Our Unhealthy Obsession With Superfoods

Jun 13, 2018

I have a laundry list of foods that I know I’m “supposed to” eat because they’re “good for me” but that I just can’t bring myself to actually eat. Many of these are so-called “superfoods,” a clever marketing term for foods rich in nutrients that are supposed to be beneficial for our health and wellbeing, but are leading people to unhealthy obsession.

My list includes things like:

  • Goji berries (gross except hidden in smoothies)
  • Spirulina (always disgusting)
  • Super dark chocolate (I can’t get behind the bitterness)
  • Matcha (I wanted to like this, but it just tastes like grass to me)
  • Beets (nope)
  • Coconut (I like coconut milk, but not the coconut itself)
  • Eggplant (so beautiful, yet so unfortunate tasting)
  • Prunes (I. Just. Can’t.)

Obviously these are my personal experiences with these foods that not everyone shares, but you get the point.

I have done a lot of work to improve my relationship with food such that I don’t feel much guilt anymore for not choosing to eat many of society’s current “holy grail” foods, but I hear from people all the time that struggle to let go of the messages of “should” and “have to” around food.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to grumpily gulp down (often expensive) superfoods that they don’t even like or get any satisfaction from. Some people are even forcing themselves to eat these foods when they don’t make them feel good. Why do these supposed superfoods hold this kind of power over us?

A green smoothie in a mason jar next to a bowl filled with green kale

In Our Current Cult of “Wellness,” Superfoods and Other Health Foods Are Seen as Non-Negotiable

The underlying messages behind the “wellness” culture we’re living in now are “Do X and you’ll live a longer, healthier life” and “Do Y and you will DIE.” If that sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. In particular, these messages tend to be seen around food and exercise.

Never mind how you’ll sometimes hear both messages about the same food. Remember this past year’s coconut oil controversy? Or the frequent conflicting headlines that come out about red wine and alcohol in general?

And it’s not just self-identified health and wellness social media influencers and gurus (*cough cough* Gwyneth Paltrow *cough*) who are perpetuating these black and white messages about food. Major news organizations are completely caught up in the wellness frenzy, too. Here are some headlines about food from just the last few months:

  • “The Ascension of Cauliflower” (The New York Times)
  • “Is Fish the Food of Love, and Babies?” (The New York Times)
  • “It seems like every fruit and vegetable is being snack-ified. But are these chips healthy?” (The Washington Post)
  • “‘Guilt-free’ foods are a lie” (The Washington Post)
  • “The Great Egg Debate: Are They Healthy or Not?” (The Wall Street Journal)

As a culture, we have become so obsessed with the perceived power of individual ingredients and foods to act as our elixir of life that we are losing the bigger picture. Our insistence on categorizing foods as “good” and “bad,” “clean” and “dirty,” or “safe” and “forbidden,” is leading to a mental health crisis around the experience of eating food.

We’ve been sold the idea that if we’re not purchasing and eating all the superfoods, filling our grocery carts with as much organic kale as they can hold, and abstaining from things that are fried, processed, or use white sugar and white flour, we are not doing enough for our “health” and thus we are bad people.

Even if we ignore for the moment that our society’s current operating definition of health is a narrow one that is steeped in classism, sizeism, and ableism, this concept is ludicrous. The foods we eat do not determine the kind of people we are. While what we eat can have an effect on our physical health, we have way less control over our physical health than the media would like us to believe. I can choke down all the cauliflower bread, green juice, and turmeric capsules in the world, but that doesn’t change the fact that I could still get diagnosed with cancer due to something I was exposed to as a baby or simply die in a car accident tomorrow.

Various superfoods arranged on silver spoons

Food Is So Much More Than a Way to Attempt to Control Our Health and Weight

I refuse to buy into the “food is fuel” mentality that has become so pervasive. Yes, on a cellular level we need food to keep us alive and keep our bodies functioning. Yes, the foods we eat can have an effect our physical health and body size. But food is so much more than that. Food can be political, historical, cultural, pleasurable, and memorable. It can create community and cultivate fun. Food goes far beyond what we can glean from a nutrition label.

Further, our physical health isn’t the only piece of our health that matters. Our mental health, social health, and fiscal health are important, too. So to say that a piece of pizza is “unhealthy” or “bad” ignores things like what kinds of foods a person can afford, what kinds of foods are available at gatherings of friends and family, and what kinds of foods taste good to an individual and bring them joy.

Sure, a donut doesn’t have the antioxidants you can find in a handful of raspberries, and eating fried foods isn’t recommended to do every single meal, but that doesn’t make the donut valueless. And if you find that eating a donut tastes delicious and makes you happy, then you shouldn’t have to feel like a moral failure for choosing to eat one, two, or a dozen of them.

When we start to fear some foods and put other foods on a pedestal, it often gives us tunnel vision and takes away so much of the joy that food can give us. When we become obsessed with eating only the “right” foods and restricting ourselves from the foods we really want, we end up feeling guilty and ashamed when we run out of willpower and inevitably eat the foods we’ve been told are “bad.” This can lead to a cycle of binging and restricting and other harmful forms of disordered eating.

Eat Foods That Taste Good and Make You Feel Good, and Screw the Rest

Eating well is more simple than you might think. Build the bulk of your diet around foods that satisfy you and foods that make you feel good. If you only eat pizza and donuts, it will definitely taste good for a while, but it won’t be long until you don’t feel very good. And if you only eat limp salads and lean chicken breasts, never allowing yourself to have foods like pizza and donuts, you won’t experience satisfaction from your food, and eventually you won’t feel good either.

Look, if kale tastes like dirt to you, don’t eat kale. If the thought of eating chia seed pudding for breakfast makes you want to vomit, then stop buying chia seeds. Leave the extremists behind and start carving a middle ground shelter for yourself in the food wars. 

Experiment with different kinds and preparations of food so you know what satisfies your palate and what doesn’t. Try eating different amounts of protein, fruits and veggies, sugar, etc. so you can get a better sense of how you feel when you eat certain things. Keep an eye on your energy, cravings, hunger, and fullness, and you’ll get a sense of how the foods you’re eating are serving you. If you’re not feeling good or if you’re not feeling satisfied, make some tweaks and pay attention to how things change. Need some help? I work with clients on figuring this stuff out about food all the time.

Eat superfoods if you actually like them, but avoid going down the path of an unhealthy obsession with them. Because honestly, if shots of wheatgrass are the difference between living and dying, then just bury me in a pile of candy now so I can go down with a smile on my face.

A plus-size woman standing at her counter and eating a meal of superfoods

[If you’re curious if intuitive eating is right for you, I created a short quiz you can take to find out! This FREE download will tell you more about what intuitive eating is, help you determine if it might work for you, and give you some simple and effective strategies for beginning to change your relationship with food. Get my FREE Intuitive Eating Quiz & Quickstart Guide HERE.]

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