Speaking The Food Language

The pen might be mightier than the sword, but where does that leave the fork? 

Words shape our world, and that includes the foods we eat. From the indulgent descriptions in food magazines and blogs to more restrictive verbiage, there are a lot of ways language can influence our eating habits. It’s good to recognize when that language is helpful and when it isn’t so that we can keep making nutritional choices that align with our overall health goals.

Not-so-helpful wording perpetuates the harmful idea that food is tied to morality and that you are either good or bad when you eat certain foods. These kinds of descriptions use words like:

  • Clean eating
  • Guilt-free
  • Cheat meals or cheat days
  • Naughty, bad, or sinful
  • Good
  • Natural

Let’s break these down and see why describing food like this isn’t going to help us eat healthier in the long term.

Clean eating refers to foods that are unprocessed and don’t have artificial ingredients. While we do want to include whole foods into our diet as much as we can, this phrasing implies that eating anything else is “dirty.” And unless you dropped your chips on the ground, that isn’t the case.

And then there’s guilt-free, which implies that there are foods you should feel guilty about eating. According to research, approaching food with this mindset can create a sense of deprivation, which makes us want the foods we’re restricting even more than we otherwise would. When in doubt, it’s good to remember: All food is guilt-free.

Cheat meals or cheat days and being “naughty” fall along these same lines. If you’re so used to restricting and suddenly give yourself permission to eat whatever you like, then chances are, your scarcity-driven brain is going to go overboard and you’ll end up overeating. In order to create a balance between eating nutrient-rich foods and foods that are less nutritious, we need to take away the guilt and give ourselves permission to eat the foods we want in moderation.

Lastly, we have natural. This is another problematic word because it’s a descriptor that gives food a kind of “health halo.” According to the FDA, it essentially means that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in the food when it was processed. This does not make foods that are described as “natural” bad foods, because there is no such thing. What it does mean is that it’s another way to make food sound “healthy.” Regardless of how it’s marketed, if it looks tasty to you, then enjoy it.

It’s also good to note that just because something is “natural,” that doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to benefit your body more or less than foods that aren’t labeled as such. Alternatively, just because a food isn’t labeled as “natural,” that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad for you.

While there are many instances of not-so-helpful food language, there are also many ways we can describe food to our advantage! 

In fact, one study from Stanford showed that when veggies were given more indulgent-focused descriptions (think fire-roasted tomatoes or cinnamon-glazed carrots), people ended up liking them more than veggies with health-focused descriptions (like heart-healthy carrots).

Whether we’re eating nutrient-rich foods or foods that aren’t as nutritious, we can focus on the words we would use to describe how they taste, smell, and even look. Think about indulgent ways to describe foods, using words like: “Crispy, spicy, caramelized, gingery, or roasted.” You can also focus on describing how you’re feeling as you’re eating those foods, like: “Satisfied, happy, or excited.”

When we use indulgent descriptions for nutritious foods and focus on how they make us feel, we can establish a healthier relationship with our food. In time, we can enjoy and appreciate all foods for what they do, and how they make us feel.

Want more information on how to be more mindful of your food? Check out our mindful eating lessons!