The Scoop on Food

Why There Are No ‘Bad Foods’

Here's why you should banish those words when it comes to food--and why they're especially "bad" for kids.

Unhealthy Food Ice Cream Burger Fries Chocolate beats1/Shutterstock
If there were two words I wish I could strike from our collective vocabulary when it comes to food and eating, it would be "good" and "bad".

The way those words are used to describe how we eat—and what we think we should eat—are unhealthy for our own psyches and damaging to our kids' attitudes too.

Here are some things I hear people say:

"I heard sugar is really bad."

"I was good and had a salad for lunch."

"I was bad and ate a donut in the break room."

Google "bad foods" and the first thing to pop up is a list of foods that are "bad" for health. "Avoid them!" the article warns. Trouble is, the list includes plenty of things my kids and I eat sometimes (and I'm guessing you do too) like pizza, vegetable oil, bacon, and ice cream. Even low-fat yogurt and fruit juice made the list.

And Googling "bad foods for kids" results in lists of foods you should "never feed your kids" that include breakfast cereal, kids' meals at restaurants, and boxed mac-n-cheese.

And with so many people following very specific diets like Paleo that eliminate (not just limit) certain foods, suddenly all grains are "bad". So are potatoes, milk, and even beans.

Are there foods you should eat more frequently for good health? Absolutely: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, fish. All of these have been shown in research to be linked to a healthier life. But there's room for ice cream too.

The "bad" foods lists are so black and white--and they feel like a moral judgment. (And "approved" and "non-approved" foods lists are just as troublesome too, in my book.) No wonder people, especially women, transfer judgments of "bad" and "good" onto themselves depending on what they eat or don't eat.

The "good" and "bad" talk is dangerous for our kids too. Most kids love sweets, yet too many parents talk about sugar as being "bad" or kids being "good" if they ate fruit instead of cookies for dessert. And don't get me started on parents telling their kids that organic lollipops are "good" but regular ones are "bad". Talk about confusing!

Kids shouldn't grow up with a list of "good" and "bad" foods in their heads. They shouldn't connect their own goodness with what they're eating—or the foods they really wish they could have, if it didn't mean they were being "bad". It's okay to communicate messages about the foods we eat more often. It's okay to have a policy of not stocking soda at home or saving sugary desserts for the weekends. It's okay to decide as a family to eat vegetarian or vegan.

But let's not to connect "good" and "bad" to foods or eating habits anymore.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.