Good Food v. Bad Food

Photobuckethostess_20120111064640_640_480Recently, my post 15 Tips for Raising Kids With a Positive Body Image, has received a lot of comments.  I’m so glad people are finding the post and discussing this important topic!  I have two follow-up posts: Big Fat Myths About Fat and this one.

Many commenters had problems with #6 and #13 in my list;

  • Do not label foods as “good” and “bad”
  • Avoid talking about a nutrionalist approach to food – disassembling “food” into fat, carbs, calories, and other things that need to be obsessed about and counted (difficult since it is explicitly taught in many schools).

For example, one commenter said, “I think this is ignorant regarding food options. It is highly important to educate your children about proper food intake & nutrition.”

So, let’s talk about why you don’t want to label foods as good and bad and then I’ll look at if there actually are good and bad foods.

Why You Shouldn’t Call Foods Good/Bad

The dichotomy of Good v. Bad is one that children learn very early on.  If you have a preschooler you’ll hear them talk about the good guys and bad guys in tv programs.  My daughter has even said “my good” when she helps pick up toys and this is with a very strong intention on my part to NOT label her (or her behavior) as good or bad.  When she is “good” I’ll say “thank you! You were so helpful.”  And, when she does something “bad” I’d say “If we rip pages out of a book then we can’t read the story any more.  Let’s tape it back in.”  This isn’t a post about gentle parenting but needless to say labeling kids with value judgments is not a good thing.  Even good labels are bad (ha!) for two reasons; 1) kids know the opposite of good.  If you say they are good then they know that they have a capability of being bad, and 2) placing a value judgement as vague as good becomes an external pressure on your child.  If you want to read more about this concept you can start here.

What does this have to do with food?  Before we can get there we need to look at another aspect of child development called moral reasoning.  The pyramid on the left is Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development.  Children start at the bottom self-preservation and move up to adult moral reasoning at the top.  Up to age 10 children fall into the three lowest levels while middle schoolers tend to be very black and white in a “law and order mentality” it is only in the later teen years (or older) that principled morality, recognizing shades of gray, is developed.

A young child can clearly understand good and bad based on the effect it has on those around them but they can not differentiate between a good person and a bad deed.  The idea that the bad guy on Monday can do something very good on Tuesday is too complex.  You are either good OR bad.

When you say “Twinkies are bad” and your child thinks, “I think Twinkies taste good and Twinkies are bad therefore I must be bad.”  And, even worse, “well I’m bad so I might as well just eat bad foods.”

And don’t think just sticking to good works!  If you say “fruits and vegetables are good” they are going to deduce that other foods are bad.  AND they won’t eat their veggies.  Oh, and don’t think trading another word works.  Kids know the opposite of healthy is unhealthy and the connotation intended.

It is too important to me that my kids develop a self-image that is positive for me to label them even indirectly.

But Twinkies ARE Bad!

Twinkies are horrible.  They aren’t even food they are “food-like substances”.  I don’t want my kids to eat Twinkies.  I want them to eat fruits and veggies and lean protein, etc. The fear is that if you don’t scare your kids with “DOOM for all Twinkie eaters!!” then they will eat nothing but Twinkies forever and ever.

But the opposite is true: Research has shown that creating forbidden foods actually increases poor eating habits in kids (see twinkies are bad therefore I must be bad above).  Other studies have shown that authoritative feeding styles in caregivers increases children’s consumption of healthy foods.

How To Encourage Healthy Eating Without Labeling

Authoritative Feeding is a style of parenting the eating relationship with the ultimate goal being your child making healthy food choices.  Parent-controlled feeding (Authoritarian Feeding) has the opposite of desired effects (as in the forbidden food research).  If your goal is to make your child a good choice maker then you need to give them choice.  There are 3 great ways to do this:

1. Have a Division of Responsibility.

You are responsible for providing options, a place, and a time to eat.  Your child is solely responsible for what they eat and how much.  SOLELY RESPONSIBLE.  That means stop with the nagging or commenting on how much they eat or what choices they made.  Remember that children learn food likes and dislikes through nurture not nature.  They eat what they see eaten; what they see served.

