If There Are No Bad Foods, Why Manage Sweets?

I once read a really interesting critique of one of my favorite books. The book takes the same “no good/bad foods” approach, that I do, which is one of the many reasons I love it. It also talks about ways to manage sweet stuff, and how to find a moderate balance with it (again, very much like my own philosophy). The critique said that the book contradicts itself by saying we shouldn’t consider any foods to be “bad”, but should also restrict “fun foods” like sweets/treats. But why manage sweets? That seems to imply that those fun foods are bad. This question really stuck with me.

It does, at first, sound pretty contradictory, doesn’t it? If there are no “bad” foods, why can’t we just eat cake all day?

Well, first off, you CAN, if you want to.

To give a more thorough answer though, I think it comes down to the way in which we view the foods and the reasons we instill boundaries on anything.

Learn how to manage sweets without dieting. There are no bad foods. Everything in moderation, and every food can fit!

How we view the foods: Two spectrums


Foods themselves are not good or bad. Every single thing we eat can be looked at as a small part of the overall picture that is our eating pattern (I try very hard to not call the general way in which we eat, a “diet”).

I like to think of things in terms of two spectrums:


Spectrum 1:

The first spectrum is the one on which a single food rests. The spectrum goes from “Less nutritious” to “More nutritious.”

Foods themselves are not good or bad, but they DO differ in their nutritional impact. Some foods are full of healthy vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other health-promoting components. Others have very little of that nutritious stuff in addition to their calories (but they tend to taste pretty darn good!). Every single food falls somewhere on the spectrum between more nutritious and less nutritious.


Being a less nutritious food doesn’t mean the food is “bad.” It’s completely okay to include less nutritious foods into our eating pattern! How much you include is 100% up to you. And this is where the second spectrum comes into play.

Spectrum 2: 

The second spectrum is where our general eating pattern falls. The scale here is still “Less nutritious” to “More nutritious.”

If we were to look at every food we ate over the course of a week or a month, we’d see that the grand total of all those things falls somewhere on this spectrum. What’s cool about thinking about it this way, is that we start to realize that each individual food has a very small impact on the bigger picture.

No single food moves us up or down this second spectrum all that much. One brownie, or ice cream cone, or Twinkie, or cheesecake slice, is not going to cause us to suddenly be an overall unhealthy or less nutritious person. All of these things can be included into our eating pattern. We have to keep our focus on the big picture.

Everyone will have a different place on the spectrum that feels right to them. Some people will want to include more “less nutritious” foods than others. And that doesn’t make them “bad” or make their choices “bad.” There is no judgment here.

If your health is something you value as being important to you (and I’m assuming it is if you’re reading this blog), then when you look at that big picture, all you need to ask yourself is: “Does MOST of my eating fall on the “more nutritious” side of the spectrum?”

If so, then you’re doing great! Like I said, one brownie or piece of cake isn’t going to suddenly turn you into an unhealthy person. It’s OKAY!

If you find that the majority of your eating is on the “less nutritious” side, that’s okay too. There is still nothing bad or wrong with this. You are an adult who is able to do whatever you like. You can decide to try to shift closer to the “more nutritious” side of the spectrum if you want to, or not. It’s absolutely up to you. I believe that the more nutritious side has benefits over the less nutritious side. But it is not my place to make that decision for you. As the kids say these days: “You do you!”

So why manage sweets?

If we want to have an overall eating pattern that falls on the “more nutritious” side of the spectrum, then we can’t just eat cake all day. Cake may not be bad, but it still doesn’t promote health the way other foods do. Facts are still facts, it’s the judgment of those facts that we want to avoid. Because thinking a food is bad only serves to instill a sense of guilt about enjoying it.

So we do with sweets what we do with so many other things in life: we set boundaries.

Think about all the other boundaries we set in life as parents:

We let our kids run, but we don’t let them run into the street.

We let our kids play outside, but only where we can see them.

We let our kids color, but we don’t let them color on the walls.

In these examples, running, playing, and coloring are all great and enjoyable things, but they have boundaries. There comes a point when the risk/benefit ratio is no longer in our favor.

Enjoying sweets is the same way, both for them, and for us. They’re enjoyable to eat, and totally okay to eat within certain limits or boundaries.

Kids will be kids, and when it come to sweets, they tend to want them every time they see them. They see a cookie, and they WANT the cookie! Our inner child is the same way though, isn’t it? When my clients talk about having difficulty managing sweets, you’d be surprised how many describe it as having an impatient inner toddler who just wants the sweet NOW!

But if we don’t want our kids (or ourselves) to gobble every cookie we see, or eat a candy bar every time we go through the checkout line, then we have to set some boundaries somewhere. With clients, we call this the Wise Parent approach, and it works the same way with kids or ourselves.

What it boils down to, is that we need the ability to say “no” without it being because the food is “bad.” No bad foods! Manage sweets in a judgment free way :)

So how does this look in practice?

First, it’s a great idea to decide what a reasonable approach to sweets looks like in your house. This will differ for every family. Some families like to include dessert either with or after dinner a few times a week. Some families prefer to keep sweets to weekends and special occasions. Others like to include a small portion every day. Figure out what works for you and your family first.

Maryann Jacobsen calls this a “Flexible Goodies Policy” in her book How to Raise A Mindful Eater (here’s my review if you’re interested). She does a wonderful job of discussing this if you want to read more!

Once you decide on your “policy,” stick to it. This is your boundary, and also your reason for saying ‘no’ to things outside the policy.

One idea that I find really helpful is to tell them the next time they WILL get a sweet when you’re saying no to the current one. Kids have a way of thinking “no” is a blanket term, or that by not having it right now, they won’t get it again soon. So help them (and yourself when you’re having a craving) move past the immediate disappointment of not getting it right this very moment, by reminding them that they will have something similar soon.

Some examples:

“I know you want a cookie now sweetie, but we’re having lunch in a little while and I don’t want you to spoil your appetite. We can have dessert after dinner tonight instead.”

“We already had a cupcake at the party this afternoon, so we’re not going to have ice cream after dinner tonight too. Maybe we can go out for ice cream this weekend though.”

“You really want more candy, but we’ve had several pieces already today. We’ll put the rest away for now and we can have some more tomorrow.”

Notice how there is no mention of the food being “bad.” There is just the general message that we don’t want to have this type of food as a big piece of our eating pattern. (If you want a few more ideas for how to word things to your kids, including some ideas that pertain to areas other than sweets, check out Jill Castle’s post: How to say no {nicely} to your child’s food requests.)

This works for ourselves too of course. If I get a hankering for ice cream in the middle of the day, and I don’t want to spoil my appetite for dinner, I tell myself that I can have it after dinner if I still want it then. Sometimes the urge passes, and sometimes not. No big deal either way.

Wrapping Up

Focus on providing lots of yummy nutritious options in general meals, and then don’t worry too much about including some less nutritious stuff into the mix periodically too. Figure out how much works for you and your family, and stick to that. Keep the second spectrum of your overall eating pattern in mind, rather than focusing on any one particular food.

Does this idea of “no bad foods” kind of blow your mind a bit? It’s been drilled into us forever that we should avoid certain foods if we want to be healthy. This food fear does us a huge disservice though! If you’re interested in breaking free from the food fear and the dieting mindset, check out my Diet Mindset Makeover course. I bet it’ll be right up your alley 🙂

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