Food Language in the Age of Wellness

When was the last time you truly ate without worry? When did food stop being a neutral character and become something that you had a relationship with? Have you ever felt guilty for eating something, or tried to convince yourself not to eat something that you were craving? 

The other day, I watched my 10-month old niece navigate her tray of strawberries, orange slices, pulled chicken, pasta, and mushrooms. She used her chubby pointer finger and thumb as pincers to pick up little pieces and shove them in (or near) her mouth with an adorable lack of finesse. She used the palm of her hand to squish the bite-size pieces and rub them all over the tray, creating a free-form Picasso on her highchair. When she was done, she was done. Her tray was still covered with bits of food, but she had eaten enough, and she simply wasn’t interested anymore. At 10-months old, she is completely in tune with her own hunger cues. She is also a blank canvas for forming a harmonious relationship with food. Currently, she remains uninfluenced by misinformation in the media, Instagram hashtags like #cleaneating and #cheatday, headlines advertising how to “eat your way to 6-pack abs”, “helpful” comments from family and friends, and pressure to look and feel a certain way. 

Western culture seems to be drifting further from connection with the self, and that includes our natural hunger and satiety cues. Busy lifestyles combined with near-constant stimulation from our most common dining partner -a smartphone- have distanced many of us from eating in a natural, intuitive manner. This phenomenon, combined with the rise of social media bombarding us with subtle and not-so-subtle messages about how we should look and eat, has contributed to a rise in disordered eating in North America. In Canada, 94% of adults use some form of social media, which intentionally or not, increases exposure to thinner, athletic body ideals. This exposure has been linked to an increase in disordered eating and negative self-esteem, particularly among adolescents. 

Artist: lingvistov

Disordered eating differs from the classic eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-Eating Disorder. To read more about the differences between disordered eating and eating disorders, this article will help you identify the signs and know when to seek professional help. Most people envision a shockingly thin frame when they think of someone with an eating disorder, but in fact, they can affect people of all shapes and sizes. Eating disorders are life-threatening and require professional medical, psychological, and nutritional intervention. Disordered eating is a term used to describe a fairly common pattern of unhealthy eating behaviours and a preoccupation with body image. It can present itself in many ways, ranging from dieting, weight cycling, excessive exercise, fasting, binging, to even more normalized actions like worrying about your body image, restricting entire food groups, and feeling guilt or anxiety after eating certain types of food. Most people experience some level of disordered eating at least one point in their life. 

Disordered eating cuts across racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines, but it is gendered. An online survey by the University of North Carolina and SELF determined that 65% of women experience some level of disordered eating and an additional 10% experience symptoms consistent with an eating disorder (n=4023). Meanwhile, only 10-15% of people diagnosed with an eating disorder (remember, this is different from disordered eating) identify as male. In 1996, Steven Bratman coined the term orthorexia, which translates to “correct appetite” (anorexia translates to lack of appetite) and describes a form of disordered eating in which an individual is obsessed with the quality of their food. The problem develops when normalized eating is disrupted by obsessively healthy eating and feelings of stress or anxiety around food. While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) doesn’t currently recognize Orthorexia as an eating disorder, its prevalence is undeniably on the rise. This rise can be attributed to the social media use, particularly with food influencers and “clean eating” Instagram pages that tell you what you should/shouldn’t eat, how food can revolutionize and maximize every aspect of your life, how you should meal-prep for your family, what “toxic” ingredients to avoid, and how to get your pre-baby body back. Considering that 81% of adolescents use social media daily and adolescence is a key time for identity formation, this is worrisome.

I am delighted every time I see a body-positive or body-neutral Instagram account, which are thankfully on the rise, or a Registered Dietitian’s account that promotes normalized, intuitive eating and is food-inclusive. For decades, the predominant paradigm around health and preventative medicine has focused on reducing body size. People are tired of being told their bodies aren’t good enough, their diets aren’t healthy enough, and that they need to work harder to change themselves, and with the rise of Social Media over the past decade, movements can spread like wildfire. However, the fitspo, gluten-free, lectin-free, fully-raw, juice cleanse accounts are out there, and while they are typically well-intentioned and positive for some, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to fad diets and exercise trends. Even the most well-informed adults can find themselves susceptible to diet culture. It is difficult to measure the impact of being bombarded with numerous health and wellness messages each day.