2. Provide Choice.

With young kids a choice between two things is best.  “Do you want an apple or grapes for snack?”  This gives them control over their food choices. A caveat here that drives some parents batty: kids waste food.  My daughter eats half an apple a day…and leaves the other half to rot.  This drives my husband crazy!  But what are you going to do?  Tell them they can’t have an apple for snack?  Yell at them to finish their apple?  Anything you can do is counter intuitive   You could maybe give a sliced apple but my daughter likes to eat whole ones like a big girl.  I chalk up wasted food to the cost of raising a healthy eater.  Let it go.

3. Give Trust and Control When Possible.

I recommend having a “junk food” stash that your kids can get to.  Talk to them about how much candy they should be eating in a day (negotiate don’t tell) and then let them decide when to eat it.  With little kids it might be a “now or later” choice but as they get older it can be a weeks worth of candy that they are responsible for.  They can binge in one hour or make it last all week.  Little kids and those new to this control will always choose NOW and ALL but they won’t forever.  They will learn to delay gratification, space out treats, and trust their gut.  Stick firm to the limit and discuss the choice they made (“honey, you ate your candy for today this morning.  Maybe tomorrow you want to make a different decision and keep some for after dinner?”).

It is difficult to trust children when everything about our culture says they can’t be trusted and need to be controlled by adults.  But, remember, you are raising an adult not a child.  That means you want to nurture their strong decision making skills and they can’t do that if you control all the decisions.  

 But Are Some Foods Bad?

A Twinkie really is a bad food in my book because it isn’t food at all.  I’d rather make a fattening, sugary confection from real food and let my kids eat it than to let them eat a bunch of chemicals disguised as food.  My kids will learn from me about chemical dyes, artificial flavors, etc.  That is much more important to me than their ability to count calories or fat grams.  Humans can learn to trust their eating instincts – you won’t eat yourself to death with butter – but chemicals are like any drug in that they trick your body into thinking you need that non-food.  I trust humans but not drugs and that’s what food-like substances are.

I still won’t use labels of good and bad, and with all my kids being under 4, I don’t talk about this explicitly much but I will as they get older.  And even then, I will trust them to make their own choices.  (as long as they don’t have a dangerous sensitivity) I will let my kids pick the Twinkie if that is the choice they make.  Why? Because I’m not afraid.  Because bad foods don’t make bad people.  Because they love apples and eating is joy for them not a landmine field.  But mostly because their relationship with eating is so much more important than what they eat.

This concludes my follow-ups to the original article.  I know that our culture is firmly entrenched in;

a. fat is unhealthy
b. shame helps people get skinny
c. losing weight is easy with diet and exercise

so I’m probably not going to change anyone’s mind with three posts.  However, if you look at the research I’ve linked to and maybe read a few books you will see that the evidence is overwhelming in favor of intuitive eating and against the dangerous mentality we currently have toward food.  I hope I’ve piqued your interest to learn more.


10 thoughts on “Good Food v. Bad Food

  1. I don't know if this was mentioned in the other post, but I do talk about the component parts of foods fairly often. I have a 3-year-old daughter. She hears me say things like, "That's too much sugar for me. When I eat that much sugar, later I get really cranky" or "No, I don't want to share a milk shake with you and Daddy — I like milk shakes, but my body doesn't like milk, it makes me feel sick" or "I feel so tired and hungry! I need to eat some food with protein!" So I think there's definitely a place for talking about the nutrients of food.

    My parents never talked about *any* of this with us. They just bought us what was in their minds a reasonable amount of junk food, and made a rule that we could only drink one soda a day. I was most of the way through college before I started to associate any behavioral or emotional highs and crashes I had with what I was eating. Now that I've figured it out, I kind of feel like a dope for being so oblivious for so long. So I guess I'm saying I want to model paying attention to my body, out loud, and that involves talking about nutrients.

    But you're totally spot on about the "good" and "bad" labels. I try very, very hard to only talk about foods in relation to what they do to *my* body (its function, not its shape).
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    • I love your methods. Talking about how food makes you feel is such a great connection to make. Plus, you're saying it about yourself instead of passing judgement (like "that much sugar will make you sick").


  2. You were able to provide a very good sets of methods! Giving children a choice would make them think that they are good enough, just like what you said. Anyway, do you have any recommendations for a food that could possibly substitute the Twinkies?


