When we think of food labels, what most often comes to mind is a nutritional label that enables us to easily view information about the food we may be purchasing or consuming.
But what about other labels we place on food, as individuals or societally? Labels such as “good,” “bad,” “unhealthy,” and trending currently, “clean.” These labels we psychologically place on food hold an incredible amount of power, including how these foods are actually digested and processed within our body.
The concept of cleaning eating is touted as healthy. Perhaps you’ve seen the phrase “eat clean & train dirty” scrolling through social media. Search for clean eating recipes and you’ll have an abundance to choose from, although they all have various definitions of what “clean” means.
By placing a label of “clean” to foods or an entire way of eating, it implies that if some foods are labeled in this manner, then other foods outside of that eating regimen are “dirty”. Whether it’s actually stated that unacceptable foods are “dirty” does not matter, because once foods are labeled as clean, or good, or acceptable, psychologically, we have labeled foods outside of those groupings as dirty, bad, and unacceptable. Further, whenanyfood is labeled, our body and our mind is affected negatively.
“What we have failed to realize by labeling foods is that a major reason why we continue to have issues with food is because of the labels we put on them in the first place.”Jessica Smith
Our nervous system is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), a division of the autonomic nervous system. Perhaps you’ve heard of the sympathetic nervous system as our “fight, flight, or freeze response.” Having this nervous system activated can be lifesaving. In the event of an emergency, we are grateful that our sympathetic nervous system is there to force us into action or inaction, depending upon the situation. Some reactions of the body when this nervous system is activated include increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and a complete shut down or massive decrease in proper digestive functioning. In our competitive society, most of us are functioning with this nervous system activated most of the day, if not the entire day, even while we’re at rest if we don’t get proper sleep.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as our “rest and digest mode.” The parasympathetic nervous system is activated when we are at rest and completely relaxed. One way in which the parasympathetic nervous system can be activated is by practicing deep breathing techniques, in which the chest is still and only the belly is inflating and deflating on the inhales and exhales. Perhaps you’ve been in a yoga class and deep breaths are taught. The reason for this is to activate one’s parasympathetic nervous system. Some bodily functions that are activated in a parasympathetic nervous system state include decreased blood pressure, and a properly working digestive system.
So – what does this have to do with how we label foods? When we label foods as “clean,” and therefore label other foods as “unclean,” we will have a physiological stress reaction to foods, which triggers an activation of our sympathetic nervous system, and results in our digestive system not functioning properly. This is not optional – if we are labeling foods as acceptable and unacceptable, psychologically and physiologically, our bodies will react in kind.
What we have failed to realize by labeling foods is that a major reason why we continue to have issues with food is because of the labels we put on them in the first place. The body responds to being in a state of physiologic stress by decreasing one’s ability to lose weight, burn fat, build muscle, regulate appetite, access the executive decision-making function of the brain, and heal disease. It is only when we are able to release psychological labels from all foods (unless of course you have a food allergy), that we will be able to heal our relationship with food and with our body.
When you reach for a pint of ice cream, what emotions come up for you? What changes in your physical body? If ice cream is considered a forbidden food, perhaps saliva is activated within your mouth, or maybe your heart rate slightly quickens, all in anticipation of enjoying an illicit sugary, creamy mouthful of butter pecan. However, when all foods become available to us without labels, we can learn to choose foods and eat from a place of activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Eating, chewing, digesting in a relaxed state. In harmony with any food we place in our body.
The diet industry has told us to view our body in two separate parts: our mind separate from our body beneath. By continuing to place labels on food as acceptable or unacceptable to consume, we continue to feed into the belief that if only we had more willpower, if only we were stronger, if only we were more disciplined, then we would be lovable. Then we would be worthy. Then we would be enough. It’s not the foods we consume that define us, it’s the messaging we choose to consume that empowers us to see how amazing we truly are, in this very moment. – JS
Jessica’s personal journey towards recovery from an eating disorder and body dysmorphia have inspired her to share the power of mindfulness, body positivity, and self-care in healing negative body image. Jessica holds a degree in Behavioral Science and is a 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT). She is a practicing Vedic Yoga Thai Bodyworker and passionate essential oil advocate. She is currently a Mind, Body, Eating Coach in-training at The Institute for the Psychology of Eating. You can connect with her via her website at www.embodied-collective.com, and on Instagram at @embodied.collective.