Chocolate. Bread. Cheese…. Is it really possible to have all of your favourite food and not ruin your progress? Or is that a recipe for disaster?
Anyone familiar with my approach to health and weight loss knows that I boldly say that “there is no “good” or “bad” food” and ultimately, all food fit in a healthy and balance lifestyle. Not only can they fit, but they will also FAST-TRACK your health and weight loss goals, and lead to a sustainable healthier life.
My stance sparks a lot of questions and comments from nervous food micromanagers.
- “What about things that are harmful for your body?!”
- “Chemicals! Processed foods! Sugar addiction!”
- “Carbs! Insulin resistance!”
Those are just some of the common fear-mongering messages that are pushed onto people trying to improve their health.
I get it. People are confused. Most people facing health challenges are anxious. This can be a seriously scary topic, especially when you’re already feeling the effects of poor nutrition and lifestyle choices on your everyday wellbeing.
I’ll be honest. The “no bad foods” philosophy can be really scary, especially for people who’ve spent years organizing foods into good and bad categories, or for those used to managing their health and weight based on a “points” or “calorie” system.
But the “no bad foods” approach can also be incredibly transformative , so I decided to take I decided to take a deep dive into the whole “good foods vs. bad foods” debate and explain why my “all foods fit” approach has actually led to the BEST results in my client’s lives.
I’ll explain why the good vs. bad approach just doesn’t work and how it can actually set people up to eat MORE of the “bad” foods.
At Sabrina Magnan Health Coaching & Consulting, I don’t tell my clients exactly what to eat – or what not to eat.
I have found that once my clients welcome the foods they love back into their lives – without fear or guilt – they struggle LESS, enjoy eating more, and finally, are able to overcome obstacles that stand between them and their health eating goals. Let me tell you why.
Why the good vs. bad approach just doesn’t work.
Many people divide food into just two categories. But what’s amazing is the nuances in what people set up in their minds as “good” and “bad”, “healthy” and “guilty” , “clean” vs “dirty” foods.
For some, refined carbs are bad. And anyone who could possibly eat carbs isn’t healthy.
For some, gluten is bad. And anyone who could possibly eat gluten isn’t very healthy.
For some, sugar is bad. And anyone who could possibly eat sugar isn’t healthy.
For some, alcohol is bad. And anyone who could possibly drink alcohol isn’t healthy.
For some, soy foods are bad. And anyone who could possibly eat soy isn’t healthy.
And the list goes on…and on…and on
There were my categories when I was deep in my diet mentality:
Good foods: Fruits & vegetables, legumes & whole-grains (until I was brainwashed into the paleo diet), fish, lean meat, and other minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods.
Bad foods: Pasta, sweets, chips, crackers, white bread, fries, and other highly processed foods that offer little to no nutritional value.
And before I explain why I no longer sort good into “good” and “bad” buckets, I want to be very clear. The nutritional differences between these two categories are quite easy to spot.
Many of the so-called “bad” foods, in high amounts, can raise the risk for a variety of diseases.
They’re also incredibly hard to resist. (The food industry really has created cheap, easily accessible products that our brains LOVE).
But are they bad?
I don’t use that terminology for 6 major reasons.
Reason #1: Food isn’t as “black and white” as you think
If you’re looking at food from a purely nutrition standpoint, it isn’t as clear cut as people make it out to be. Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?
Ice cream: most people would place that in their “bad” category. For some, it’s their nutritional nightmare : artificial sugars! Dairy! Fat! But ice cream also provides calcium and many fat-soluble vitamins.
Pasta: the biggest enemy if you’ve fallen victim to the keto trap. Pasta actually provides your brain with the carbohydrates it absolutely NEEDS. Ya know, carbs…. Your body’s main source of fuel.
Heck, even soda contain fluids to help keep you hydrated! Most people would see it as a bad food, loaded with sugar and lacking in minerals and vitamins.
But are these foods bad in all situations?
This might be hard to internalize, but the answer is most definitely NO.
If you’ve been lost in the desert for a few hours, then soda is pretttyyy much the healthiest thing you can put into your body. If you’ve visiting a country with no safe drinking water, your Pepsi is a much better option than water.
Or, maybe you’re sixty sweaty miles into a 100-mile bike race and your blood sugar is so low that you’re hallucinating flying pink elephants. In that case, the sugar and caffeine in the cola might make the difference between finishing the race.
