A table holds fruits and vegetables on one side, and fast food on the other.
A health-minded approach to food might make you feel like you have to divide everything into good and bad, but that’s the wrong way to go about it. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Kale and quinoa? Good.  Brownies and bacon? Bad.

When it comes to food, we love to categorize our choices into good versus bad. But this tendency to place a moral judgement on the things we eat has the unintended effect of making moral judgments about ourselves.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I was so bad today,” when speaking about what they ate?

Instead of looking at the big picture of an overall balanced diet that allows for foods that nourish, as well as foods that bring pleasure, we tend to overemphasize the negative effects of choosing foods that are less nutrient-dense.

The irony in this is that when we label a food “bad,” we tend to crave it more.

If you tell yourself you shouldn’t have that brownie in the break room at work because it’s unhealthy, you most likely will find yourself unable to think about anything else. Then, when you can no longer resist, you sneak into the break room and eat four brownies. Afterward, you beat yourself up for eating a “bad” food—and for your lack of self-control.

For other people, this way of thinking can lead to an even more harmful relationship with food.

Orthorexia is a condition that involves obsessive thoughts and behaviors around healthy eating. What might start out as an attempt to eat clean and avoid so-called bad foods can turn into an ever-shrinking list of allowable foods.

It can also lead to increasing limitations on daily activities dictated by the availability of safe foods.

It is similar to other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, but people suffering with orthorexia are focused on health, not weight. The irony with orthorexia, however, is the diet can become so limited that physical health is compromised, in addition to the increasing strain on the person’s mental health.

As with most things in life, when it comes to choosing the foods you eat, the goal should be moderation, balance, nourishment and pleasure.

Building a base of nutrient-dense foods, such as whole grains, minimally processed proteins, fruits and vegetables allows room for the occasional brownie and bacon. By giving yourself permission to enjoy the “forbidden foods,” you free yourself from self-judgement about your food choices and you naturally begin to gravitate toward foods that make you feel physically well.

Learning to drop the moral judgements on food—and yourself—is a good thing!