Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz, published 25 September 2018

“I was so bad this weekend”. You might have said these words yourself, like you committed a crime, but all you really did was have some ‘bad’ food or didn’t do the exercise you promised you would.

Having that wine or chocolate bar, skipping that workout or sleeping in does not make you a bad person. It might take you further away from your health goals, but it doesn’t make you inherently ‘bad’. Just as saying no to the wine or chocolate and making it to your gym class doesn’t make you ‘good’.

Yes, the food you eat can be good or bad in that it can enhance your health or hinder it. The food can taste good or bad, it might make you physically feel good or bad (it might make you bloated, it might increase your energy) but the food on its own is neither morally good nor bad, and neither are you for having consumed it.

It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking, we’re surrounded by messages about ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’, ‘clean eating’ and ‘guilt-free’ options and while it can be a short-term boost to help you stick to your health plans, it can have negative longer-term impacts on your mental health.

When we think of ourselves as bad for eating food that doesn’t promote health, or for not exercising as we think we should, we start to pile guilt, shame and judgement on ourselves.

It can drive an all-or-nothing obsessive approach to food and exercise that involves a cycle of bingeing and restricting and ‘working off’ or ‘punishing ourselves’ for the calories we ate.

I’m not saying we should all live on processed junk food all the time and feel OK about, but that there should be room in life for moderation at times.

Instead of constantly judging your food, and yourself as good or bad, consider your food as morally neutral. It’s simply nourishment for your body, a source of energy to allow you to do the things you want to do or a way to connect, celebrate and enjoy with family and friends.

Take the judgement away and become more mindful about what you’re eating and how it affects you. Tune into your body and learn to recognise what it actually needs. Think instead about:

  • How is this food making me feel?
  • Is this what I really want to eat right now?
  • Is this the best option for me right now?
  • Am I in control of my food choices?

When we take the morality out of our food choices, suddenly the ‘bad’ foods are no longer ‘off-limits’, it’s just food and it loses its power over us. Because of this, over time their desirability diminishes, and we no longer need to exercise our willpower.

While ‘celebration’ foods may not promote health, food serves so many different roles in our lives and we should consider its social and cultural roles as well.