This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.
Whether we are talking about politics, social issues, or simply communicating with others, we know that the language we choose will have a significant effect on the message we are giving.
The language we use around food is no different, but it might not something you’ve ever even thought about – how many times have you referred to chocolate as a ‘guilty pleasure’ or told your friends about your New Year’s resolution to ‘eat clean’?
The messaging and moral value we attach to food through language can have a massive impact on our relationship with food (without us even realising it!).
This article will explore the way diet culture seeps into our everyday lives through language and how it can influence our food choices.
The Language of Diet Culture
Diet culture is the culture surrounding dieting and pursuing weight loss that puts the thin beauty ideal on a pedestal.
We see these messages plastered on our food packaging, shoved in our faces through advertising, and often creeping up in general chit-chat. Buzzwords like ‘guilt-free’ or ‘clean’ are cleverly used in marketing, leading us to believe that eating is something that we should feel guilty about (it isn’t).
Let’s look at some examples.
The term ‘clean eating’ feels like the epitome of diet culture. On the surface it appears to be all about living a healthy lifestyle, but in reality it’s shrouded in judgement, rigidity and deprivation.
While the phrase may have begun with good intentions – eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains – it has erred on the side of developing into an unhealthy obsession with minimally processed foods, that can lead to a very restrictive diet.
Not only does the term serve as another platform for food-shaming, but like so many other aspects of diet culture, it’s elitist. It completely disregards the accessibility (in terms of time and money) of what it takes to meet the ‘clean eating’ criteria.
Using the word ‘clean’ in the context of food also implies that some foods are ‘dirty’ or ‘unhygienic’, which is not the case (unless they are actually dirty).
The term ‘empty calories’ is often synonymous with foods high in sugar and/or fat, such as cake, doughnuts, cookies, pizza, and so on. But can calories really be empty?
No calorie is devoid of all nutrients because, at the end of the day a calorie will always provide us with energy.
Sure, some calories are less nutritious than others and we wouldn’t want them to make up the majority of our diets, but they still serve a purpose.
Consider a slice of cake: it may not be as nutrient-dense as a piece of broccoli, but it still provides us with some fat and carbohydrates – and beyond that, it provides us with pleasure. Eating is about much more than simply consuming as many nutrients as possible.
A stroll down a supermarket aisle will reveal a plethora of ‘skinny’ products. From skinny popcorn to skinny ice cream, food marketers love to use this phrase to make you feel inferior for opting for the regular version.
This is essentially another word for ‘diet,’ but packaged in a less ‘diet-y’ way at first glance.
However, associating the term ‘skinny’ with certain foods implies that one, skinny is what we should strive for, and two, eating this food product will help us get there. Neither of which are true.
‘Good’ or ‘Bad’
The concept of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context of our food choices implies that food has the ability to influence our moral principles. You are not suddenly ‘good’ for ordering the low calorie salad with dressing on the side instead of a bowl of pasta, nor are you ‘bad’ for eating chocolate biscuits.
Other common food language steeped in diet culture that assigns moral value to food includes:
- Guilty pleasure – eating should never be associated with feelings of guilt
- Junk food – junk is defined as something that is of no use, value or of low quality, so this is yet another way of assigning moral value to food
- Cheat meals – cheating is bad and would normally mean you’re breaking some sort of rule. When you eat food, who are you cheating? Which rules are you breaking?
- Treat – this is one that’s used commonly, but it’s still a very loaded term as it contributes to creating a hierarchy of foods
- Detox – usually branded as a shortcut to fix our body’s problems, but that’s what our liver and kidneys are for!
What Does Research Say About Food Language?
All of this may seem nuanced, but language matters. It matters because it has the power to shape our food choices, feelings, and attitudes towards food.
There’s plenty of evidence that language influences our emotions (1), and there is also evidence that associating foods with guilt can harm our relationship with food.
For example, one study looking at the outcomes of participants who associated chocolate cake with either ‘guilt’ or ‘celebration’ discovered that those who associated the cake with guilt felt less control and had a less positive attitude toward eating healthily than those who associated the cake with celebration (2).
In addition to this, the way we speak about food may also have an impact on children’s relationship with food and their body if we are using this type of black and white language around them.
Children have a natural tendency to imitate their parents or caregivers, making them highly influential role models for shaping their child’s behaviour, including their eating behaviours.
One study found that early restrictive/critical eating messages from caregivers were positively associated with external shame, inflexible eating and overvaluation of body weight and shape in children (3).
How to Talk About Food?
The best way to talk about food is to remain as neutral as possible. Being neutral about food isn’t the same as saying that all foods have the same nutrition, it’s about putting all foods on a level playing field by removing the added moral value that comes with diet culture language.
It can be difficult to shift your language from something that’s been so ingrained into our everyday conversations, but the easiest way is to simply start calling foods by what they are, e.g. ‘pizza’, ‘carrots’ ‘cake’, ‘broccoli’ etc. instead of categorising them into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’.
It’s also worth thinking about other ways you can describe foods in a non-diet way, for example, ‘satisfying’, ‘pleasurable’, or ‘delicious’ instead of ‘naughty’ or ‘guilty pleasure’. It can take time to change these habits, but the first step is to become aware of the type of language you use.
It’s tempting to think the way we speak about food is harmless because it’s so embedded into our culture, but it’s far from it. The moralising language around food leads us to develop an unhealthy relationship with it and eat in ways which are actually less pleasurable. When thinking about food, keep in mind that nutrition and health are never black and white. The key to a healthy relationship with food lies in the grey area.
- Lindquist, K.A., MacCormack, J.K. and Shablack, H. (2015) “The role of language in emotion: Predictions from psychological constructionism,” Frontiers in Psychology, 6. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00444.
- Kuijer, R.G. and Boyce, J.A. (2014) “Chocolate cake. guilt or celebration? associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss,” Appetite, 74, pp. 48–54. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.013.
- Oliveira, S., Pires, C. and Ferreira, C. (2018) “Does the recall of caregiver eating messages exacerbate the pathogenic impact of shame on eating and weight-related difficulties?,” Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 25(2), pp. 471–480. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-018-0625-8.