The Language of Diet Culture

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Content Warning: This blog contains statements and information surrounding food and eating habits. 

Words are everywhere. Words help us communicate and make sense of the world. The words used to describe food are no different. Given that National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is the last week of February, it is important to shed light on one of the many ways diet culture seeps into our everyday lives—with language. This blog aims to highlight the importance of language and messaging around food, and how the words we choose can shape our mindset about food. 

The reality is that one’s relationship with or opinion about certain foods can change based on the words used to describe those foods. This may be especially true when food packaging assigns moral value related to guilt and shame. For instance, buzzwords like “clean” and “guilt-free” can be found in grocery store advertisements, on social media, and on food packaging. These advertisements may create feelings of guilt and shame. For example, one study examined the outcomes of individuals who associated chocolate cake with either “guilt” or “celebration,” and found that those who associated the cake with guilt did not have more positive attitudes or motivation to eat healthier compared to those who associated the cake with celebration. Moreover, the study found that the “guilt” group reported lower levels of control over eating. If feeling guilty negatively influences our relationship with food, then more effort could be made to help people feel content and fulfilled about their eating habits. 

So, what can we do to improve messaging around food choices? Start by being mindful of the language you use around others when it comes to food. Here are some examples: 

  • Avoid questioning others’ food choices. Nobody should have to explain or justify what they choose to eat, including yourself. 
  • Avoid placing judgement or value on food by labelling certain foods “good” and other foods “bad.”  
  • Try describing food as “nourishing,” “energizing,” or “satisfying,” rather than as “healthy.” 
  • Instead of saying you are eating a “cheat” meal, which implies that you are doing something you should not, try using other descriptors like “delicious” or “joy-giving.”  

It can be challenging to shift how to think and talk about food, especially when societal cues and diet culture associate certain foods with guilt. Be gentle with yourself when trying to adopt new language patterns, and remember to celebrate the little victories. Food can be fun, loving, scrumptious, community-building, story-telling, and so much more! 

By: Abby Mueller

Abby Mueller is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and this is her first year in the Living F.R.E.E. Lab.

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