Our individual physiology and psychology also affect what happens when we eat specific foods.
Added sugar, for example, affects someone with type 2 diabetes differently than it affects someone whose cells are insulin sensitive. And it can affect the same person differently depending on whether they’re sleep deprived.
In my work, I talk about Holistic Health – which describes so much more than our weight, cholesterol level, and blood sugar.
Holistic health includes where we live and how we feel and who we spend time with. How our relationships are, how fulfilled we feel and the joy we feel every day.
It’s about every aspect of who we are.
When you consider health in this light, the exact foods become less important, and the overall eating pattern and full context of someone’s life becomes a lot more important.
Reason #2: One single food doesn’t define your entire diet.
Maybe you’ve heard of a teenager who ate just four foods for most of his life: fries, chips, white bread, and processed meat.
And then he went blind.
It’s a cautionary tale, for sure, but it’s important to keep one thing in perspective: That teen is an outlier. Most people don’t eat just four foods.
They eat a variety.
And the fries, chips, bread, and pork didn’t cause the teen’s blindness directly.
They caused it indirectly—by crowding out foods needed for good eye health.
What truly matters for good health? Balance.
In other words, you don’t want your toaster pastries, spray cheese-like product, and crescent rolls to crowd out veggies, fruit, beans, nuts, fresh meats, seafood, and other nutrient-dense whole foods.
If they do, like the teen I mentioned, you run the risk of deficiency.
So the question is: Are you in balance?
We experience massive benefits (fat loss, improved health) when we go from poor nutrition to average or above average.
But eventually, we see diminishing returns.
As this chart shows, not only are gains much harder to see after 80 to 90 percent of your diet is composed of whole, minimally processed foods, you also run the risk of eating disorders like orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating). That’s where I found myself.
Is most of what you eat nutrient-dense and minimally processed? (Think veggies, fruit, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, whole grains.) Then there’s likely room for less nutritious foods.
Is most of what you eat highly processed and nutrient-poor?
Reason #3 : Demonizing certain foods can make them even more appealing.
"I can't trust myself around these foods, just I'm better off just cutting them out completely"
Lots of people tell me that 100 % abstaining from “bad foods” is the only way they can maintain any smidgen of control around their eating.
If they say “okay” to one “bad” food, they worry they’ll open the floodgates to a diet swollen with cookies, brownies, chips, and fries—and completely fall off the wagon.
That dreaded wagon which seems to dictate everyone choices around food. Many times, based on past experiences, leading people to validate their complete omission of certain foods.
Here’s the thing:
There’s a subtle difference between demonizing a food and merely abstaining from it because you know you tend to overeat it.
When we demonize foods, we “moralize these foods—thinking of ourselves as bad people for eating them. That’s when the guilt comes in.
This paradoxically can increase our desire for the very foods we’re trying not to eat.
When researchers from Arizona State University showed dieters negative messages about unhealthy foods, the dieters experienced increased cravings for those foods—and ate MORE of them.
It’s true that some people can restrict certain “bad” foods for a while.
But, for a lot of people, cravings eventually overwhelm their ability to restrict. And when they eat something “bad”—they feel guilty. So, they eat even more—and may even stop trying to reach their goals. This can create a vicious circle.
Reason #4: Categorizing foods as “good” and “bad” can work—but usually only for a short while.
Having worked with countless women now and attempting this myself, I can say with certainty that "all-or-nothing" rarely gets us "all".
Instead, it often gets us nothing.
For example, when someone decides to stop eating “bad” foods, usually they try really hard to stay true to their goal. They’re committed, and they even may stick to avoiding a long list of forbidden foods… for a bit.
But then something goes wrong.
Maybe they go to work and find that a coworker left homemade brownies on their desk.
Maybe their birthday comes around, and they just want to enjoy a damn piece of cake!
Or every part of their day goes sideways and, in the evening, they find themselves head down in a gallon of chocolate chip cookie dough as they think “This is bad.”
Or they’re driving for hours to visit relatives, pull into a rest stop, and all they find to eat: the stuff on their forbidden foods list.
Rigidity—good or bad, all or nothing—is the enemy of consistency.
But on the flipside, flexibility helps you stay more consistent. That’s because it allows you to lean into all the solutions available to you.
Flexibility also frees people to use internal guidance—rather than someone else’s external rules—to decide what foods to eat, when to eat them, and why.
