As humans we love to put things into categories. We love to identify similar objects, characteristics or traits, put them in neat and tidy groups, then get out a permanent marker and give each group a name. We label objects, people, and behaviours, and the world of food and eating has not escaped this.
So let's talk food labels. Not the ones provided by food manufacturers. The labels that you, I and the media consciously and subconsciously use in relation to food and eating. There are countless examples, so we'll just discuss a few that stand out.
Good & Bad
Food and nutrition simply isn't this black and white. Is it bad to enjoy a slice of cake on your birthday? Of course not. One major issue with labeling food as good or bad is that we then associate eating certain foods with good or bad behaviour. We've all heard someone begin a sentence with, "I've been so bad today, all I've eaten is..."
Or perhaps you've heard somebody say something like, " I've been really really good this week and only eaten salads."
This can lead to linking eating with feelings of guilt or shame - emotions that should never be related to food.
Guilt free simply suggests that there are other foods that are 'guilt-full'. As mentioned above, eating habits should not be connected with guilt or shame. We know that negative emotions such as these are poor long-term motivators of behaviour change, so reinforcing the link between guilt and food is not a good thing.
Clean eating, is this still a thing? I know I still see #clean clinging to the end of a lot of instagram photos. My problem here is not the type of foods that are typically called clean, it is simply the use of the word clean that makes me cringe. Some synonyms for clean include unblemished, pure, immaculate. The word suggests a sense of superiority and perfectionism, and to me this raises a big red flag for disordered thinking about food.
The flip-side of talking about 'clean' food is the implication that some foods are the opposite. Some antonyms for clean include dirty, filthy and tainted. I see red flags once again.
The idea of there being 'toxic foods' follows a similar theme. There are definitely eating habits that can lead to poor health, but to label individual foods as toxic just doesn't make sense to me. It is a highly emotive word, and when I hear the word toxic I again hear guilt and shame echoing behind it.
Think of it this way - all vitamins and minerals (e.g. Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium) play an role in the diet but they also have something called an 'Upper Limit' - an intake level above which they start to have an adverse effect, beginning to become toxic. It's the quantity in which we eat different food that is important, it's just not as simple as toxic and non-toxic.
Human language is a funny thing, and labeling our food and eating habits is something we all do, including myself. The good vs bad labels are particularly hard to shake. It's important however that we rethink the emotional connections we are forming when using some of these words. I shudder to think of kids and teens using words like bad or toxic when sitting around their lunch boxes during recess at school.
What other labels can you think of that we use when talking about food? I'd love to hear your thoughts.