Note: This article may contain words which are triggering and uncomfortable.
A new language has emerged about food in our culture. Clean eating, diet, wellness, guilt free, and obesity, are a small selection of the words from this harmful language. What images and thoughts come up for you when you read these words?
The intention in using these words is to mess with our relationship with food. Using this language often works to sell products. The diet industry keeps a steady stream of these types of messages specifically designed to make us feel bad about our bodies.
Many of us believe these damaging messages will motivate us to eat better, work out more, and weigh ourselves more. But we need to challenge these words, because they have nothing to do with our health, and besides, they are not empowering women.
Using these types of words engenders a cycle that goes something like this: Eat clean soon becomes a list of foods you will never eat, such as your favorite cake; this leads to craving that cake; then eventually eating many pieces of cake; and feeling bad while questioning our willpower. Final step in cycle: Self-esteem and body image plummets. Start a new diet.
These kinds of cycles, whether dieting or focusing on weight, damage our relationship with our food and our bodies. They also lead to yo-yo dieting, which studies have shown to be harmful. That's exactly why this language has nothing to do with our health.
Most concerning, yo-yo dieting is a significant risk factor for post-menopausal breast cancer among women who gained and lost an average of 10 pounds as adults.
Here are 12 words to stop using to improve our relationship with food, because they interfere with the way we view our bodies.
Clean eating. Picture sparkling clean whole foods and you'll enjoy good health. First, let me just say that the world's healthiest foods are dirty. Grown in the ground, and lovingly covered with bacteria and dirt, vegetables and fruits are the keys to better health. Jokes aside, clean eating implies all other foods are somehow flawed and dirty, leading to tremendous guilt when we eat unclean foods. The term "clean" may have religious overtones as well, as if you are somehow impure if you indulge in unclean foods. Eat clean, and you will be pure and holy. Eat unclean, you will likely be unhealthy. This implies shameful behavior for your poor choices. So let's do away with this term and just Eat Food, removed from the moral overtones. Better term: I choose foods that make my body feel good and give me energy.
Diet. A diet based on only a goal of weight loss often leads to everything from restrictive eating to full on eating disorders. Diets completely remove us from the joy of eating, or listening to our body's needs. It distorts our relationship with both our bodies and food, because we stop understanding when we are hungry or satisfied. The list in our heads of what foods we can eat cuts into any form of food enjoyment. Diets in adolescence leads to higher weights as adults, and risk of serious eating disorders. Studies of a wide array of diets show nearly all fail, and lead to a disordered relationship with food. Better term: Ditch the diet.
Wellness. The word wellness has been co-opted by diet culture. As more and more of us realize diets are failing us, wellness arrives to save our butts. However, wellness is often just another diet in disguise, so don't be fooled. Better term: This feels good to my body.
BMI. BMI is a flawed measurement and doesn't apply to most of the population, including athletes and the elderly. We are obsessed with BMI, yet it does not offer any real data about the state of our health. It may be relevant in some cases, such as the dangers of underweight—which is more dangerous than being at a higher weight. But it is often used by insurance companies (who were the first the use this type of measurement) to determine your health and charge you accordingly. Better terms: Use my health markers, such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
Obesity. The term obesity is a medical term, and was never meant to describe people. It has been used to evoke shame among people of larger sizes, does not motivate meaningful health changes, and leads to weight stigma. Weight stigma, in turn, leads to people avoiding medical checkups and necessary lab tests. Weight stigma has been shown to lead to less mammograms, and worse diagnoses for cancer. Better term: People of higher weight.
Lean and mean. This term implies people of smaller sizes are more powerful, and conversely, people of higher weights are lazy and short on willpower. It's shameful and mean. Better term: The size my body is meant to be.
Junk food. Let's put it in context. I often tell my students, what's junk food to you, is nourishment for someone else. For families whose refrigerators are empty of food, this so-called junk food provides necessary calories to allow their children to grow. These types of quick energy foods are given out of love and care for their families. Better term: Nourishment has many forms.
Fat. Fat is often hurled as a curse word, meant to shame and scare someone into good health. Fat is fat. It's a descriptor of a type of tissue. It's necessary to protect your organs, for brain development, and to produce hormones. We don't know at what point it may become detrimental to our health, and some of it is genetically determined. In any case, fat is fat. Better term: Fat (without the shame).
Guilt free food. See Number 1, Clean eating and its associated moral overtones.
Cancer prevention. This term is close to my heart, as I work with breast cancer thrivers. Prevention, to many thrivers, implies blame. If you didn't prevent your cancer, you did something to cause it. That's a terrible concept, as cancer is complex. A cancer diagnosis can lead to food fears and trigger eating disorders. Better term: A more accurate term is risk reduction.
"Good" (about eating). One can't be good about eating, because that implies we are only good when we choose the correct foods. So, what happens when we're bad? Are we bad because we had birthday cake? There are no good or bad foods or good and bad ways of eating. There is just eating. Once we strip foods of these descriptors, we're free to explore which foods feel right in our bodies. Better term: I enjoy all foods.
This stuff will kill or cure you. No one food has the power to do that. Let's say we're talking about meat and cancer risk. Meat is a risk factor, but the amount matters. Conversely, no one food can cure you of anything. Better term: Food is nourishment.
Let's strip these 12 words of power. We need to get back to trusting our bodies and listening to our body's language. We need to use words that comfort us and help us to enjoy all foods once again. Words that promote a comfortable ease with our bodies and their various shapes and sizes, such as nourish, self-care, grateful, stable blood sugar, or reduce risk of chronic disease and cancer.
Let's find the language that empowers us to explore all foods, discover what makes us feel good, be confident about our food choices, and seek a wide array of foods to taste and discover.
Only the words which repair our relationship with food and view our bodies positively, are ultimately good for our health.
Subscribe! Get continuous updates on nutrition for breast cancer thrivers. Click the button at top of page, and you'll be directed to the subscribe link.