The flaw in telling kids 'there are no bad foods'
We shouldn’t call any food “bad,” but not all food is the same.
Two items I came across this week recall a topic I’ve touched on a bit before in my piece, “Is ‘healthy’ a bad word now?” That topic is kids and their eating habits. In the “bad word” essay I was aghast at the woman who said that if her daughter wanted to “eat healthier,” the woman would respond as if the daughter “wanted to smoke cigarettes.” Now my gears are quite jammed up by content about how kids should learn “there are no bad foods.”
Stay with me here. I agree that there are no morally “bad” foods, or foods that make you “bad” if you eat them. This is a matter of picking apart what we’re actually saying when we say “bad” and the language we use around food and eating.
This piece in The Cut is about the sleep training debate (takeaway: I’m glad I don’t have to care about that right now, good luck to all), but there’s an aside within about kids and food:
“A new generation of experts stresses that there are no bad foods and that kids are pretty much fine as long as they get enough calories to grow. Why not apply the same flexible approach to sleep?”
I also watched this video, which includes the following points:
Donuts are judged on a “false standard of health” [We’ll get to that in a minute]
The idea of “earning” food through exercising is harmful [Without question, yes]
We’re taught that our size and the food we eat are markers of our self-worth [Yes, and this is wrong and sucks]
Moralizing food can lead to harmful relationships with food [Yes]
The only foods that are bad for you are foods that contain allergens, poisons, and contaminants [Hey – what does “bad for you” mean?]
The nutritionist in the video works for Mondelez International, manufacturer of products such as Chips Ahoy!, Oreos, and Sour Patch Kids. Just thought I’d mention.
Look, as I’ve written before in the most-read piece I’ve published in this newsletter, “‘Junk food’ needs no defense, ‘healthy food’ needs no praise,” we shouldn’t think of food as bad or good in a moral sense — spinach doesn’t get you into heaven and Cheetos don’t send you to hell. We don’t have to stop eating Oreos forevermore. I certainly won’t. But there are foods that are “good” for you and “not as good for you” in a nutrition sense, and the “not as good for you” foods are often manufactured by the Mondelez Internationals of the world who have a profit-driven interest in getting you psychologically and habitually hooked on their products that are physiologically not as good for (meaning “supportive of,” “contributing to,”) your body’s functions and needs.
Foods that are marketed as “diet foods” are not as good for you nutritionally, too! You’d probably do well not to eat Atkins protein bars for lunch every day just as you’d do well not to eat Sour Patch Kids for lunch every day. I think it’s bullshit that diet product companies Mortal Kombat Spine Rip people’s money from their wallets, and I think it’s bullshit that “junk food” companies do the same. I am firmly on Team No Industry here. The only team I’m on is the blandest, dullest team of all: Team Moderation of Less Nutrient-Dense Foods. Boo! Snore!
That’s where the kid discussion comes in. The people who are creating content about how the demonization/moralization of foods can create the perfect conditions for eating disorders to take root in children are right. I grew up in a household where everything was categorized as “bad” or “good.” If I was eating a salad, I was “being good,” if my mom was snacking on chips, she’d proclaim she was “being bad.” (Chips were present along with other “junk food” in my house, but that’s what my dad and brother ate; those were assigned in my mind as Bad Boy Foods Not For Good Girls.) I hope you’re prepared for the shock of your life: I developed a horrible eating disorder.
But we don’t have to demonize or moralize food if we talk about it simply in terms of its nutritional profile and what it does for our bodies. What the “there are no bad foods” folks are saying is that when we call foods “bad,” we’re categorizing them as shameful, as foods that make us bad, as foods that are never to be eaten in any circumstances, likely because of the belief that they’ll make us fat. For that reason I agree that we need a better and less emotionally loaded term for less-nutritious foods we eat in moderation; I do not, however, believe that we should simply pretend that these nutritional distinctions do not exist.
To say that donuts are maligned because of a “false standard of health” … I don’t know what to tell you. I think we’re all aware that donuts are not especially nutritionally robust. They can absolutely fit into an overall nutritious diet but they are not themselves very nutritious. So? We all do “unhealthy” things sometimes. We playfully acknowledge that our three Red Bulls a day habit, or our scrolling Instagram in bed, or our vaping, or whatever else is not especially supportive of our personal health, but lol life is hard and these things feel good in the moment! Eating donuts sometimes can be the same way! Whatever! You can pull back on these habits if they make you feel unwell, or not! Just don’t fool yourself and others into believing all foods affect your body the same way and there are no not-as-good-for-you foods.
