National “Junk” Food Day is next week, so I thought I would take this opportunity to talk to you about food labeling and the food police, especially as we get closer to kicking off the fall semester. There are a lot of delicious food options to navigate while on campus and how you think about them (and all food) is important!
The food police monitor negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around food that have been instilled in us. This inner policing can arise from any ideas we’ve been taught about food growing up, food rules we/our family has, messages from friends and peers, things we see on social media or read about in books and magazines. Eating has no longer become an easy and pleasurable activity because of how it has been policed in our society, through others, and within ourselves. You may not even realize how active your inner food police, or thoughts and judgement around food, may be.
The food police tell us we are “good” for eating a salad or “bad” for eating (or even thinking about) ice cream! In general, putting a label on foods can be harmful because we are then describing it in moralistic terms, and therefore, putting moral value on what we eat. When we label a certain food as “junk”, also described as something that is “considered useless or of little value”, there is no doubt that we will feel guilty and shameful after eating it! That term demonizes the food or way of eating while elevating others.
So, why and how is this harmful? The food police are in no way, shape, or form helpful to us, but do a great job keeping us at war with food and our bodies. The inner judgement is alive and well within most of our heads and gets louder with any new food rules or negative messages you hear about on social media or from friends. The way we perceive food is important because it determines our eating behaviors. Irrational thoughts about food lead to amplified negative feelings that can result in destructive eating behaviors.
Identifying the food police’s presence around and within you is the first step in challenging and dismantling it. The way we talk to ourselves is important. By developing non-judgmental awareness of our negative perceptions of food, we are then able to replace them with more reasonable ones. Keep in mind, the inner food police will continue to surface even as you learn to recognize and dismantle it.
Practice Challenging the Food Police
View Food as Neutral – Food doesn’t need to be “good” nor “bad”. Remember, gentle nutrition can be part of the food choices you make, but it shouldn’t be the only part. Food is comfort, love, and pleasure, too. Here are some examples of other moralistic terms used for food: “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “fake”, “off-limits”, “clean”, “guilt-free”, “healing”, “superfood”.
Examine and Evaluate Your Beliefs About Food and Your Body – Where did these beliefs come from? Where did you first hear these messages? How have they been reinforced?
Examine and Challenge Food Rules – What are your food rules? How do these rules relate to your body? How do you feel when you break a food rule? How does it affect your eating behavior? Here are some examples of food rules to challenge:
“I have to exercise to make up for eating ____”
“I can’t eat past __ PM at night” (regardless of how hungry you are)
“Too many carbs in this food, I can only eat half” (regardless of how hungry you are)
Practice Positive Self-Talk and Gratitude – Perfectionist thinking can reinforce negative self-talk and leaves no room for flexibility. “Fort the Most Part” thinking is a way of reframing perfectionist thoughts, such as “I am going to ___ every day.” That is unrealistic, whereas “for the most part” thinking results in more reasonable and realistic intentions. Expressing gratitude is another way to turn negative self-talk positive (“I am grateful, lucky, fortunate”).
Here is an example of a perfectionist thought: “I am going to ride my bike every day after work next week.”
Here is a reframed thought: “I am going to ride my bike when it feels good, and if I have time after work next week.”
Check out this handout for an additional explanation on labeling foods – Is It a Good Food? A Bad Food?
If you are a USF meal plan holder, I encourage you to reach out if you would like support challenging the food police around and within you. It is difficult enough navigating the many food options on campus, the last thing needed is the food police over your shoulder, watching every move!