This Holiday Season, Leave the Food Police at the Door

A few months into my career as a dietitian, I attended a community luncheon event.  Standing in line for the self-serve buffet, I began conversation with an older gentleman in front of me.  

"So, what do you do?", he questioned as he piled on buttery mashed potatoes on to his already full plate.

"I'm a dietitian!", I said, beaming proudly for all that my profession represents, and somewhat naively, I might add.

He stopped midway from reaching toward the breadbasket in front of him, turning to take a double look at my plate and me.

"Well, are you going to stand here then, and tell me all the things I should and should not be eating?", he questioned suspiciously.

My cloud of pride suddenly diminished.  "Oh,, I'm not into doing that sort of thing," I sputtered, shocked at his blunt honesty.  "I think you can eat whatever you want."

"Let me tell you something," he quickly interrupted, before I could get in another word.  "For years, I've heard of all the good foods I SHOULD be eating and all the bad foods I NEED to stay away from - I just can't keep up with all the rules you people make."

The consequences of food rules

Clearly this gentleman, along with countless other individuals, had been subject to the consequences of rules.  But not just any rules.  Food rules.  

We all have them, whether intently or subconsciously.  Don't eat after 8pm.  Always eat vegetables first.  Don't eat carbs.  Don't eat "bad" fat.  Only eat dessert on Friday nights.  No meat on Mondays.  Only eat unrefined, unprocessed foods.  And the list goes on and on.  

When we stop to think about where these food rules originate from, there is likely no real logical explanation.  Granted, there are legitimate medical reasons for which individuals must adhere to a certain diet.  But what about those of us who abide by food rules for the sake of control? I like to think of food rules as something created by the "Food Police", the negative force that creeps into our minds and taints our perspective on food.

After all, we are faced with an overwhelming number of decisions on a daily basis, many of these including food: what to eat, when to eat, what do I make for dinner?  Food rules can be seen as an effort to help simplify the choices we make when it comes to food.  If we can draw the line in the sand and determine that there are "good" and "bad" foods, it seemingly becomes easier to choose what to eat.

The downside is that this form of thinking creates chaos when it comes to food.  What happens if I eat a food that has been deemed, "bad"?  Cue the guilty feelings, regret, and shame.  Is it time to hit the gym?  Should I skip my next meal?  The need to compensate runs hand-in-hand with foods labeled as good and bad.

Food is often the culprit of a "moral" decision: something that is either good or bad for us.

Food is often the culprit of a "moral" decision: something that is either good or bad for us.


Let's be real about the issue.  Food is NOT a moral thing.  I don't become a good person by eating "healthy" foods, just as I am not a bad person for eating foods on the "naughty" list.  Keeping this perspective helps normalize what food is: simply nourishment for our body; nothing that has power over us. 

The food police tends to make a sneaking appearance at holiday events, rather uninvitingly.  Many of us already have predetermined thoughts about holiday foods and how to handle these types of meals.  Something like:

  • I just won't eat all day and let myself eat whatever I want come meal time.

  • I'll avoid ______ , so I can eat _______.

  • I'll eat whatever I want today, and for the next few days, I'll be really good by working out and eating clean.

Or the common "talk of shame" following a meal: "I can't believe how BAD I was for eating all of that." 

This mentality completely strips away the pleasurable aspect of eating, often creating chaos amidst unnecessary guilt and shame.  

Check the food police at the door

Whether the negative chatter is coming from within or externally, you have the capacity to abandoned the food police and choose foods based on what you find nourishing, appetizing, appealing, and pleasurable.   Food rules, especially around holiday meals, make eating much more complicated than it should be.

This holiday season, un-invite the Food Police and regain your ability to neutralize your eating experience, outside of the good versus bad mentality.  Without unnecessary food rules in place, you are more likely to feel satisfied at meals, feel less inclined to "indulge" or overeat, and more able to focus on the things that are most important, like relationships and memories.  

With that in mind, wishing you and your loved ones a very Happy Thanksgiving, one that is GOOD based not on what you did or did not eat, but from fellowship, family, and priceless memories!