The problem with 'healthy': How our food language can control us

Woman stressed over cake and salad
By labelling foods 'healthy' or 'unhealthy', we're creating unnecessary and controlling guilt around food, Chantal Cuthers explains. Photo credit: Getty

Earlier this week Newshub published an article entitled 'Are poke bowls as healthy as they seem?' Associate Registered Nutritionist Chantal Cuthers reached out, explaining to Newshub how that language could be problematic. Here is her response. 

The language we use around food has a huge impact on the way we conduct ourselves. It's how we form habits, create healthy mind-set and form appropriate eating behaviour. It's also how we model our eating habits and food morals to our children, and can either be balanced and enjoyable, or dangerously guilt-ridden and controlling. 

While Newshub's article published this week on Poke bowls may seem trivial or small, it's important to be aware of how the little ripples of language can contribute to a wave of disordered eating language and behaviour. 

Often this impacts our most vulnerable - young women. 

Taking a single food or recipe item and labelling it healthy or unhealthy, or breaking down what goes into that item by calorie, macro or micronutrient count is incredibly problematic, because no single food is dangerous or unhealthy on its own. 

The second we start to label a food as an inherently negative or positive item, or start judging the bowl's worth by the ingredients we add into it or take away, we start to create damaging attitudes to food itself. 

Nutritionist and medical student Jess Campbell is one woman pushing a non-diet approach in her work. She says the problem with that portrayal of food is "that it feeds into the virtuosity of certain foods and health". 

"There is nothing wrong with any one food going into a Poke bowl, however it's important to recognise that this is another gimmick in a long line of insta-worthy predecessors - the green smoothie, açai bowls and abundance of superfoods - encouraging good or bad (or not good enough) thinking about food." 

Registered nutritionist Nicola Jackson agrees. 

'While it's useful to have nutrition knowledge, agonising over every little detail of a meal isn't helpful," she says. 

"It adds a stress factor to eating.  Alternative, more useful questions to ask when making your choices could include: What am I hungry for? What tastes and textures do I feel like? What will nourish and sustain me?"

Food fundamentally should be enjoyed, and is the basis of much of our cultural and social interactions. Yet we are seeing in growing numbers people who struggle with disordered eating behaviour. 

This looks like guilt around food, binge eating, starvation, punishing themselves by exercising in order to eat, high anxiety around eating the "wrong" foods, and avoiding foods or social events where they may deviate from their "perfect diet".

 "Labelling foods as good or bad, creates space for feelings of guilt after eating a "bad" food," Campbell points out.

"When we feel badly after eating, we may find we fixate on what has or hasn't been eaten, reinforcing a cycle of alternating periods of restriction and overeating. It is this rigid thinking that fuels difficult food relationships and disordered eating behaviours."

The last thing health professionals should be encouraging in their patients, is to feel waves of panic, guilt, or a need to punish themselves at the gym later because they chose to add shallots to their lunch instead of spring onion, or enjoy cake with good friends at a birthday. 

Food simply should not be earned, made up for, nor be used as a bargaining chip for other behaviours. 

Chantal Cuthers is a degree-qualified Assoc. Reg Nutritionist with a whole food philosophy, specialising in women's health, fertility and hormonal nutrition. 

Newshub.