So, for example, rather than avoiding sugar just because a health site told them to stop eating it, someone might consider:
Am I hungry?
Am I stressed?
Is this food worth it to me?
What else have I eaten today?
What would allow me to truly enjoy this food—without going overboard?
That internal guidance might allow that person with the brownie to say, “You know, I really like brownies, but I’m going to save this until after lunch, when I’m not as hungry, so I can eat it slowly and truly savour it.”
That’s the principle of mindful eating.
Or that person who is head down in the gallon of ice cream to say, “Okay, so this was probably more ice cream than my body really needed. True. No getting around that. How can I avoid feeling this triggered in the future? And are there other ways I can comfort myself that don’t involve raiding the freezer?”
And for that person at the rest stop, flexibility allows them to scan their choices and opt for the best meal for them at that moment.
Reason #5: It's really okay (and completely normal!) to eat for pleasure
Food serves many purposes far beyond just flooding someone’s body with nutrients and calories.
Some foods aren’t necessarily loaded with nutrients, but they:
Connect us with friends and families.
Create a sense of belonging.
Make celebrations worth while.
In other words, food isn’t just fuel. It’s also love and culture and pleasure—and a whole lot more.
When you think about food in this way, everything—even your grandma’s famous cheesecake—can have a purpose and a place.
Rather than a list of foods you can or can’t eat, you instead have choices. You have foods you choose to eat for energy, for pleasure, for health, and many other important reasons.
Reason #6 : When we obsess over "bad foods", we rob ourselves the ability to truly progress
Rigidly abstaining can teach us to get really good at… abstaining.
And if you’re okay with abstaining from a long list of foods for the rest of your life, there’s nothing wrong with that approach.
But if you’re not okay with a life sentence of no cookies, no brownies, no cake, no bread, and no pasta, then you may be happy to learn that there’s an alternative approach. It involves getting curious about WHY you struggle to moderate your consumption of certain foods.
What leads to feeling out-of-control?
What triggers the “I need this” and the “I can’t stop eating this” thought?
When is it possible to eat this food in moderate amounts (if ever)? When isn’t it?
The point: Rather than zeroing in on “bad foods,” look for the underlying reasons (called triggers) that lead you to struggle.
The most important thing to keep in mind while using this method is to approach it from a compassionate observer’s point of view .
They approach it with a “feedback not failure” mentality.
The point isn’t to catch you doing something wrong. It’s to help you assess what’s really going on.
Once I understand why my clients are reaching for these foods, we can work together to suggest strategies to truly help you move towards a healthier relationship with ALL foods.
What to do instead?
"If there are no good or bad foods, how can I possibly know what to eat, how much, how often - and what to limit?"
This is something I hear a lot.
I know it can be easier said than done to drop these labels. For some of us we’ve been labeling foods since childhood (often from hearing adults refer to foods as “bad” and “good”). It’s a bit of an unlearning process.
Add to that the fear that “no bad foods” means “eat whatever you want, and it won’t affect your health”.
That’s not what I’m saying at all.
It is once you are ready to let go of the fear and the food-related anxieties that the magic can really happen. That’s when we can get to work on helping you achieve your best mental and physical health, and take you out of this “food prison” you’ve been trapped in.
The work isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
It is crucial to gain awareness. What foods do you label? Consider making a list of the foods and what you label them as (i.e bad, fattening, not approved, etc.).
How does this make you feel?
How does labelling these foods affect your food choices?
Do you find yourself restricting temporarily, only to “fall off the wagon” and binge on these “off-limit foods”?
We can then stop attaching words of morality around food and empower you to decisions based on what FEELS GOOD for your body in that moment by thinking of food as a part of your self-care (not self-control).
You will eventually end up in a better place, physically AND mentally than that forbidden food list would’ve gotten you, and you’ll be able to stay there in an ultimately much more sustainable way.
What’s more, it doesn’t mean you’ll never been able to enjoy a good bowl of ice cream again. It means sometimes you’ll choose it, and enjoy the heck out of it – on your terms!
Is it your time to become your healthiest, fittest self?
Most people know that regular movement, eating well, sleep, and stress management are important for looking and feeling better. Yet they need help applying that knowledge in the context of their busy, sometimes stressful lives.
Are you ready to made peace with food, and liberate yourself from this food prison to finally improve your health, increase your energy, feel your best and do it for the long-term...no matter what challenges they’re dealing with?!
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