How can I create a healthy and positive relationship with food?
You eat a cookie after dinner. Do you enjoy it and move on? Or, does a wave of food guilt follow? How about a salad: do you feel a sense of superiority for choosing the “healthy” option? Or, do you enjoy the crunchy mix of sweet and salty flavors and move on with your day?
Diet culture has conditioned us into believing that our food- and exercise- habits reflect who we are, morally, as people. These habits define specific behaviors that, through the years, have been identified as “appropriate” in regard to achieving “health” and “wellness.” According to diet culture, we’re inferior and “bad” for choosing cookies, but superior and “good” for choosing the fruit plate.
The problem, however, is that true health is multifaceted and diet culture’s definition of “health” is both falsely dichotomous (“healthy” vs “unhealthy”) and rooted in privilege. White privilege, thin privilege, ableism, and economic privilege are just a few examples. In fact, most health outcomes are out of our individual control, and primarily determined by social, economical, and environmental factors. Using this idea of health is both exclusive and oftentimes unattainable.
What Is Food Neutrality?
Viewing foods as “bad” for health or performance evokes anxiety and guilt around food. This mindset leaves us vulnerable to the all-or-nothing knee-jerk reaction that is often experienced when we eventually eat those previously deemed “bad,” “unhealthy,” or “empty calorie” options.
Now, I’m not saying that all foods are equivalent from a nutrition perspective. Some foods are more nutrient-dense, and even performance-enhancing, than others. For example, a plate of broccoli is richer in nutrients than a plate of confectioner’s candy. Food neutrality isn’t about equalizing the nutrient density of various foods. It’s about stripping the moral value from food in a way that removes the judgment, shame, stress, and guilt associated with those foods.
The nutrition content of your food choices does not reflect your moral character.
“But, Rachel… I feel better when I eat healthier!”
Viewing foods through a neutral lens doesn’t mean that you’re disregarding nutrition education. In fact, once you remove the judgment around your food choices, you’re better equipped to integrate gentle nutrition without obsessing (more on this here).
There’s also a major difference between feeling physically bad (or unwell) after eating and feeling like you’re being bad for eating. Eating a side dish of broccoli might help one dancer’s digestive regularity while leaving another dancer with digestive discomfort. Choosing whole wheat pasta might satisfy one dancer and support more sustained energy levels, but leave another dancer who struggles with a gluten allergy (such as Celiac disease) feeling physically unwell. None of these scenarios reflect anyone’s values, especially in regards to health and wellbeing. In fact, for the dancer with a sensitive tummy, opting out of the veggies is an act of self-care. On the flip side, choosing a balanced wrap over a handful of candy might give you the staying power you need to get through a long rehearsal.
So, how can we access food neutrality in a world that glorifies “wellness” as a guise for dieting? This article will provide 3 actionable steps for utilizing food neutrality to improve your food flexibility and heal your relationship with your plate, your exercise habits, and your body.
Unlearn Dichotomous Messaging
What diet culture commonly deems as “health” foods are often given a higher moral value than what diet culture commonly deems as “unhealthy” or “junk” foods. To build your neutral lens, we’ll need to rewire your neuropathways and shift conditioned thoughts like “XYZ = bad” to new thoughts like, “XYZ = fuel for my body, mind, and soul.” Shifting these thoughts enables you to make choices from a place of internal self-care, not external ridicule. Grab a journal and construct ten neutral food thoughts. Here are a few examples:
- Chocolate satisfies my soul.
- Adding bread to my meal boosts my carbohydrate intake. Carbs are my body’s best fuel source!
- Dessert might not immediately enhance my physical performance, but it surely enhances my mental and emotional well being!
The same goes for foods you’ve elevated to be “healthy” and “clean.” Your salad or fruit smoothie doesn’t have to only be a “safe” option because diet culture says so. In fact, you can repair your relationship with these commonly deemed “healthy” or “clean” foods as well. Here are a few examples:
- A crunchy salad sounds super refreshing right now! I’ll mix in some grains and nuts for a boost of energizing complex carbs.
- Legume pasta leaves me feeling fuller for longer. This is helpful for long afternoons of dancing!
- I’ll choose the fruit plate tonight. I’m not super hungry and I’m in the mood for a tangy and refreshing option.
Give Yourself Judgement-Free Permission to Eat
Permission to eat involves the removal of any rule or condition from your food and/or exercise choices. So, for example, when we have unconditional permission to eat, we’re not “saving” calories or “burning off” XYZ.
Removing the conditions around those previously deemed “bad” or “good” foods also enables you to identify amounts (AKA servings) that work best for your body. Eating an amount of food that feels good in comparison to eating an amount of food that doesn’t feel good is part of the discovery process. This discovery process is only accessible in the context of a judgment-free zone. During this process, use mindful eating techniques (I dive into these here). How does the food taste? What’s the aroma like? If there’s a specific food that you’re feeling “bad” about, then you’ll need to set aside some serious time for this mindful reflection.
Consider The Whole Value of Your Choices
Food neutrality enables us to make choices based upon our whole being, including the mental, emotional, social, and physical elements of our “health” and “wellness.” Use food to honor all facets of life, including your nostalgic memories, new experiences, pleasures, joys, comforts, and so forth.
And remember: food neutrality doesn’t disregard the nutritional value of food. We can integrate nutrition information, even those that come from food labels and ingredients lists, without having them dictate our choices. Once we understand food neutrality, we can begin intertwining gentle nutrition to help guide (but not hijack) our choices. Here are some examples:
- I felt some indigestion after eating those fries. Next time, I’ll try baking them!
- The cupcake before class left me feeling a bit sluggish during petit allegro. I’ll save my cupcake for after class.
- Adding protein powder to my overnight oats helps to keep me feeling fuller and more satisfied throughout the morning.
Can you list foods that you’ve come to define as being “bad” and/or “good?” For more help, follow me on Instagram and if you started to implement these suggestions, send me a DM. I want to hear from you!