Hi everyone, before I go into this article, I wanted to introduce myself to Strength Cave followers! My name is Michael Navarro; I’m currently obtaining my Master’s of Nutrition and Public Health from Columbia University, Teacher’s College. I met Andres when I asked him to be on my podcast and he agreed. We got two fantastic episodes created and he asked me to write for him, so here we are! I hope you find this and all other posts of mine to be useful and entertaining. I welcome all feedback to improve as a writer and content creator! Enough about me, let’s get into the article; thanks for reading!
We hear fairly often that eating a certain food is “bad” for you. Perhaps you’ve heard that you should be eating only “good” foods if you want to lose weight. Maybe you have even heard about “clean” foods that can make your fitness goals magically come to reality.
I’m here to tell you that this type of black and white thinking is not the only way. In fact, it can also be harmful to your health and can hinder your progress towards your goals. Context is an important factor to consider when making food choices.
To begin, let’s define dichotomous-black and white-thinking so we’re all on the same page. Dr. Arnoud Arntz, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, defined dichotomous thinking in one of his articles as “the tendency to make extreme evaluations without nuances”. What this means is that this type of thinking leads people to categorize the choices they make for situations and problems they face into extreme, polar opposites. In our area of nutrition, those polar opposites would be “good” and “bad” food. You can see right away that there is no gray area when applying dichotomous thinking, which can pose a significant problem to our mental health and indirectly our physical health when trying to pursue a body composition goal.
When we box food into two extreme categories, we limit what we are “allowed” to eat, lowering the variety of food we consume. As we know, variety in our food choices will cover most of our bases in terms of vitamins and minerals we need daily.
I’m aware that a lot of clean eaters feel okay with the way they eat because their food choices are mostly nutrient-dense and will cover most of their bases as mentioned, however we are not robots. We develop cravings and inevitably give in to them when deprived of palatable foods for so long. Some people can hold out longer than others, but it happens nonetheless.
By the way, cravings are okay and perfectly normal to have; but if we have a specific goal we want to reach, we must put systems in place to allow for adequate satisfaction of those cravings without causing psychological distress. Hence, why I’m not a fan of clean eating.
Thanks to dichotomous thinking, the person probably feels pretty guilty and stressed out about eating an unclean or bad food because they cheated and broke their diet. Sounds like perfectionism, doesn’t it? That’s no coincidence, dichotomous thinking has been strongly associated with perfectionism. Since the person wasn’t perfect about their diet, they must now be perfectly off their diet, leading to a dangerous cycle of binge, feel bad, rigid training and clean eating, binge, repeat. It’s the extreme overcorrection either way that leads people to have major psychological distress and disordered eating behaviors. I only say these things because I’ve experienced it myself and know it runs rampant in the fitness industry through many conversations with peers and being on social media. What must be done then?
The solution to this problem is simply a shift in perspective and factoring context into your food selection process.
The Importance of Context
Context is a game-changer. It helps us frame situations and scenarios in which certain foods would be more effective or advantageous than other foods. Notice how I’m saying advantageous rather than good or bad. I say it that way because no food should be excluded from any particular situation unless you have an allergy or some other condition that is triggered by food. Some things will simply be better for completing the task at hand at that point in time than others.
For example, a great time to have an unclean or bad food is pre-workout or intra-workout. You’re going to require a lot of carbohydrates and you’re going to need them quickly. Having quinoa with tofu and vegetables is not going to provide the energy you need quickly enough. This is because the fiber from the quinoa and veggies will slow down digestion. You’ll also likely feel pretty full from the high protein content. What would give you energy quickly? A doughnut, candy, orange juice, etc! If you’re feeling sluggish, sweets and other sugary foods are good options to give you a little pick me up stim-free!
Now, I’m not saying eat candy every time you feel slightly lethargic. I’m narrowing it down exclusively to pre- and intra-workout contexts. Of course, most of our eating pattern should consist of whole foods with some leeway for food we simply enjoy. A good rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule where 20% of your intake (typically measured as calories) comes from anything you want whereas the 80% comes from whole, nutrient-dense food. This allows for some enjoyment while getting the nutrition you need to stay healthy and disease-free. From there, experiment and find what split works best for you to stay on track while minimizing stress.
To continue, I would not advocate those same options for someone who’s sitting in an office all day. Their activity is low, so they would benefit more from a meal that increases satiety and fullness. However, it’s totally fine to have a small treat if it helps them curb their craving and mitigate stress. What we’re trying to avoid is an all-out buffet for one where they eat everything in sight. Having small treats throughout the day/week is an effective option for some to manage cravings and keep the intake from treats potentially lower than from one enormous cheat meal.
The context of a situation, your lifestyle, and your goals, as opposed to the type and/or quality of food, should help determine your food choices. This will help you achieve better adherence to the diet, less psychological stress, and increased likelihood of actually reaching your goals.
One final word! As you decide what you enjoy eating as part of your 80/20 or whatever the split may be, don’t ascribe to one diet and demonize everything else because we have seen time and time again-particularly from the good guys at the ISSN-that the type of diet does not matter for body composition changes. Choose what you enjoy and can stick to and watch the gains happen!
- There’s no such thing as good or bad food. I hope I’ve drilled that into your mind by now. There are only contexts in which certain foods are going to be better choices than others.
- Categorizing food as good and bad is damaging to our psychological health. This can lead to extreme compensatory behaviors for “mistakes” or “cheating” as a result of perfectionism and dichotomous thinking.
- Find your personal balance of nutritious and delicious foods based on goals, lifestyle, and context. This will help you get where you want to be with significantly less stress than clean eating.
 Arntz, & Haaf. (2012). Social cognition in borderline personality disorder: Evidence for dichotomous thinking but no evidence for less complex attributions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50(11), 707-718.
 Egan, Piek, Dyck, & Rees. (2007). The role of dichotomous thinking and rigidity in perfectionism. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(8), 1813-1822.
 Aragon, A. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Wildman, R., Kleiner, S., Vandusseldorp, T., Taylor, L., . . . Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: Diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y