a battlefield spread across their days strewn with remnants of self esteem and bagels, cookies and pancakes looming overhead like zeppelins.
Do I believe that all food has equivalent concentrations of nutrients? Certainly not. Do I tend to choose some foods over others because of my preferences and beliefs about health? For sure. But, try this on for size. If I call a food “bad”, then I am awakening demons. All of my memories and beliefs about my goodness or unworthiness as a person are activated, and how I feel about myself now hinges on whether or not I eat this “bad” food. The food, in that way, becomes a larger than life arbiter of my worth as a person.
On the other hand, if the label I give to a food is “This is a food that tastes good in the first few bites, but that I prefer not to eat in this moment because I’ve noticed that after I eat it I feel a little nauseated and don’t have much energy and I’m at work so that’s not a feeling I’m interested in having right now” then I have all the power. I am an adult person mindfully making a choice dictated by a desire to care for myself. I am reinforcing a belief that I am good and deserve caring for. Woot.
And isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here?