The Power of Food Language
Written by Samantha Halpern
Samantha is a food lover, body advocate, and disruptor of cultural conditioning. Samantha is based in Los Angeles and works as an Anti-Diet Health Coach to help women realise their best lives are also their most delicious.
You can follow Samantha on Instagram & on her website.
A coworker brings in donuts to the office and offers you one. “Oh I’ve been so good lately, I really shouldn’t,” you reply.
You’re out to lunch with some friends, looking over the menu before ordering. As everyone starts sharing what they’re looking to order, you share, “I was so bad this weekend, I should probably just get a salad.”
It’s Wednesday but you’re already planning out what your Friday night cheat meal is going to be. It’s what you continue to think about for the rest of the week. Maybe you even pretend you’re eating that meal while you try to choke down more of your bland chicken breast for the 3rd time that week already.
Sound familiar? We don’t often give much thought to the language of our food but it is incredibly powerful. What may seem like a clarifying label to help us on our way to health becomes highly problematic when we internalise it. What’s worse is that most of us don’t even realise we’re doing it because of how normalised this kind of language is in our society. We can’t see how normal it has become to feel guilt and shame around our food.
Let’s take a look at a common food word that seems to have good intentions: Clean. Clean eating is the idea that you eat only “clean” ingredients. Typically, these are foods in their most natural state and free of chemicals and additives. Seems pretty honourable, right?
When we bring in the reality of the other side of “clean” foods, we can see where the issue is. What’s the antonym for clean? Dirty. Soiled. Filthy. Obscene. Impure.
Like nearly all other diets, “clean eating” is expressly designed to maximise your chances of failure. The standards are too high, the limitations too strict. The opportunity to feel those intense feelings of guilt and failure though, those are abundant.
The reality is, most grocery stores offer more processed food than what is considered “clean”; “clean” food is often more expensive and most of us don’t have the time it takes to turn “clean” ingredients into our every meal nor the money to have someone do that for us. If you also consider the emotional reality that foods outside of what’s considered "clean" are usually what we turn to in times of stress and overwhelming emotion, most of us cannot fully commit to “clean” eating. The result is we are left not just a failure, but morally impure.
It's the very language we use to describe our food that fuels the guilt and shame we feel after eating certain foods even though these foods make up a lot of our world and eating them can ultimately fulfil a need of ours whether it be time, money, or emotionally related.
This isn’t some weird phenomenon that was a side effect of diet culture. It is absolutely intentional.
Diet culture moralises our food with language under the guise of health and we then moralise ourselves when we eat those foods. It’s all part of the manipulation diets and food restrictions play on our emotions and self worth. The corporations that sell us these diets and food rules have already managed to convince us that if we can’t stick to a diet or a way of eating, we’re the broken one. If they can get our self worth and dignity down low enough, they position themselves perfectly so that their next product can be the saviour to your every life woe.
We get excited at the prospect that we just haven’t found the right diet for us but that this NEXT one will be. This NEXT one is going to change everything. Only to get on it, fail and fall back into our own personal pit of despair. And this cycle continues.
The emotional manipulation that the language of our food has taken on has deep roots in a culture where corporations seek to make money off of your insecurities.
The more modernly accepted wellness industry uses the same tactics but many of us still aren’t seeing what they’re selling as the same thing the diet industry does: manipulating us through moralisation of food.
Eating kale doesn’t make you a saint just as much eating ice cream doesn’t make you a sinner. Food is not good and food is not bad, it is not clean nor dirty, right nor wrong, and certainly is never something we should feel we’re ever cheating on. Food is neutral. It only takes on the meaning we give it. We only take on the meanings we give ourselves.