“Healthy eating” terms that are not healthy
These healthy eating phrases can fuel an unhealthy relationship with food
Food language is powerful because it tells us how a food should make us feel. It tells us how we will be judged. And it tells us if we are a good or bad person for eating this food.
The problem is that food doesn't just give us nutrients, it serves us socially, emotionally and culturally. When we use language that moralises food, it can hurt us socially, emotionally and culturally.
Have you ever:
- Had a craving for a food you know is bad so then eating it makes you feel crippled with guilt?
- Not had the energy to cook whole foods from scratch but eating something processed makes you feel like a failure?
- Feel stressed about a family gathering because your cultural foods feel judged for how unhealthy they are?
As a non-diet dietitian, one thing I do when working with clients is listen to the language they use to describe food as it offers an insight into the emotions coming up around food.
Here are some examples of “healthy eating” terms to look out for and how you can reframe your food language to support a healthy relationship with food.
Unless we are talking about washing our fruits and throwing out mouldy food, there’s nothing clean (or dirty) about eating. “Unclean" foods often include budget-friendly and time-saving options which can lead to stress and guilt when these foods are needed to nourish our bodies.
Having enough food is always the healthiest option than going without eating.
Food is just food. There’s no moral value to what we eat. Foods provide different benefits such as:
- Nutrients: Some foods are higher in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre which supports our gut and overall health.
- Energy: Some foods are higher in energy. This is our body’s most urgent and basic nutrient from food. We need higher energy foods throughout the day so our body and brain can function at their best.
- Culture and connection: We need to feel included and a part of our community for optimal health. Connection through food is one of the ways we get this.
- Pleasure: Our bodies strive for satisfaction. Eating food we really feel like is important otherwise we will continue to seek satisfaction and will constantly think about food.
Food won’t always hit the spot or feel good, but that’s ok. Unless you have stolen the food, there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
If you want to avoid chemicals, you’re in for a tough ride. Everything we consume is chemical. Here’s some reasons chemicals may be added to foods:
- Safety: Chemicals are often added to make a food safe to eat such as to prevent harmful bacteria growth.
- Preservation: Chemicals are sometimes needed to make a food last longer. Unless we have time to be growing and preparing our own food everyday, we naturally need food to last a bit longer.
- Added nutrients: Chemicals are often just additional nutrients to support us to get the nutrients we need.
For example. Docosahexaenoic acid. Sounds like a scary chemical right? It’s actually just DHA, an omega 3 fatty acid that is hailed as a healthy nutrient. People commonly take this as a supplement but on the ingredients list, it may sound like an added chemical.
If you’re not a food scientist, you won’t be able to recognise safe and unsafe chemicals. That’s why we have strict food safety standards to regulate the types and amounts of ingredients added to our food supply.
Whole foods are used to describe foods that have not been processed such as fresh fruits and vegetables, uncooked nuts and seeds, fresh fish and meat. As much as including these foods can feel nice, it is simply not possible for many people and, for most people, not all the time.
Adding whole foods to a pedestal implies that processed foods are bad. In fact, processed foods can provide a safe, accessible and convenient way to feed ourselves a variety of foods.
If you have access to and the time to cook whole foods from scratch, that sounds lovely. But it’s not morally better than using time and budget friendly options too.
The term healthy eating often takes on an ableist perspective. Not everyone has access to whole foods, organic vegetables, fancy kitchen gadgets or free time to spend on cooking.
When healthy eating is used in a way that creates a moral hierarchy over foods based on the micronutrient content of foods, it serves to hurt those who cannot fit into this narrow view of healthy eating.
Food is supposed to provide nutrients, pleasure, culture, emotion and memory. True healthy eating comprises all of this within what is accessible to us.
Reframing your food language
Having a healthy relationship with food really is the first step to true and long lasting healthy eating. It is not healthy for food to cause stress, guilt or shame. Here’s simple ways to shift your food language to support a positive emotional connection to food.
- Instead of healthy or unhealthy, consider what role food is serving for you at the time. Is the food comforting, nourishing, warming, social or time-saving instead?
- Instead of “bad” or “failing the diet” is the food fun, social, satisfying or part of a variety of food you are eating that day?
- Instead of “junk food” or “guilty- pleasure” is it simply a donut or cookies or ice cream? Calling it what it is can be more helpful than moralistic language.
- Instead of “I’m not allowed” or “I shouldn’t”, try “I have full permission to eat as much or as little of this food as I want, whenever I want”
Get more support to develop a healthy relationship with food.
Grab your free e-book “5 steps to get started with intuitive eating” for a step-by-step approach to start feeling good around food. Download it here for free.
Written by Emma Townsin, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor
Emma is the founder of Food Life Freedom and the host of the Food & Life Freedom Podcast. For personalised support to stop stressing over health and heal your relationship with food and your body, learn how you can fast track your way to food and life freedom.
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