No bad foods? All foods equal? Careful!

Recently a new member in the Normal Eating Support Forum posted this message (edited for brevity):

Right now I eat a junkfood diet and have for decades. I don’t eat fruit or vegetables hardly ever. I never learned to prepare dinner every night. I live mostly on pizza, hamburgers and fries, Chick-Fil-A and restaurant food. I also have a sugar jones. I fall asleep, wake up an hour or two later and then when half awake go down and binge on cookies, candy, cake, and other sweets.

I understand stage one is about legalizing all food. I know I have to stop thinking of these foods as “bad” and beating myself for eating them. How can I lose my shame over eating these foods?

She is right that there is no shame in food choices – ever – and that you have the right to eat whatever you want. But she is wrong that the foods she’s eating are not “bad”. They’re pretty bad nutritionally, though she still has ever right to eat them. It’s also not true that the first stage of Normal Eating is “legalizing”. She’s confusing Normal Eating with some other attuned eating programs that I think make a serious mistake.

You Have the Right to Eat Unhealthy Foods

Most attuned eating programs share the concept of “legalizing”, teaching that no foods are good or bad, and chocolate and lettuce are equally valid choices at meal time. The process of legalizing generally involves eating a lot of the “formerly forbidden” food. My observation is that this leads to weight gain – sometimes significant weight gain – that is never lost.

Normal Eating emphatically does not use the term “legalizing” because I think this way of looking at the problem misses the point. The key point is this: You have the right to eat foods that are bad for you. It’s not that you have the right to eat a food because it’s not “bad”. It’s that you have the right to eat it even though it’s “bad”!

The reason this point is crucial is that recovery requires you to recognize both your rights and your responsibilities. If you don’t understand the nutritional value of different foods, you can’t ultimately take responsibility for your food choices – the final goal in Normal Eating.

The main purpose of Normal Eating’s Stage 1, “Reframing”, is to recognize your right to eat whatever you want, healthy or unhealthy, and to reframe it as a self-care issue rather than a moral issue. This is the answer I gave to the woman I quoted above:

Stage 1 isn’t about particular foods not being good or bad, because in fact some foods are better for your health than others – not trying to get you to turn off your common sense here. It’s about recognizing your right to eat whatever you please, good or bad, healthy or not healthy. It’s your body, your life, your choice. You are the only one who can say what is right or wrong for you, or weigh the trade-offs for you. Extreme austerity in food choices for maximum health isn’t what makes everyone happy. Choose what makes you happy, but do it with open eyes, full awareness of trade-offs, and no regrets. 🙂

A slice of cake isn’t good for you, but it’s enjoyable, and one piece of cake after a meal of real food won’t significantly harm health. If you have it on a regular basis you may weigh a few pounds more, but that may be worth it to you. When looked at this way it’s an open-eyed choice, in full recognition and acceptance of the downside.

This is very different from saying that cake is as valid a selection for dinner as vegetables, and one is not good and one bad. When you deny cake’s nutritional downside, then you are surprised by its consequences and your choice is not really a choice.

Extreme Junk-Food Diets

Every once in a while, I encounter someone trying to practice attuned eating – waiting for hunger, eating to satiation – while eating a diet that is 100% junk food: For example, soda and a sweet roll for breakfast, snacking on candy throughout the day, noodles and more soda for lunch, pizza or some other fast food for dinner, and no fresh fruits or vegetables at all. (The white flour in noodles, pizza, and most breads – even many breads marked “whole wheat” – is a refined carbohydrate and metabolically indistinguishable from sugar.)

You can’t eat normally if this is what you’re eating. Refined carbohydrates short-circuit the body’s hunger and satiation cues, and also wreak havoc on your blood sugar, further confusing hunger and satiation cues. This would be true if you were subsisting on a natural sugar like honey. When it’s a processed food, like what you get at McDonald’s or in the frozen food section, it’s even worse.