If we’re going to cultivate spaces for children that are less conducive to the development of disordered eating, we don’t have to entirely throw away the concept of “food hierarchies” (another idea the video takes issue with) and “standards of health,” because the fact remains that some foods are actually better than others not in terms of moral purity or self-worth but in terms of things like satiety, effect on blood sugar, macro- and micronutrient profile, and how hyperpalatable they are. Telling kids “no foods are bad” (in terms of nutrition, meaning they are worse, nutritionally, than others) teaches them nothing about how food can affect them physically and mentally.
I get that no child is going to listen to you about sodium content and the glycemic index. But couldn’t we throw this entire one-word shorthand out the window and tell kids something like:
We have these [nutrient dense] foods a lot because they help our bodies feel good and work well, and they taste good.
We have these [less nutrient dense] foods sometimes because they also taste good! We just want more “helper foods” most of the time.
Fact is, as much as living in a hyper-restrictive household messed up my relationship to food, so did going on to live with no understanding of how food affects my functioning, and in a society where low-nutrition, hyper-palatable food is readily available in abundance for very little money. As I wrote before: That this kind of food is often the easiest, cheapest, and most convenient way to eat should make us angrier than it does.
When kids have constant access to “junk food,” we can’t be surprised if that’s what they pick, much of the time; they’re not “bad” kids, this is how human brains work. From the “junk food” piece:
You’re not wrong, bad, or gluttonous for liking these foods, because that’s how humans work; we evolved to prioritize high-calorie, energy-dense food when it was scarce. In the past, though, available energy-dense foods were fruits or animal meat and marrow, not low-nutrient snacks. Now, this food is available everywhere. We become “addicted” to it in the sense that it makes us feel a next-level high from levels of sugar, fat, etc. that we didn’t encounter for millennia. Now, it’s easy to consume it constantly, so we do.
For that reason, I probably wouldn’t keep a lot of hyperpalatable snacks sitting around the house for my kids to choose whenever they wanted, which I imagine would be all the time. There are parents who say that by keeping such snacks around, intermingled with more nutrient-dense snacks, their kids don’t see “junk food” as exciting or as desirable, so they’re as likely to pick the carrots as they are the Gushers. That’s cool. Good for you. I’ve never met a child who is that way and I worked full-time with eight- to 18-year-olds for two years and was a babysitter from when I was 13 to like 26, but we’ll see what happens when I have kids.
I personally think it makes more sense to go out for ice cream once a week, or intentionally give them certain snack foods sometimes, or bake cookies on a Friday rather than keeping a bag of Chips Ahoy! around in perpetuity, or have a special “pick anything you want to eat” dinner a few times a month, or something. I just think it’s too easy to cultivate an obsession with less-nutritious food, like I had for years, when it’s ever-present in the environment. That’s why I don’t keep certain food in my own space and now don’t want it that much, which took a period of retraining my brain and palate.
The whole “We eat these foods most of the time, these foods sometimes” idea is moderation, it’s boring, it’s the “80/20 concept,” it’s what doesn’t get clicks or ignite controversy and discourse on social media. We are completely consumed in our society with going hard in one direction or another — many of us grew up being told that some foods were only for bad children who were disgracing the Lord with our gluttonous ways, so now we’re Team No Foods Are Bad, instead of Team Let’s Unpack What “Bad,” Means, Actually, all because eating is complicated and generations of food and body shaming have made us all justifiably fragile and defensive.
We can, though, eliminate the words “bad” and “good” entirely and come up with new language that actually defines what these things mean, bearing in mind that as adults the onus is on us to help children understand the very real ways food and our relationship to it affect us. We don’t have to imbue food and eating with shame or moralizing, and we shouldn’t. We just have to imbue it with some sense.
What do you think? Change my mind with stories of your carrot-prioritizing kids. Poke holes in my “how we describe food to kids” idea. How do you talk about food to kids in your life?
I have 3 young daughters and we have “sometimes” foods and “everyday” foods. Seems to be working so far.
Our 3 kids are various ages of teenager, one of whom struggles with restricting food. I find myself saying “your body needs food” more than I wish I had to. In terms of nutrients, we talk about it being important to eat different kinds of food (ie, we stopped buying cup noodles because that was all you were eating and that’s not good for your body). And once, to our carb-loving oldest: “If you like pooping and want your body to continue doing it you need to get some veggies in there.”