Society Still Has a Pretty Messed up Way of Talking About ‘Healthy’ Eating—Here’s Why That Matters

Photo: Stocksy Susan Brooks-Dammann
When I first started writing about food several years ago, I didn’t think twice about referring to mac and cheese as an “indulgence” or using the term “clean eating.” I tried to steer clear of talk about calorie counting, weight, or fad diets (so progressive, I thought!), but my tone in some ways still implied that certain styles of eating were better than others.

I’ve since learned that healthy eating looks different for everybody. A promising new study from June even backs this up, finding that 60 percent of how a person's body reacts to food is completely unrelated to their DNA. Our bodies all have slightly different needs, and while some things are objectively true (everyone could stand to eat some more vegetables!), there's variation in the details. Some people might swear by the keto diet for revved-up energy levels and mental clarity, for example, while others might say the same about the Paleo diet or veganism.

So why do so many of us—writers, nutrition experts, and researchers included—talk about food choices in very, well, judgmental ways? In the wellness world we may have moved on from praising “bikini bodies” and “cleansing,” but the words we choose to talk about healthy food so often imply (or scream outright) that certain ways of eating are inherently good and others are bad.

The morality of food choices goes back a long way

Nutrition is a relatively young science. The first government food guide, Farmer’s Bulletin, was published in 1894, and while there was talk of calories and nutrients, the focus was really on making sure people were eating enough. It wasn’t until 1977 that the USDA published guidelines centered on not eating too much in response to growing rates of obesity.

While the priorities of nutritional recommendations have changed in the last century, “the idea that some foods are your friends and some foods are your enemy is sort of eternal,” says Megan Elias, food historian and associate professor of gastronomy at Boston University. “It goes back as far as we know about food.”

"Food is sort of religious. Either there's a halo over it, or it's sinful." —Margaret Ruch, RD

Indeed, “the idea that what we eat has an effect on our behavior, our character, goes back to the beginnings of human history, and can be explained by the fact that what we eat literally becomes part of our body,” writes medieval scholar Melissa Weiss Adamson in the book Food in Medieval Times. Adamson says that the association of food with morality in Western culture is as old as the Old Testament, in which “certain animals are declared unclean,” and thus eating them would taint our bodies spiritually and literally—hence the kibosh on foods like pork and shellfish. Likewise, the association between overeating and guilt is as old as the fourth century, when Saint Jerome spread the idea that “a stomach filled with too much food and wine leads to lechery.”

Fast forward a few centuries, and in the 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg, a medical doctor and devout member of the Seventh-Day Adventist church, created Corn Flakes because he believed that highly seasoned and sugary foods stimulated sex organs and led to the sinful desire for sex and masturbation. Bland foods, he said, were an antidote to this. (Ultimately, his younger brother cut ties from John Harvey, added sugar and salt to the bland flakes, and started what we know as the Kellogg Company.)

Today, we know better than to think sugar will automatically make you want to whip out your vibrator, but we still have a puritanical interpretation of food and nutrition. “Food [is] sort of religious,” says Margaret Ruch, a registered dietitian in Asheville, North Carolina. “Either there’s a halo over it, or it’s sinful.” This is seen everywhere in food marketing—from the low-calorie ice cream brand Halo Top that literally gave itself an angelic name to the description of certain desserts as “sinfully delicious.”

We still attach moral implications to food choices

Those moralistic views are tied up very tightly with diet culture, which Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and host of the Food Psych podcast, defines as a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means to achieving higher status, demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, and oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health.” Diet culture is both explicit and implicit, says Amee Severson, a registered dietitian in Bellingham, Washington. It’s explicit in diet ads and our obsession with weight loss “success” stories. But it’s implicit in the language we use to talk about food.

A subtle example of this is referring to certain foods as “treats” or “indulgences," something I used to do in my own writing. “There's a moral connotation here that these foods are something that you still shouldn't have often,” says Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care.  Same with calling a food “good” or “bad” outright. This kind of messaging can make the person who eats the food feel like they’re bad, too, Ruch says. “When you eat the ['bad'] food, you think of yourself as an unhealthy person, and might internalize the idea that you’re not caring for yourself,” she says.

"Specific foods don’t make up our health. Our health is made up of so much more than just the food we eat, but especially more than just one meal, or one food." —Margaret Ruch, RD

Ruch says there's a similar issue with "cheat" days and "cheat" meals: “It always makes me think, ‘Who are you cheating on? What are you cheating on?'" she says. Another seemingly-innocent offender: “Clean” eating. Ruch hates the term because it’s so vague—there’s no singular definition of what makes a food clean, and eating “clean” implies that other ways of eating are “dirty,” and thus wrong or impure.

This all might seem like a playful use of language, but this kind of judgement-value messaging can blow the importance of single food choices out of proportion. “Specific foods don’t make up our health. Our health is made up of so much more than just the food we eat, but especially more than just one meal, or one food,” Ruch says.

Making people feel like they need to look a certain way, eat only some foods and not others, or believe that they’re bad people for being a certain size or weight can lead to obsessively tracking food, reading nutrition labels, and monitoring your portions, Severson adds. “These things are all stressors,” Severson says. “They build up to create this distrust of and disconnection from how your body actually feels.” That has larger potential consequences for your overall health: The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) lists a “history of dieting” as a major risk factor for developing an eating disorder.

How can we break this cycle?

The most important thing we can do is to put our daily food choices in perspective. Severson points out that, unless you have an allergy or intolerance, it’s rare that just one food has an outsized impact on how anyone feels in a given moment. Sleep, stress, relationships, activity levels, and existing health conditions—to name a few—all play a role in how we feel.

“It’s hard to completely separate food and morality,” Severson says—so don’t expect to change your thinking overnight. It’s a process that involves questioning and challenging your own thoughts. If you find yourself thinking you “shouldn’t” eat something, ask yourself why. Is it because you think the food is “bad” (even though you’re craving it), or because you truly just don’t feel like eating it? If it’s the former, tune out that thought and eat the food, then pay attention to how it makes you feel. “If something isn’t good for you, your body will tell you,” Severson says. It takes work, but Severson says that with practice, you’ll be able to tune out all the moral language around food and instead trust your own judgement.

Here's what I've ultimately learned in all of my years of being a healthy food writer: It's difficult enough to follow the conflicting advice and studies, trending eating plans, and new "it" superfoods. There's no need to add judgement and self-blame to the mix. That's why Well+Good is committed to changing how we talk about nutrition to make sure no one feels shamed or embarrassed by their food choices, so we banned sketchy phrases like "clean eating," "guilt-free," and "indulgence" phrases from our style guide. I hope you'll join us in this mission, too.

Healthy eating is confusing—check out the most commonly-asked food questions nutritionists hear all the time. And here's how one food writer enjoys food despite "knowing too much" about nutrition.

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