Over two years ago, I began a new journey with food. This journey was one of deeper understanding. This understanding consisted of dissecting each component of eating and finding its long-term effects. Through this understanding, I could bust many myths from the folklore of eating. Today I would like to talk about the most harmful, in my opinion, of them all, the ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ labels.
All or Nothing
Let’s begin our journey with a cognitive heuristic: All or nothing thinking. This mental shortcut will lead us to categorize things into binary buckets, all or nothing, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Such shortcut was helpful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors to assess a situation and act quickly. On top of that, binary categories provide a fool-proof way of teaching survival rules to others who don’t have the exposure, think: “large animal, bad, run away,” or “ripe fruit, good, eat.” While giving simple labels could prove helpful in many cases, it could be dangerous in others.
The Hidden Fears of Past Food Science
Throughout time, the diets and food industry loved to point fingers at some attributes in food—salt, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugars, gluten, fat, etc. These demonizations came from evolving understanding of how different quantities of these attributes affected individuals with specific characteristics. As a result, some gained massive advertisement and began wearing the labels “good” or “bad.” If we combine the fame of these items with “All or Nothing” thinking and another effect in groups called “the illusion of agreement,” then it should be clear how outdated information can stick in the minds of the collective for good.
The Spectrums of Life
While we humans insist on assigning discrete labels to everything, we live in a beautiful world of nuances. Let me illustrate through sunsets. While there are no two equal sunsets, could we take a large sample and sort them by the level of beauty? Judging it by which attribute? By who? Please give it a try and let me know if it’s not impossible. Even a single sunset throughout its span experiences noticeable changes, and at some point, it might look prettier than others to the same observer. Or even pretty with the same intensity but on different aspects! I hope by now you get the idea. I’m not writing about sunsets today, but this idea of something impermanent, evolving, and sensible to the observer is how food is. In the same way, food is not good or bad; it’s simply food.
Then, What IS Food?
Food is a combination of macronutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats; and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. These components can be further categorized more granularly, like complex or simple carbohydrates or saturated, unsaturated, or trans fats. These components will have different effects on the body that might align with weight management, contain specific allergens, or contain minerals linked to hypertension. Let me illustrate this with an example: bread. As much as I love bread, processed white flour is a simple carbohydrate with one of the highest glycemic indexes. Therefore, consuming white bread could lead to a glucose spike, which might be harmful to people with diabetes and lead to overeating when the glucose levels drop. Is this good or bad? To me, it’s just an attribute that harms some and benefits others, like endurance athletes, who need this quick increase in glucose to perform well.
Good or Bad Labels are Bad!
I finish my discussion ridiculizing with my very same argument. While labeling food items as healthy or unhealthy might provide a good guideline, it might induce eating disorders in otherwise healthy individuals. For example, if someone believes donuts are “unhealthy,” they might react in many ways after eating one, including feelings of guilt, work out anxiety, or even self-induced vomit. Conversely, if something like vegetables gets the “healthy” label, some might react dismissing them when they’re not “on a diet” or inadvertently overindulging in something with high calories; raw nuts are my best example of this.
I will conclude my post with a final thought. Labeling food through all-or-nothing thinking is potentially misleading, especially if you’re suffering from a food disorder; it could make matters much worse. So, next time you find yourself worried about something that’s on the menu, think of where in the spectrum between far and close to your health goals that item falls. Then, you might find yourself enjoying food a little more.
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