Here are 7 diet culture words to avoid using to describe food.
Diet culture has changed how we perceive health. Diet culture has made us believe that to be truly healthy, we need to eliminate certain food groups from our diet. That some foods are bad, while others are good. It has us believe that we need to take specific supplements and powders daily. That we need to exercise hours a day.
While yes, nutrition and health are important, those things are NOT necessary to be healthy.
Health is eating enough. It’s eating a variety of foods to get the nutrients you need (yes, in some cases, supplements will be needed). It’s managing stress to the best of our ability, getting enough sleep and moving regularly as able. Health is also having access to good health care. It’s that and so much more.
Yes, nutrition is important. However, unnecessary restrictions, shaming people on their food choices and having that “all or nothing” mentality is not helpful.
Here are some words we should avoid using when we describe food. These are words that are often used in diet culture and create a lot of guilt, confusion and shame around food and health. Avoid using these words if you’re trying to ditch diet culture and improve your relationship with food.
Diet Culture Words to Avoid
You’ll see that most of the words below come back to the “good” and “bad” terms used to describe food.
Let’s make it clear: There are no good or bad foods! Yes, some foods are more nutritiously dense. Yes, some foods are higher in sugar or more processed. That doesn’t make them morally good or bad. All foods can fit.
We eat for different reasons. Mostly, we eat for nourishment and energy. For that reason, when we allow ourselves to eat all foods, we tend to gravitate towards foods that make us feel good. Those are often nutrient-dense foods.
We also eat for pleasure, tradition and cultural reasons. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating chocolate because you enjoy it or because it’s Christmas and it’s tradition.
Naming foods good or bad feeds into the “all or nothing” mentality. It causes guilt around food and increases cravings over time.
What does this even mean? Using the term clean to describe food implies that those foods are good and others are bad (see the first point). Does that mean that everything else is dirty?
Clean is often used for organic, non-gmo foods. These foods are often more expensive and are not accessible to everyone.
Using the words clean or dirty simply creates fear, confusion and guilt around food. This trend needs to stop.
Superfood is a vague term that’s often used for nutritious ingredients. While there’s usually nothing wrong with those ingredients, there’s some misconception around superfoods being “super”. As in, they will offer health benefits that aren’t always evidence-based. Plus, you often need to eat amounts that the average person wouldn’t consume to get those possible benefits.
Superfoods are often just nutrient-dense ingredients. They are nutritious, but they also may not be financially accessible to many.
Unlike what diet culture might have you believe, you don’t need to add 10 different superfood powders to your daily smoothies to be healthy. Instead, let’s focus on eating more fruits and vegetables, which we know are very nutritious!
Note: If you love your “superfood” powders and feel that it makes a difference for you, then great! However, don’t shame others for not using them and don’t promote health benefits that aren’t evidence-based.
This word is often used when people decide to eat something that doesn’t fit their description of a healthy diet. It also goes for cheat days, where dieters will allow themselves to eat all of their forbidden foods for one day (often one day a week). If you didn’t have food rules, you wouldn’t feel the need to break those rules and “cheat”.
This is the “all or nothing” way of thinking again. You either need to eat perfectly, or it’s cheating.
People with this mentality will often follow their diet, then give up the second they “cheat”. You may tell yourself “I had a donut, I failed, I might as well eat “badly” for the rest of the day”.
Instead of seeing it as cheating, try incorporating your favorite foods into your day regularly. Your favorite foods can absolutely fit and it’s not cheating. Say no to food rules!
Food should not cause guilt. Using the word “guilt-free” implies that other foods should make you guilty. Again, it goes with the “good” and “bad” rule. Guilt around food can increase cravings and obsession for that “forbidden” food.
We should not feel guilty for eating food that tastes delicious, but may not be as nutrient-dense than other foods. All foods can fit.
Another thing to note is that if you go for the “guilt-free” version of the food you truly crave, you may not get the same satisfaction. Has this ever happened to you? You crave chocolate or something sweet, so you decide to have a piece of fruit. This doesn’t satisfy your craving, so you then have a rice cake with peanut butter. This doesn’t do it either, so you have a handful of nuts. Finally, after eating several snacks, you end up having the chocolate anyways.
If you allow yourself to have what you truly crave instead of going for the “guilt-free” option, you can truly enjoy it and move on.
This word is often used for low-calorie foods. As in, if we eat less calories, we’ll be “skinnier”. First, eating lower calorie foods simply means you’ll be hungry again sooner. We need calories for energy! Second, it also promotes the thin body type that we value in our society, even though being thin doesn’t automatically make a person healthier or happier.
Why add healthy to this list? There’s nothing inherently wrong with this word. However, diet culture has turned it into a very vague, subjective term. There are so many descriptions of “healthy” when it comes to food, that the term has lost all meaning.
People use the word healthy to describe almost any recipe. Anything from a high-fat keto recipe to a low-fat, high-carb vegan recipe. You can also find “healthy” cookie recipes, where the only change was to use coconut oil instead of butter… There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cookie, so why make it sound healthy when it’s very similar to that original delicious recipe? It’s marketing.
Healthy and unhealthy can also be used similarly to the terms “good” and “bad”, which can be a problem. This one really depends on the way it’s being used. You may think this is exaggerated and I used to think so too. That being said, after years of work as a dietitian, my opinion has changed.
We Need to Stop Glorifying Diet Culture
It’s also important to note that diet culture and all of its rules come from a place of privilege. All of the various diet culture rules are not accessible to all. Most of the foods that fall under the “clean”, “superfood” and “good” categories are expensive and aren’t available financially or physically to everyone. We need to stop glorifying diet culture and we need to stop shaming people who don’t follow its rules, whether by choice or not.
Try Using These Words Instead:
Nourishing: Instead of using the word healthy, try using nourishing. This term can describe physical and emotional nourishment. Similarly to healthy, it can be subjective. However, it hasn’t been overused by diet culture.
Delicious: It’s completely okay to describe food as good tasting. If something is delicious, call is delicious instead of “sinful”, “bad”, etc.
Satisfying: Food can both satisfy your physical hunger and your emotional/taste hunger. This is completely normal.
This information is intended for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace individualized nutrition or medical advice. Note that this post is not intended to offend anyone. It’s my personal opinion as a non-diet dietitian. When I discuss the issues with restrictions, I don’t mean medically necessary restrictions or ethical food choices, such as veganism.