Dietary Fad or Bad? When Guidelines Turn to Dogma

Scroll through your social media feed, and you will surely catch a glimpse of a friend or fitness guru endorsing a hot new dietary fad.

One week, cutting gluten is “the key to a healthy lifestyle,” and the next, it’s cutting sugar. These dietary fads and recommendations target broad populations, regardless of whether or not an individual has a medical intolerance to the restricted food or food group (e.g. reports that the gluten-free diet appeals to around 30% of Americans, while only .4% of Americans have a doctor-diagnosed celiac intolerance).

When each person you talk to is going to give you a different list of what foods are “good” and a different list of what foods are “bad,” it can all become quite arbitrary. It is likely that the plan you may follow will be the one you have read or heard about most recently. Latching onto “good” and “bad” foods in some way can feel organizing; it helps us feel that we have limits and clear course.

So when does this categorization of foods as “good” versus “bad” become problematic?

When the guidelines that were once set for the sake of organization or general healthy become radical or extreme, for example: let’s say (given no presence of a gluten intolerance) you actively choose whole grains as opposed to simple flours — great, that is a fine choice! Your restriction is within reasonable limits.

But then your simple preference towards whole grains becomes more rigid and over time, you avoid white flour like the plague. It starts to feel like eating anything with white flour, ever, is simply too threatening. This is a problem. You have begun to develop black and white thought patterns that get in the way of your life and your ability to choose.

Many times we are unaware of how our categorization of dietary fad or bad and labeling of food affects those around us as well as ourselves.

In an NPR article entitled, My Food Struggle In Pictures: When What I Ate Made Me ‘Good’ Or ‘Bad’, sisters Franzi and Izzy Ross reflect on their experiences in a household where parental dietary restrictions came about as a result of a medical battle. Izzy and Franzi’s father began restricting food groups in an attempt to lessen his arthritic symptoms. While Franzi writes “first dairy, then wheat and sugar. And it worked: It helped to dramatically reduce his symptoms.”

She specifies that these food rules were never imposed upon the family in a big way. What did happen was that Franzi and Izzy observed their father begin to categorize food as good or bad in relation to its effect on his body. Self-regret and self-punishment would follow should he slip up and eat a “bad” food. Judgment, categorization, and fixation became the norm in their home, and these patterns of black and white thinking followed the sisters to college.

Franzi writes, “Our family food culture did not help me address the issue when I returned home. My parent’s concern for my health conflicted with their moral paradigm about food, and they struggled to argue with my extreme diet, since it was in line with what we had all come to understand as ‘good.'”

For individuals who thrive on the challenge of staying within the limits, categorization, and labeling of food into “good” versus “bad” may become obsessive in nature.

At Columbus Park, we see all kinds of restrictions and they range in terms of how they may impact our clients’ lives. Generally in treatment, if an individual presents with a specific restriction of a food category (like gluten or dairy), we will address the cognitions behind it. Is this a true intolerance, a medical issue? If not, what is driving this restriction? What are the beliefs behind it? Does it really make sense for this person or is it a restriction that now has taken on a life of its own and is getting in the way of normal, healthy functioning in the real world of food and eating?

This period of reflection asks the individual to reconsider and reflect upon the impact such food choices will have on their lives should they choose such dichotomous ways of thinking about food. Franzi reflects on her experience as she writes, “My entire life became centered on obsessively going over what I had eaten, was planning to eat, or had denied myself. This focus was constantly in the back of my mind, and took away from other aspects of my life.” Ultimately, Franzi recognized her obsessive behavior and unhealthy patterns. When she finally began to talk openly about her stressful relationship with food, she began to heal.

For more information about the Columbus Park, click here.