Our Unhealthy Obsession With Superfoods

Jun 13, 2018

There’s 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 well-being, but often lead people to unhealthy obsession.

My personal “NO! GOD! NO! GOD, PLEASE, NO!” 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.)
  • Quinoa (I had convinced myself I liked it for years, and now I can’t stand it)

I have done the deep work to improve my relationship with food so that I don’t feel guilty anymore when I choose not to eat “holy grail” foods of the moment. But I hear from people all the time that they’re struggling to let go of “shoulds” and “have tos” around food.

There are so many people out there grumpily gulping down superfoods for the supposed benefits, even though they don’t enjoy them. Why do these foods hold so much 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 diet and wellness culture we’re living in 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 accompany food and exercise beliefs.

Never mind how you’ll sometimes hear both messages about the same food. Remember the 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 influencers and gurus (*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.

Various superfoods arranged on silver spoons

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

While food is fuel and what we eat can have an effect on our 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 pizza crust, 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 have a genetic predisposition for an autoimmune disease.

Yes, on a cellular level we need food to keep us alive and keep our bodies functioning. But food is so much more than that! Food can be political, historical, cultural, pleasurable, and memorable. It can create community and provide joy. Food goes far beyond what we can glean from a nutrition label.

Sure, a donut doesn’t have the antioxidants you can find in a handful of raspberries, 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 nauseous, then stop buying chia seeds. No single food has the power to change your health and well-being or is worth being miserable for.

Experiment with different kinds of food and preparations so you know what satisfies your palate and what doesn’t. Try eating varying amounts of protein, fruits and veggies, sugar, etc. so you can get a better sense of what feels balanced for you. If you tune into your energy levels, cravings, hunger, and fullness, you’ll get a better sense of how the foods you’re eating are serving you.

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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