Artist: lingvistov

The best way we can arm ourselves against media messages and harmful language is education. Knowing how to recognize a problematic or destructive message can help use control how it impacts us. When we frequently see words like “good” foods, “bad” foods, clean eating, detox diet, toxic, cheat day, fatterday, guilt-free, wellness, cleanse, detox, junk food, etc. that language begins to inform our own narrative around food. Have you ever heard someone say “I ate like sh*t this week” or “I’ve been so bad lately” when talking about their food choices? Have you ever said those things yourself? Even if you were joking when you said those things, the language we use to talk about food (and ourselves) is more important than you might think. We unknowingly perpetuate diet culture by using certain terms that have become mainstream. 

Let’s debunk a couple of these terms. 

“Good” vs. “Bad” foods: Guess what? Food doesn’t have morals. Food can be morels, but that’s a different thing. Food is not inherently good or bad, it’s just food. It’s a way of getting energy and nutrients into our bodies. The labelling of food as good or bad implies that the eater is good or bad when they choose that food, which can perpetuate feelings of food guilt. Focus on how you feel when you eat something. You might be surprised! Often when the morality of a food is removed, the feelings of anxiety, regret, guilt and preoccupation, are removed as well. 

Cheat day: This is one of my least favourites. Cheating has been branded a terrible thing to do in our society. Cheating on your spouse, university exams, or in professional sports are enough to ruin your honest reputation. To imply that enjoying delicious treat-foods is in some way cheating (on what? oatmeal? vegetables?) can create a sense of infidelity towards your “regular” diet. Cheat days were developed as a way to make restrictive daily dieting more manageable, giving you something to look forward to as you ate plain chicken breasts and steamed broccoli throughout the week. However, if your daily diet is so restrictive that you need to cheat on it, seeking something more sustainable (that you don’t have to “cheat” on) can create a long-term balance and form healthy eating patterns. 

Detox: I once fell prey to the mighty detox. Before my nutrition education, I was suffering from severe acne and convinced that something in my diet must be to blame. So, I tried a juice cleanse, and for 3 days, my life lacked lustre. I was hungry, my stomach felt hollow, and my energy levels were low. The acne remained, and thankfully, I was able to sort it out through the help of a dermatologist. Detox diets or cleanses are easy to fall prey to because everyone has at least one symptom that they believe could be resolved if they got their body “back on track” and a detox seems like the perfect shortcut. Meanwhile, our beautiful bodies are designed with detoxing organs (liver, kidney, colon, lungs) that never stop working to clear out waste materials like urea, hormones, excess water-soluble vitamins and minerals, etc. When you go on a juice cleanse, you lose water weight, but your body is no less “toxic” than it was before. Nutritional science does not support detoxes, but marketing companies do. Be mindful of who you are purchasing from and how much you are spending on something that you likely don’t need. Rather than focusing on a strict elimination, a balanced long-term approach is much healthier and much more sustainable.  

Artist: lingvistov

As a nutrition student, I am concerned about how the language around food used on social media platforms and in traditional media will impact today’s children and adolescents. I have a duty to myself and my future clients to change my language to make talking about food a safer space. Changing our language around any topic is a challenging adjustment, especially when speaking a certain way has been a lifelong pattern. The other day I had a slip-up; I lamented about how I felt bloated because I had eaten so poorly lately. I had to catch myself and remind myself that my body was feeling very satisfied from all the social feasting I had been doing lately, and that I would follow my cravings for lighter, refreshing foods for the rest of the day. Try not to be hard on yourself if you find yourself speaking negatively about food, because it’s a habit! Humans are notoriously bad at breaking habits. In fact, we usually break habits by forming new ones. Simply notice when your language is negative and remind yourself that your relationship with food and self should be gentle and kind, and that the only thing that needs a detox is our language around food. 

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