Processed foods are formulated in labs by scientists whose job it is to circumvent your satiation cues so you’ll eat more and buy more. These companies want to make money, and the more you eat the more money they make. Food companies spent millions of dollars on research into how to turn your body wisdom against you, and they are very good at it.

Because of this, when your entire diet consists of processed food – particularly high-carb processed food (candy, soda, noodles, bread, cookies, cake) you cannot rely on internal hunger and satiation cues. Almost anyone eating these foods is going to overeat simply because of what they are eating. Also, eating this way long-term puts you at risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Attuned eating works best when you’re eating real food – fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit, the stuff that spoils in a few days if you don’t eat it. That’s when your body gives you the most accurate hunger and satiation signals. This also happens to be the food that provides the body with the nutrition it needs – not a coincidence.

So how do you get yourself to eat real food after years of eating the fake stuff chemically formulated to take over your mind?

Reawakening Body Wisdom

As soon as you’re able to observe your eating without judgment (the goal of Stage 1), you should move onto Stage 2, “Reconnecting”.

Stage 2 is about reconnecting with yourself both physically and emotionally. On the physical level, the main task of Stage 2 is reconnecting with body wisdom – the part of you that intuitively has a taste for salad when your body needs fiber, or feels like eating carrots when your body needs Vitamin A.

Eating foods that meet your body’s nutritional needs makes you feel really good, physically and emotionally. Your whole body sings. It’s a feeling of profound well-being. Once you experience this, in a conscious way and without the emotional overlay of “I’m on a diet”, you’re going to want that feeling again. This experience is the foundation that eventually allows you to be one of those people who sometimes prefers a salad to a cookie. The way you get there is through food experiments.

In the chapter on Stage 2 in Normal Eating for Normal Weight, there’s a section called “Be a Scientist, Do Experiments”. The first experiment is meant to help people start to move off junk-food diets:

If you always eat similar foods, you may not be able to tell how a food makes your body feel because you have nothing to compare it with. Try pasta for dinner one night, then chicken with veggies the next night, and then cake for dinner the next. All three will satisfy hunger, but they have very different effects on your body. Notice how much better you feel when you eat foods that nourish. If you don’t try it, you can’t know.

The food experiments in Stage 2 are crucial. Don’t skip over this part – I’ve noticed that many people do. Not all the experiments are about eating your vegetables. Read the book for some other things to try out.

Please post your thoughts and experiences. I’d love to hear from you!

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9 Responses to No bad foods? All foods equal? Careful!

  1. avatar Alie says:

    Hi Sheryl,

    I have a question regarding this article. What if you are someone who is coming from the other extreme – a restrictive dieter? I only ate veggies, lean meats and fruits for a long time and did not allow myself to have carbohydrates at all. I was thin, but miserable. As part of my process, over the past 3 years I have finally allowed myself to eat carbohydrates again – not the unhealthy processed ones, but rather healthy whole grains like oats, brown rice, whole wheat, etc This has been very hard for me and my extreme tendencies – but it has also made me feel the most balanced. For example – I can make whole grain, buckwheat pancakes on a Sunday morning for me and my fiance – something I always dreamed of doing, but never allowed myself to do. And, I am also at a normal, healthy weight – not my thinest, but not overweight either, just normal. My problem is that eating normally – the way most people eat – like having a something that is forbidden in my mind once in awhile – still fills me with an enormous amount of guilt and pain. For example, I went to a wedding recently and completely overdid it at the dessert bar – and all of my guilt and shame came rushing back by the truckload. Or if I have pizza and a movie one night for fun – I cannot escape my own guilt the next day. How can restrictive eaters make peace with the “bad” foods? I can eat a healthy cookie with no shame – even healthy pancakes, etc. But if something is truly unhealhy – and I just go for it to be a normal person (like ordering a pizza once in awhile on a Friday night, or eating a apple cider donut when your apple-picking with the one you love) – I cannot escape the guilt and shame. Any suggestions?

    Thanks!

