The words we use matter. Our choice of language not only mirrors our current way of thinking, it also has the power to shape our attitudes and behaviors over time. That’s why so many food and nutrition professionals cringe at much of the conversation around food and health today. Seemingly innocuous words and phrases that are regularly tossed around set us up for unhealthy approaches to food. I reached out via email to several of my registered dietitian colleagues to identify the most common offenders — words they wish would be eliminated from the nutrition chatter — and asked them how to reframe that language for a healthier perspective.
Not surprisingly, almost every dietitian I surveyed ranked the categorization of food as good or bad high on their cringe list. It is the root of unhealthy food-speak, as most of the other reviled terms can be traced back to this notion. Pinning a black or white value to one particular food shifts focus from the big picture, the overall eating patterns that really define a person’s well-being. Sure, some foods have a better nutritional profile than others, but context matters immensely. Broccoli may easily win a “good” label, but if all you have eaten all day is broccoli, another serving of it may be the last thing you need.
On the flip side, even foods with a less-than-ideal nutritional breakdown can have unquantifiable health benefits. Take pizza for example. “Pizza is often demonized as ‘bad’ because it is high in fat, high in refined carbohydrates and easy to overindulge” with, wrote Chris Mohr, co-founder of the nutrition consultation company Mohr Results. “But if that pizza isn’t an everyday occurrence and it brought friends together, encouraged conversation, laughing and connection, the otherwise ‘bad’ food becomes nurturing for your soul. Food inherently is not good or bad.”
Besides setting you up to overeat broccoli and miss out on pizza parties, the good/bad paradigm can lead to extreme, moralistically judgmental attitudes about food. As Deanna Wolfe, co-founder of HealthyBody Nutrition put it, “People use ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to describe food as if you are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for eating them. This only leads to guilt and stress over eating! You are not good for eating kale and bad for eating ice cream.”
Also, labeling foods “bad” can make them even more desirable, as Rahaf Al Bochi, owner of Olive Tree Nutrition and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has found. When her clients declare certain foods “forbidden,” they are more likely to be preoccupied with thoughts of those foods and crave them more intensely.
The notion of clean eating is an offshoot of the good/bad food concept that marketers seem to adore, to the dismay of many dietitians. “The original [clean eating] philosophy appears to be one I think we could all get on board with: eating food as close to its original state as possible, in the most nutritious form possible (a.k.a. minimally processed). But what was once a sense of awareness about food seems to have spiraled into a diet-culture-driven system. On social media, it’s become yet another form of body and food-shaming,” explained Jaclyn London, author of “Dressing on the Side” and nutrition director of Good Housekeeping. “No matter what, the alternative to ‘clean’ sounds fearmongering.”
Elizabeth Ward recoils at the term, too, which she wrote about it in her food and nutrition blog Better Is the New Perfect: “I can’t get past the notion that if you’re not eating ‘clean,’ then you’re eating ‘dirty.’ ”
Declaring foods clean or dirty is not merely a simplistic misrepresentation, as with calling foods good or bad, it could ultimately be downright unhealthy, fostering overly restrictive eating (and the bingeing that often follows) and unwarranted self-judgment around food.
All of the above is a tee up for a drive directly into the sand trap of guilt. I bet you have been there: You declare you are going to “be good” or “eat clean” and you beat yourself up at the slightest deviation from what you’ve decided (or a book told you) is the perfect diet. No wonder the term “guilty pleasure” makes dietitians wince.
“Eating is not cheating, and guilt should have no role in food choice,” explained Ward. “Your diet does not need to be perfect. Guilt robs you of the pleasure of eating and makes you feel bad afterward, which can start a downward spiral of shame that prevents you from learning to make better eating choices while allowing for treats. As a dieter in my teens and early 20s, I battled guilt and shame, and I found it to be extremely unproductive.”
I experienced this, too, in my younger years, and what pulled me out of that negative thought trap is to mindfully, non-judgmentally extract pleasure from whatever I choose to eat, whether it is a carrot or a piece of chocolate cake.
We dietitians get it: People are generally better off eating fewer foods made of refined flour and sugar. If I may speak for the group, we applaud and support efforts in that direction. But somewhere along the way, “carb” has become synonymous with unhealthy. That is a big problem, because many of the most healthful foods in the world are rich in carbohydrates.
“I’m asked if fruit is bad because it’s a ‘carb’ at least once per week,” wrote Marjorie Nolan Cohn, owner of MNC Nutrition and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The fact that people, who are trying to do right by their heath, actually question if fruit is bad for them is a window into how distorted our society’s view of food is.”
Wendy Lopez, co-founder of the online platform Food Heaven Made Easy, cringes when she hears people say carbs are bad for you. “People think they’re eating healthier by cutting down on carbohydrates,” she said. “However, carbohydrates are in so many nutritious and tasty foods. Aside from bread, pasta and grains, carbs can also be found in nuts, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and more! Carbohydrates provide our bodies with fuel, nutrition, and satisfaction.”
Eating carbohydrates shouldn’t be the all-or-nothing proposition it had been made out to be. Enjoy them in balance, focusing on the healthiest, more minimally processed choices.
The bottom line is that much of the language around food and nutrition that is batted around today traps us into a reductionist, all-or-nothing way of thinking that prevents us from achieving true well-being. So next time you catch yourself or others using the words here, take a moment to pull back far enough to see the bigger, more nuanced picture and reconsider.
Clarification: Marjorie Nolan Cohn’s term as spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ended June 1, after she was interviewed for this story.