Justine Roth Nutrition

Eat This AND That: Rethinking “Top Food” Lists


Not a day goes by without a Top 10, Top 6, Top 3 list of dietary recommendations floating by my Twitter or Facebook feed. Whether it’s eating certain foods to boost immunity, improve mood or burn muscle, or avoiding a number of foods putting your health at risk, many news outlets have hopped on the ‘eat this, not that’ bandwagon.

No matter the article’s content, as a dietitian, I cannot help but cringe at the over-simplistic message: Eat this (and only this) to relieve INSERT HEALTH COMPLAINT HERE. This basically implies that if you don’t adhere to the list, you could be poisoning yourself and anyone you give these foods to! Here’s why I think we’d do well to ditch the lists:

Lists foster an unhealthy relationship with food.

We are searching for guidance and advice on the healthiest food choices, and these lists are created to simplify the latest scientific findings…or hunches. However, these lists can leave people feeling like they are doing something incredibly wrong if they aren’t following them.  As a result, rules and fears around food may form. Since food is meant to be eaten, not feared, feelings of guilt for what you’ve eaten or uncertainty about what you’re allowed to eat may result. If food lists have left you with highly limited version of what is acceptable and healthy, take the time to redefine healthy for yourself.

These lists are not always accurate, or reflective of reproducible scientific findings.

Nutrition is one of the most debated and controversial topics of the health world. As a professional in the field, I am either valued for my opinion or critiqued for the demise of America’s diet. There tends to be an outpouring of publicity following trends in hot nutritional topics. Though this may start out as reporting on a valid study, depending on the source the take-home message may get skewed and exaggerated. Before making any changes to your diet as a result of these lists, become an educated reader who carefully considers the source of the advice.

They support black-and-white thinking.

The overuse of the words never, always, and should in these lists is astounding.  Never eat red meat? Never enjoy a processed food? Really? Never? Sure, it can be helpful to learn about which foods are more nutritious and which have higher risk of causing health problems if overconsumed, but the idea that we ought never to enjoy another Hebrew National hotdog unless we “want cancer” is just absurd. These words promote a way of thinking that is overly rigid and can, for some people, give matters of food, eating and weight way too much power. For others simply searching for health advice, the recommendations are not applicable given the amounts of these foods they include in their day-to-day intake. To take back control over your consumption, strive to live in the gray.

Living by these lists is unrealistic.

Perhaps most important of all, unless you have the time at home to make these “must have” nutritious meals, it is near impossible to stick to these recommendations all the time. Even if it is possible, it can get expensive, and for a subset of people, it can backfire and lead to binge- or over-eating.  While eating organic and including foods that are healthy in your diet is a nice goal to have, it shouldn’t leave you feeling overly stressed out and calling yourself a failure if you can’t follow through all the time.  So when you come across a list like this try to set goals to make small changes to include things you want to be a priority; don’t bite off more than you can chew!

While these lists are meant to inform us, they tend to spread more rigidity and fear as opposed to balance and helpful knowledge.  If you cannot resist reading them, this dietitian cautions you to take what they say with a grain of salt. Just not too much salt – I hear it’s bad for your health (*wink, wink*).

(Re)Defining Healthy

Ever find yourself skating on a thin line between wanting to eat healthy and obsessing about everything you put in your mouth?  Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can have positive effects on your social, emotional, and physical wellbeing—but this is entirely dependent on how you choose to define healthy. You may view “healthy” in terms of the food you ate for lunch (or what you avoided eating for lunch), what the scale said that morning, or if you were able to add that extra mile on yesterday’s run.

Photo credit: Creative Commons by Miiish

Photo credit: Creative Commons by Miiish

While some can achieve their vision of health through balance and moderation, others may, in the process, develop disordered eating or a full blown eating disorder. What may start as a desire to reach a particular health goal can end in a commitment to an unhealthy relationship with food and body image.

If you think that your current definition of healthy may not, in fact, be so healthy, consider redefining it using the following steps:

Let go of rigid rules.
Setting rules tends to generate shoulds and should nots and are often derived from unrealistic or inaccurate ideas about what, when, and even how you can eat. Strict rules about exercise can have a negative impact on how you view yourself for the exercise you do or don’t do from one day to the next.

Examples of common unhealthy rules include:

I can’t eat carbs at dinner because I had a sandwich for lunch.

I have to run at least 5 miles to burn off the calories from that cake I had last night.

I can’t eat after 8pm because food turns to fat if you eat before you go to sleep.

The more rigid the rule, the more likely you will be unable to keep to it.  Rule-breaking typically leads to feeling guilty …and setting even more (or stricter) rules! Instead of rules, try setting goals in the form of realistic guidelines.  A guideline involves a plan and strategy for a goal towards which you’d like to work.

Balanced guidelines might be:

I am still full from the pasta I had at lunch.  I will try to include a lighter, whole grain for dinner.

Tomorrow I am setting a goal to run 3 miles, but will not beat myself up if I can’t do it.

I want to cut down on my after-dinner snacking, but if I am hungry, I will eat something I enjoy.

  • Eliminate black-and-white thinking. Live in the gray!

Black-and-white thinking (sometimes called all-or-nothing thinking) is unlikely to help you feel good in a consistent way. It can involve labeling food or your behaviors, like eating a salad for lunch or skipping your yoga class, as “good or bad.” This is problematic because it gives your food or health behavior choices too much power and can lead to harsh self-judgments.

Examples of black-and-white thinking are:

I already ate badly today; I might as well continue to blow it.

This skirt I wore last summer is a little snug. I am fat and should go on a strict diet.

I was really good today. I deserve this brownie.

Living in the gray means being flexible and nonjudgmental about food (and other health) choices.  Food is just food. It is not inherently good or bad and neither are you for eating it, or not.  Nor are you good or bad based on your clothing size.

  • Eat the foods you enjoy.

No one is left feeling good about themselves if they feel deprived. Identify those things you truly enjoy and find a place for them in your diet. Maybe this means a few cookies at night or cream in your morning coffee. If you allow yourself to eat food for pleasure and not just for fuel the desire to overdo it on these “forbidden” foods might slowly diminish.

  • Disconnect body image and food.

The way you feel about your body does not need to drive your food choices (or vice versa). Say you wake up in the morning and do some (not so healthy) body checking and decide you look heavier today. At that moment, you might decide to eat a restrictive breakfast, which will likely leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied.  On the other hand, you might recognize that you are feeling fat, but that this is just how you feel at the moment; you can then simultaneously remain aware that you still need to eat a balanced breakfast. Choosing to nourish your body despite negative body image thoughts will allow your brain to focus on other things, possibly allowing the negative body image thoughts to lessen as the day goes on.

  • Be mindful.

Everyone can benefit from increasing their mindfulness about eating, even if developing (or reestablishing) an innate “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full” practice seems unattainable. Start to notice your hunger and fullness cues; pay attention to whether or not these cues enable you to eat regularly and adequately, or not. Throughout the day reflect on your food choices and in a nonjudgmental way use this to decide what you might eat next. This is much healthier then projecting forward an unrealistic limitation on yourself based on what you ate earlier that day.

Creating a healthy relationship with food and your body image can be hard to do, and it is likely to be a gradual process. Remember: Small shifts in your thinking and behaviors may pay off big when it comes to your overall wellbeing.