  3. Pingback: Announcing… the 2012 Nourishing Body Image Award Winners! | Nourishing the Soul - A forum on body image and the effects of eating disorders

  4. Thank you for sharing this post! I have never thought of it like that… that when you call something good, you're automatically insinuating that it can also be bad. You're unintentionally making a dichtomy that can overwhelm your children. Again, thank you for sharing, especially the tips at the end!


  5. I disagree with thirteen as well. Especially since most people get their food from the grocery store and don’t make it from scratch at home, or grow it in their backyard. You are assuming that people have access to healthy food to begin with, when where I live, there is a large demographic of kids that are lucky to get any kind of regular meals at all. If you are 8 and all that you have access to is junk, can you really say that that 8 year old will turn it down and seek out veggies and fruit? So many people don’t even know how to cook, much less know what makes something unhealthy.

    As far as your body telling you what to eat, are you familiar with the guy, I forget his name, but he is a trainer who was super fit. To show his clients that it is possible to get healthy and fit, he stopped exercising and started eating junk. He gained a lot of weight, then started eating well and exercising again to get back to being fit. He said within weeks, he craved junk food, fast food, fatty food, etc. I am not overweight, never have been, and am a fanatical runner, but since I started paying attention to the quantity of my food, the make up of my food, and where it comes from, I feel better. If I ate what I craved, I wouldn’t get the iron that I need to control my chronic anemia, and I’d be snarfing down goitrogens like crazy and feeling like crap because I have thyroid disease. They are unfortunately some of my fave foods. When I started tracking what I eat, I discovered I wasn’t getting nearly enough protein. Once I started seeking out more, my runs got easier, I got faster, I felt better. I think it’s important to keep in mind what goes into our mouths, but that we shouldn’t obsess about it.

    My kids are 6 and 8 1/2. They got very little junk food as babies and toddlers, mostly from grandparents. It’s too simple to believe that kids who are always offered healthy food will always make those choices. Mine did, until they went to school and encountered classmates with food they didn’t know existed. I had to have a chat with my sons teacher this year, because he was bringing home his healthy lunch uneaten, with wrappers from food other kids had given him in his lunchbox. Seriously, what child will turn down cookies and say, no thanks, I’d rather have these grapes here? So we talk a lot about moderation. Too much or too little of anything isn’t healthy. Including sleep, leisure time, sugar, exercise, etc. Rather than “eat what you feel like” we talk about making good choices, and finding balance.


    • Hi Kayris! I think I talked about this in another comment reply in the original article. I'm not necessarily against schools teaching nutritionism to kids in public schools because you are right, there are kids who don't have the benefit of home cooked meals and access to healthy choices. As a homeschooler (unschooler) I luckily don't have to worry about it and my kids won't learn nutritionism until they learn it collateral to learning about the digestive system (if they happen to want to learn about the digestive system). If someone were trying to raise intuitive eaters then learning about nutritionism could disrupt the natural relationship with food a kid develops.

      I also commented there about different circumstances for those with specific illnesses (a mother was talking specifically about a child that is diabetic). My answer to her is that a diabetic would have died before modern medicine but in normal circumstances the human body knows how to regulate its own needs. Now, any adult that has grown up in western culture is, by default, no longer operating under normal circumstances. We've had our intuitive eating derailed so grandly by the diet industry that only with extreme concentration (and probably not even then) can we try to get in touch with our body's needs.

      Lastly, I know lots of kids that would reach for the grapes. If cookies are never forbidden or made "bad" then they might like cookies but will be less likely to binge on them or eat them at the exclusion of healthy foods. My daughter likes cookies – I make healthy(er) ones at home and she gets good ol' Oreos and grandmas but she still asks for apples so much I can't keep them in the house! She doesn't know that cookies are bad and apples are good. She just eats when she's hungry and what she craves. Lately she's all about "hard" and "soft" foods. I just go with it and let her lead.


    • What do you do about Grandma?? My MIL, my son's Grandma… is so crazy sometimes about food. Saying stuff is good for you, trying to force him to eat at certain times, etc. How do you get around that? We've tried to have talks with her about saying 'good job' and 'wow big bite' (unnecessary focus on eating) but argh I'm frustrated.


    • I agree kate, it can be so hard to persuade and explain to other people/family members what you are trying to achieve especially if it is an older family member who is maybe a little set in their ways


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