How language can impact our relationship with food

Co-Written with Serena Hodge

The way we think and talk about food may either help or hinder us from building a healthy relationship with food and body.

Using language like ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, ‘junk’ or ‘treats’ can affect how we, and the people around us, think and feel about food and our bodies. It has been observed that when we use this type of moral language around foods, we tend to crave them more, and may feel guilty or judge ourselves.

While there can be a whole host of reasons as to why we may be craving foods more, one large culprit for this increased urgency around ‘bad’ or ‘forbidden’ foods, is the deprivation mindset, which can lead to an all-or-nothing approach to eating.

Tell me, do any of these situations feel familiar?

Oh man, I’ve blown it now, I’ll just eat the whole block. Diet starts tomorrow”

“Oh gosh, I’ve eaten so ‘badly’ today, I’m only allowed [x, y, z] tomorrow”

This inner dialogue often leads us to eat a lot more than we may genuinely feel like, and unfortunately, this process often repeats. Whereas, if we were to enjoy the food we were eating, without the feelings of guilt or shame that comes with moralistic language, we may feel more relaxed to eat the food and move on, simply because we have given ourselves permission to have it again another time.

It is important to remember that food is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and neither is a person for eating a particular food. Removing these labels can help lower the stress that can come from eating. It can also help us appreciate that all foods are allowed, and we are allowed to enjoy them!

This does not dismiss that some foods provide more nourishment for the body than others. It is about recognising what your body needs to feel good. It also reinforces that food is more than just fuel – it is also a source of celebration, culture, tradition, connection and love. If we eat just for fuel and don’t get any sensory pleasure from eating we tend to feel unsatisfied and want to ‘finish off’ our meal with something else, even if we aren’t physically hungry anymore.

By granting ourselves unconditional permission to eat and eating foods that we truly want, we ease the psychological deprivation and over time we are no longer driven to ‘give in’ or binge on particular foods.

Focusing on making enjoyable and satisfying meals and snacks that include both more nutrient-dense and less nutrient-dense foods allows for both pleasure and health.

A little experiment:

Come with a little curiosity and try to describe a meal or snack you have recently had without the moral tag attached.

Can you describe a food you found enjoyable without the moral tag attached?

Enjoyable examples may sound like:

  • This cake is delicious and reminds me of tea with my Grandma.
  • This pasta dish is SO satisfying and flavourful.
  • I had such a delicious meal last night – I really enjoyed it.
  • This meal is exactly what I wanted! It is so tasty.

Can you describe a food you found not so enjoyable without the moral tag attached?

Not so enjoyable examples may sound like:

  • The chips sounded great, but I didn’t really enjoy how salty they were. I’m really thirsty now.
  • This pasta dish smelled amazing, but the sauce is very rich in texture. It’s not quite to my taste.
  • This cheese looked amazing, but I didn’t really enjoy how pungent the smell and taste was.
  • I usually love this chocolate but I’m not enjoying how sweet it is anymore.

Next time you are eating with a group notice how people around you talk about food. Are they assigning moral value when describing the food, or is it from a place of curiosity? Does it sound like enjoyment or guilt?

PS: the only foods that are ‘bad’ are the ones past their expiry date!

 

References:

Kausman, R. (2004). If not dieting, then what? Crows Nest, AUS: Allen & Unwin.

Urbszat, D. C., Herman, P., & Policy, J. (2002). Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet: Effects of anticipated deprivation on food intake in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 396-401. doi: 10.1037//0021-843X.111.2.396

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