Written by: Cara Anselmo
"I was good all day, but then I ate a whole plate of French fries.”
"If you eat clean all week, you deserve a cheat meal on the weekend."
“Our chips are zero-carb and guilt-free!”
Statements like these may be commonplace, but are they accurate or helpful? How do they make us feel? And what are their broader implications in a world that’s already hyper-focused on “wellness” but not necessarily real well-being?
The following 5 words are often used to describe how we eat, but I’d argue they aren’t really about food or nutrition at all.
Good. Foods don't have morals. Unless we want to say “this vanilla ice cream is sooo good,” or “tomatoes are good in August,” let’s nix this word when describing food. Even more important, let’s not use it to describe ourselves based on what we eat. You can be a good person, a good listener, a good spouse, a good anything, no matter what you ate or didn't eat today.
Bad. Same as “good,” but the dark side. Some foods might not be whole grain or contain omega 3 fats, but that doesn’t make them bad. We can avoid attaching dichotomous labels to foods (and ourselves and other people). Maybe some foods are less nutrient-rich, or more caloric, or less filling. But bad? No. They’re not cartoon villains. And eating them doesn’t make you one, either.
Clean. The best way to eat “clean" is to rinse fruits and vegetables under running water and wash your hands. Other interpretations of “clean” eating are silly at best, puritanical and hurtful at worst.
Cheat. More moralizing. "Cheating" is what billionaires do with taxes, not what you’re doing when you eat a cookie.
Guilt-free. If there are “guilt-free” foods, what’s the opposite? Foods that are guilty? Even if those crackers contain added sugar, they weren’t tried and convicted of a felony. Foods that make you feel guilty? How I wish the act of eating any food never elicited guilt or shame, in anyone.
We live in a culture that contributes to lots of negative feelings around diet. When these kinds of words are used to describe food – or ourselves, with regard to food – they can perpetuate and magnify such feelings. These may include shame around eating, distrust of our bodies, and the ongoing pain and self-recrimination that are born of striving for an idealized “perfection” that is impossible to attain.
Misusing language around diet can also blind us to the actual complex and nuanced science of nutrition. Very rarely is nutrition science “black and white” or as simple as social media, influencers, celebrities, and our peers often make it out to be. Does assigning foods simplistic labels actually make us healthier? Less at risk for disease? Nope. You can eat “clean” and still develop cancer. You can be “good” and still have high cholesterol. There’s a term, orthorexia, that defines a disordered eating pattern in which an individual focuses on “healthy” eating – in a way that is anything but – to the point of deep mental distress and physical harm including malnutrition.
Finally, using certain language around diet can rob us of the pure joy of eating and sharing delicious food. And as a woman, friend, daughter, dietitian, educator, and social being, I say, life’s too short for that.
Please don’t beat yourself up if you’ve used these 5 words in the context of food and nutrition. They’ve become familiar for many of us, and habits are hard to break. Just consider this an invitation to check in. Language is an important tool that each of us wields when we talk or write with friends, family, strangers, and our own selves. Words matter. Small changes matter.
Let’s use words wisely and with care. In doing so, we can start to identify oppressive and unrealistic cultural standards. Re-define what “healthy eating” means. Find self-worth in places that go beyond the meal in front of us. Be more inclusive, more compassionate. Support each other as women, instead of tearing each other down. And honor both the science of nutrition and the sheer pleasure and humanity in eating.
Meet the Author
Cara has more than 15 years' experience as a clinical nutritionist in outpatient settings, working mostly with women.
Nutrition is integral to women's health and self-care, but misinformation on the topic abounds in social and lay media. My goal is to help individuals discern how to best nourish themselves with compassion and evidence-based recommendations, while supporting their physical, mental, and financial health.