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How the Idea of "Healthy Eating" can be Harmful

Labeling foods as "healthy" and "unhealthy" can lead to disordered eating.

Source: Pixabay

Healthy living and the concept of “healthy eating” appears to be our new cultural fixation. We are constantly flooded with articles and advertisements consisting of elaborate juices, recipes, and lists of super foods, that all claim to be able to instill us with optimal health. So what on earth does it mean to “eat healthy?” There are many different camps that have opposing viewpoints as to what constitutes “healthy eating.” Some people have jumped on the “I eat only organic” bandwagon, whereas others are fixated on the concept of “clean eating,” and still others promote the “low carb” diet with an almost religious zeal.

The first problem that I have with the idea of “healthy eating” is that often it is simply just a more socially acceptable way for people to attempt to control their weight by manipulating their food choices. Many people I know who speak about trying to “eat healthy,” paradoxically practice other habits (such as smoking, tanning, and excessive drinking), which demonstrate that they may not be as “health conscious” as they are attempting to appear. Saying that they are simply trying to “eat healthy” is a way for some people to justify what may become restrictive or rigid eating habits, and could even serve to mask the development of disordered eating or eating disorders.

Research indicates that diets “do not work” in regards to maintaining weight-loss in the long term. Further, labeling your diet as “healthy eating” or a “lifestyle change,” does not change the fact that we are simply not able to control our weight in the way that the “health and wellness” industry wants us to believe is possible. Additionally, even if we could control our weight (which the majority of us cannot do long-term), we cannot control other's opinions of us or our overall sense of happiness through our weight. People desire to be "thin" because of what they think that being "thin" will bring them. But the reality is that you can find health, happiness, and love-at any size.

Further, saying that you are trying to “eat healthy,” indicates that there are some foods that are “healthy” and other foods that are “unhealthy.” This kind of black-and-white mentality surrounding food sets people up for disordered eating habits. For instance, let’s say that you are “trying to eat healthy” and you decide to eat a brownie at a work function. If you have a black-and-white mindset surrounding food- this perceived “failure” could lead to you “falling off the wagon” and succumbing to a binge or over-eating episode. Additionally, food is inherently neutral and you are not a “bad” or “good” person based upon the type of food that you choose to eat. We need to take the concept of morality out of our food choices-as this is just another way to shame and berate ourselves-for something that we shouldn’t.

Here’s the best way that I have to explain it. If all that you ate were carrots, you would likely develop nutritional deficiencies over time. If you only consumed brownies, you would likely develop nutritional deficiencies over time. All foods in moderation can be part of a balanced diet and removing the “good” and “bad” label from foods can help you to heal your relationship with eating and find freedom from diet mentality.

Lastly, the biggest issue that I have with the concept of “healthy eating” is that health is completely context and person-specific. We’ve all seen the fear-mongering lists of “foods that you should never eat again" or "foods that are totally unhealthy.” These general statements as to what foods are “healthy” and “unhealthy” are completely ridiculous. As human beings we are completely different and unique, with different gut bacteria, histories, environments, genes, and tons of other biological and psychological variations. What may be “healthy” for one person may be “unhealthy” for another, therefore making any general statements that label a food group or specific food, as being “healthy” or “unhealthy” makes zero sense.

For instance, for an individual who is obsessed with “low-carb eating,” rigid food rules, and compulsive exercise-the healthiest thing for them may be to eat a bag of potato chips for a snack. They may be nutritionally compromised as a result of their rigid food rules-and also may be struggling with their mental health as a result. Eating the potato chips may also help them in their journey towards making peace with food and neutralizing foods. Additionally, if they are deprived of carbohydrates-the chips could help to improve their health (as we know that carbohydrates are essential in regards to providing energy, serve as your bodies main fuel source, and help to improve digestion and heart health). Further, mental health is an important part of one's overall health. Ultimately, I don't care how much green juice you drink-if the thought of having dessert gives you anxiety-that is not mentally healthy.

Matt Stone exemplified this point in his book entitled Diet Recovery 2, when he states,

“Even with things that we can all intellectually agree is unhealthy, such as a meal at McDonald’s, there will be literally thousands of people that read this book who are freezing cold or haven’t slept through the night in years, or who are suffering from anxiety..And most of those health-conscious people wouldn’t DARE eat at McDonald’s. But to their surprise, they might find almost immediate relief from their health condition(s) if they were to go pig out of 2-3 double Cheeseburgers, an apple pie or two, and an ice cold Coke form none other than the infamous Mickey D’s. Why? Because the calorie-density, digestibility, and salt and sugar-healthy load of a McDonald’s meal is unparalleled. And for someone in a really low metabolic state, this can literally be the most therapeutic of all combinations."

Stone continues," You might heal faster eating at McDonald's than trying to do it on organic, unrefined, wholesome, and nutritious food because such food is not as calorie-dense, has higher water content, has more fiber, and is just too filling and unexciting to foster the same level of calorie consumption. So the unknowns about what is and isn’t healthy for an individual at any given moment are so vast that they are beyond our ability to neatly file into categories of “good” and “bad.”

So here is my challenge for you. Start reading up on the concept of “intuitive eating,” which encourages you to neutralize food and to learn how to attune to your body’s natural cravings and feelings of hunger and fullness. Instead of letting these external diet books and “healthy eating enthusiasts” tell you about what is healthy for your body-let your body determine what helps you to feel good-and work to find pleasure and practice mindfulness during your eating experiences. The one exception is if you are really struggling to break out of a disordered mentality-it can be incredibly helpful to seek out the help of a professional such as a therapist or nutritionist (preferably one who is knowledgeable about intuitive eating and the health at every size movements).

Lastly, know that your eating habits do not determine your inherent worth as a human being. Ultimately, we cannot control our lives or our value as people, through our food choices. No matter what you ate today and how much you exercised-you are worthy of love, connection, and belonging. You are enough, exactly as you are.

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C is a therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, specializing in helping adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety, and survivors of trauma. Connect with Jennifer through her website at