Do you ever judge yourself and feel a little disappointed when you eat ‘bad’ foods? An inner conflict of COVID-19 proportions raging inside you; “Why didn’t I eat the ‘good’ piece of fruit? Or the salad?” Instead you ate the cookie/chocolate/chips [or insert other so-called ‘bad’ food].
“Damn, I’m so useless at sticking to healthy eating!”
You’re not alone if you classify foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. And then feel guilt or shame if you pick and eat foods that you’ve classified as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’. This type of thinking is known as black and white thinking – and it’s definitely a habit that needs to go.
What Is Black and White Thinking?
Black and white thinking (scientists call it dichotomous thinking) is a type of thinking in which we place things in terms of extremes or opposites, and it’s a really common way of thinking about food and healthy eating. For example:
- Thinking that an apple is ‘good’ but chocolate is ‘bad’.
- To extreme appraisals of your eating – my diet is a success, my intuitive eating is failing,
There’s no middle ground for the black and white thinker. It’s either day or night for them; right or wrong; success or failure; good or bad. There is no inbetween or grey area.
And then this thinking extends to your whole lifestyle and healthy living goals. If you feel like you messed up your eating today, you then give up on your eating goals for the whole week. Ditto for exercise, you accidentally miss one day and so you give up your routine for the week altogether.
This type of black and white thinking turns the world into two extremes and is a huge part of The Diet Lie – the lie that there’s a correct way to eat healthy, it’s the way that makes you smaller in size and anything else is wrong. That there are lists of ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods and you should be following them 100% of the time otherwise you’re a failure.
It’s pretty common nowadays for people to think and talk in black and white terms when it comes to eating – classifying food as good or bad. Loads of popular diets do just that – they have lists of ‘banned’ foods or even entire food groups that must be avoided.
And we hear comments like, “I’ve been naughty today, I ate a chocolate bar.” The inference is clear, chocolate is bad and therefore I’m bad if I eat it. Or “I’ve fallen off my diet again!” (the on/off mentality).
But just because black and white thinking is common that doesn’t make it right.
Black And White Thinking Sabotages Your Goals
Black and White Thinking Sets You Up For failure
Studies suggest that people who have a stronger tendency towards black and white thinking about food and eating are more likely to fail long-term at living out their healthy living goals.
Because, black and white thinking is often based on the idea of achieving perfection (and you know that’s impossible, right?).
Black and white thinking gives you only two outcomes: one is a fail and the other is typically unattainable (i.e. ongoing perfection).
If you set the standard for feeling okay about yourself at the level of “perfection”, you’re bound to end up feeling like a failure most days. Because (need I say it?) perfection is unattainable.
Black And White Thinking Leads To Problem Eating
The other thing that happens is we often try to trick or overcome our desires for so-called ‘bad’ foods. We end up prowling around the kitchen, eating foods we don’t want (but which are on the ‘good’ foods list), while circling the real object of our attention. And by the time we’ve completed a full stock-take of the kitchen pantry, eaten everything we’ve deemed ‘healthy’ in our quest to avoid the ‘wrong’ snack choice, we can eat 2 or 3 times as much food as if we’d just cut to the chase and eaten the chocolate we really wanted in the first place.
Chocolate is not a problem. Cookies are not a problem. Thinking they are a problem is the real problem. And then the emotional eating cycle starts – stress, guilt about what we eat, so we eat more to feel better, then more stress and guilt, on and on it goes.
Black and white thinking about play foods sets you up for failure, and typically leads to people giving up. “I’m just no good at this healthy eating stuff, I give up.” The truth is, you’re not perfect and neither am I. And what’s more, we don’t need to be.
Escape The Black and White Thinking Trap – No More Good or Bad Foods
First and foremost, recognise this truth: there are no GOOD or BAD foods. Any food can be part of a healthful diet, even candy floss and French fries for breakfast.
Yes healthy eating is about honouring your health, but it’s also about what you eat over days, weeks and months – not just one food choice at one meal.
Healthy eating is also about having a healthy relationship WITH food. It’s about being flexible, it’s about enjoying your food and recognising that food is more than just nutrition – it’s also taste, enjoyment, tradition, celebration, and good old fashioned fun.
This might seem counter-intuitive – you’re thinking, what the heck?! I’ve listened for years to nutritionists telling me I shouldn’t eat chocolate or sausage rolls… I’m confused!
I hear you – and I understand your confusion. Health messages around food have become warped in recent years. They are often laden with judgement and moral accusations… leaving us feeling guilt and shame if we don’t achieve the lofty standard of only eating foods from the latest ‘Superfoods List.’
So I’ll say it one more time – there are NO good or bad foods, no good or bad emotions, no “I ate healthy today” or “I didn’t eat healthy today.”
Instead, try to find the shades of grey in your life, rather than just black or white, succeed or fail, healthy or unhealthy assessments.
Happy & Healthy Eating!