Gill Stannard

Friday, August 22, 2008

The good, the bad and the naughty

Shock horror – food is neither “good” nor “bad”, never “naughty”, though often “nice”! Certainly what we eat has varying nutritional values and the ability to interact with our body in a helpful or sometimes harmful way. But the vital part of the equation is how our body’s reacts, not anthropomorphising the food itself.

Let’s face, deep down we all want to be “bad”. Naughty girls and boys have more fun. It’s a drag to be a paragon of virtue. When we are offered that one drink or jam donut too many, we aren’t thinking, “I’m going to feel awful tomorrow”, no – we are getting a kick out of doing something that we know will not benefit us. In that moment the impulse is to be wild, free and hang the consequences. Be “bad” in other words.

If labelling something “bad” or off limits makes it attractive, canonising positive habits can also have the opposite effects. Maybe this has something to do with desperate parents using all sorts of weird ‘incentives’ to get children to eat vegetables or do chores that hold little appeal for them. Being praised for being “good” may have been about being rewarded for repressing excitement. Being quiet or polite when we wanted to run free, for eating crusts to make our hair curly (an odd benefit if ever there was one!) or finishing some unappealing meal because somewhere in the world a child was starving. If this was being “good” no wonder “bad” is so attractive.

“Naughty” is another adjective that gets over used by adults describing their behaviour. Calling something, or our actions, good, bad or naughty – is not only counterproductive in a therapeutic sense but it encourages us to infantilise ourselves. If we revert to a childlike mentality we no longer have to take responsible for our actions. Being an adult can be a drag sometimes.

The way we talk about what we eat says more about our emotional relationship with food, than what we are actually consuming. When we say we’ve had a “bad” dinner or been “naughty” for eating a chocolate bar for breakfast, the self-deprecation has a tendency to discourage us from taking responsibility for our choices. Language is a very powerful mirror. It gives away clues to our self-esteem but equally it provides a tool to improve our health.

Food is neutral; it is only our mind that assigns it an emotion. While a food can be calibrated in terms of available energy, nutrients and other constituents, there is no ultimate scale of virtue. At any one time a piece of chocolate can be a source of celebration, a tool we use beat ourselves up, a reward or even, in the case of a diabetic, a possible lifesaver or killer. In each instance, it is the same piece of confectionary. It is only the dynamic in which we engage it and the condition of the individual body that receives it, that gives the food a value.

The first step to reclaiming the neutrality of food is to be aware of the words we use to describe the way we eat. Even if we don’t always say them out loud there may reoccurring linguistic themes in our internal dialogues. For one day, note down some of the words you use around food and see if any themes emerge. Once we become aware of a pattern, we have the power to change it. By shifting the emotion away from the food itself and claiming it as our own, we can choose whether that way of thinking serves a useful purpose.

This process takes the power away from the food and gives it back to ourselves to enable us to make more informed choices. We can no longer be the victim of the empowered substance. But let’s face it - the food doesn’t want the power in the first place. It is happy to hand it back.

As a thank you to subscribers and clients – enjoy this series of posts on food and wellbeing this week during radiothon. For details on how to subscribe to the station got to RRR.

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