“I was bad. I ate a burger and fries. I know I should have gotten the salad.”
How many of us have heard this from clients? And therefore we talk about how to frame the decision next time, how there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad” food, and how the foods we choose to eat aren’t a reflection of our own morality.
Yet I find that it can be difficult to help clients take this sentiment to heart when, as dietitians, we’re trained to know which foods are most health-promoting. Do we really believe that “good-for-you” foods—the foods we likely eat most often ourselves—aren’t in and of themselves “good”?
No other inanimate object is assigned moral value the way individual foods are by our culture. And so I wonder whether looking at food through the same lens as we do other items we rely on for daily living (eg, clothing) might help us and our clients understand that food is just food.
Take a look at your closet. You probably don’t believe that your most worn pair of jeans is inherently “good” while your favorite cocktail dress is “bad.” Wearing comfortable clothing that makes you feel great and suits your lifestyle is likely a wise decision, but it would be silly to think it made you a good person. Conversely, we’re certainly not “bad” for wearing a cocktail dress on a special occasion. And if it’s fine to wear that outfit on a special occasion, would it reflect negatively on your morality if you wore it to the grocery store, just because? No. Wearing that dress on a casual errand might not be the most appropriate choice, but in the case of clothing it’s considerably easier to recognize that the wrong wardrobe decision doesn’t make a person “bad” but rather ill informed or perhaps just quirky.
Like our diets, no one’s wardrobe will or should look exactly the same. The right clothing choices for someone with an office job will look much different from that of a stay-at-home parent or retiree. Yet our clients are subject to diet trends and media messages promising that if they just fell in line and tried this new diet plan; if they just cut out that food group; if they could just finally develop the self-control to eat this certain way, better health and a slimmer figure would be within their grasps. In a way, this is similar to the allure of the fashion industry, which ingeniously has many of us convinced to shill for and later abandon the latest fashion trends, season after season, all in the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
Of course, trends aren’t all bad. Many consumers delight in donning the latest designer shoes in the same way others desire to try out an Instagram-worthy poke joint. Without food trends, we wouldn’t have hummus, quinoa, fro-yo, or the rise of plant-based eating. The questions for dietitians are “How can we help our clients participate in—or eschew—such trends with confidence rather than succumb to them on account of external pressures?” And “How can we get clients to separate feelings of “being good” in a moral sense for choosing certain foods (popular or otherwise) from “feeling good” in a physical sense because the foods work well for their bodies and their lifestyles?”
And while we want to encourage clients to make choices that will help them feel their best, it’s also important to recognize that, just like clothing, there will be occasions when they’ll make choices that result in a little discomfort—like sore feet after an evening of dancing in stilettos or a food coma after gorging on a delicious holiday meal. In both cases, maybe the discomfort becomes a learning experience, or maybe it was totally worth it. Either way, it’s our job as RDs to help our clients understand that the ups and downs of trying to eat healthfully aren’t a reflection of personal worth.
We’ve long fought the perception that dietitians are the “food police,” ready to lock up anyone who inches toward that second slice of cake. Instead, let’s position ourselves as our clients’ food stylists, helping them make choices that fit their lifestyles and make them feel great, ultimately coming to a place where the foods they eat create joy rather than guilt.
— Diana K. Rice, RDN, LD, is known as The Baby Steps Dietitian and is the founder of Diana K. Rice Nutrition, LLC, where she works with families to eat well and reduce the stress surrounding their food choices. She specializes in pre- and postnatal nutrition as well as feeding young children and is a strong advocate for cooking with kids, family meals, and body positivity. Her expertise has been featured in Fit Pregnancy, Parents, U.S. News and World Report, Today’s Dietitian, and many other publications. Follow her blog at dianakrice.com and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.