  2. Hi Alie,

    The problem you’re struggling with is really a whole ‘nother post. The one part of this post that’s relevant is that you have every right to occasionally eat foods that are unhealthy. Who says that every bite you put into your mouth has to meet some nutritional standard? People eat mainly for fuel, but not only for fuel. Food is also for sharing with others, and sensual enjoyment, religious and social ritual, and many other things that bind people together.

    What you eat is a self-care issue, not a moral issue. It’s not an arena for guilt and shame. Usually people on the restriction side who feel a lot of guilt and shame about food are really feeling shame about other things and using food as a stand-in. Like I said, it’s another article, and perhaps one I should write.

    It sounds like you’ve been doing really well, and I wish you continued recovery.

    – Sheryl

  3. avatar Ale says:

    Thanks so much for the reply Sheryl. The reasons you listed are the very reasons that I aim to be less restrictive with food and more inclusive – so as not to miss out on life (like I had for many years). It’s hard… but I know that I am a work in progress. 🙂

    On another note… I would definitely love to read a post on using food as a stand-in for guilt and shame.

    Thanks again for the encouragement!

    Warmly,
    Alie

  4. avatar Juda says:

    Thank you Alie for posting and thank you Sheryl for your response. I, too, have been working on what I call decriminalising food and accepting that food only becomes ’emotional’ when I add emotions to it. BUT food in too great a quantity for my needs is unhealthy. This is what I am working on now. Alie and Sheryl, your post and replies are another signpost helping me on my long and winding road leading to normalised and healthy eating.
    Thank you
    Juda

  5. avatar Laura says:

    I am in the middle of the experimenting stage and I can honestly say I have felt my body “sing with joy” with some of the healthy food choices and on the opposite end, feel the rotten heavy bodily and emotionally depressed feeling of eating a bunch of unhealthy food. This process of becoming aware started with food choices but I am slowly seeing it spread to other areas of my life. My choice in the people I associate with, including family members-I am discovering that some are VERY unhealthy for me emotionally! And even the way I manage my time and my days – many of the behaviors and choices I didn’t think about(just did them as a part of my routine) really leave me feeling empty, void of “nourishment”.

  6. avatar Kay says:

    I just followed this link from a forum post and found it really useful. Thanks so much, Sheryl!

  7. avatar Marie says:

    Hi! I have been browsing the site and I am about to buy the book. I was wondering if it addresses anywhere on the book or this site, those of us who continue to eat “junk” even though it makes us feel bad. I am tired, lethargic, boring and most nights I wish everyone would leave the house so I can eat what I want alone on front of the TV. I wanted to know is their help for that issue? I know I feel bad but half the time dont care becasue I feel like I have to have the bad food.
    Thanks!

  8. Hi Marie,

    Really what you are talking about is emotional eating, the larger topic that is addressed by the book. The Normal Eating method outlines four stages for addressing emotional eating and learning to get your needs filled authentically, rather than through food band-aids.

    Sweets and other junk food have certain drug-like properties – cause seritonin to be released in the brain, relaxing you and giving you a feeling of well-being. But if there wasn’t an emotional issue underlying the eating, the pull towards the drug-like qualities of the sweets would not be so strong.

    In general, it’s better to eat sweets as dessert rather than on an empty stomach to reduce the negative physiological aspects.

    But the drug-like properties are not so powerful that sweets cannot be eaten except compulsively. It really depends on your state of mind. So if you are emotionally eating, you will tend to prefer sweets (or other refined carbs like potato chips). But that does not mean that all eating of sweets/refined carbs is emotional eating.

    I’d suggest you buy the book and take a look at that. The support forum is a great supplement to the book and can help you to implement its ideas.

    There are also a couple blog posts on eating at night:

    http://normaleating.com/blog/2011/02/eating-out-of-loneliness-and-low-self-esteem/
    http://normaleating.com/blog/2009/07/how-to-stop-emotional-eating-in-the-evening/

    – Sheryl

  9. avatar Kelly says:

    I come back to this blog time and time again for wisdom and insight. Thank you.

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