Food is fuel. We've all heard the saying. Lately, it seems like we're always trying to find the "healthiest version" of this fuel out there. Diet culture is everywhere, and the use of words like guilt, cheat, and skinny to describe foods has been a profitable way for food companies and food bloggers to describe food in a negative way. But in reality, these diet culture words don't have anything to do with food.

Eating healthy has always been important to me. For a long time, I thought seeing certain foods as "off-limits" was a perfectly acceptable, if not necessary, way to control and constrain what I ate. I was surrounded by lists of foods to avoid, low-calorie versions of everything, and the idea that I should feel guilty after eating certain foods. I was sucked into this awful habit.  

After a long struggle to break this well-ingrained habit, I have come to learn that the healthiest thing to eat is not what you find on a Pinterest list or what a "wellness" food blog tells you, but what your body is asking for. These diet culture words have nothing to do with food, and lead to stress and restriction rather than the healthy habits they are trying to advertise.

To get some more info. on diet culture and its influence, I talked to the woman who taught it all to me, dietitian and intuitive eating activist, Gina Mateer, RD, LD.

1. Guilt-free

Calling a food "guilt-free" implies that certain foods should make us feel guilty, which is just not true. As Gina put it, food choices are not moral decisions, and feeling guilty for eating certain foods can lead to unnecessary stress.

A lot of foods have been stigmatized as "guilty" simply because of the context they are associated with. As Gina puts it, stories of eating a whole pizza after a break-up or a pint of ice cream the night after a tough exam make pizza and ice cream look like the bad guys, when really, the unhealthy part of those stories is probably stress. And stress also comes from restricting what you eat to a list set of "guilt-free" versions.

According to Gina and many dietitians that advocate for intuitive eating, every food can fit into a healthy lifestyle. Health is about a whole lot more than just what you eat. It is about joy, fun, community, sleep, movement, and mental health as well. So if chocolate cake at your friend's birthday party is going to bring you joy, picking up a plate and grabbing a slice is the healthy decision, not a guilty one.

2. Low-Everything

Low sugar, low calorie, low carb, low fat. All that means is that you can eat more of it to get the same amount of nutrients, and studies show that this is exactly what people do. Humans need carbs, fats, and protein to survive, and your body will keep asking for food until its macronutrient needs are met.

Eating a bowl of Halo Top, for example, does not trick your body into thinking you're eating ice cream. Once its broken down, and your body doesn't find much to work with, it will probably just ask for more. So why not just start with the regular (yummier) stuff, and have less of it?

Calories, including ones from fats and carbs, are the point of eating food, not the enemy. We need calories and macronutrients to do everything from moving to building new cells. Calories are actually awesome, so there is no reason to seek out "reduced" versions of everything you eat, especially when they don't taste as good.

3. Skinny

skinny pop, popcorn, eating popcorn, snacks, snacking, apple
Jocelyn Hsu

For some reason, our world has come up with a "goal body". But why do we do this when we all have such unique faces and personalities? Shouldn't we celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of our body sizes and shapes as well?  

Scientific evidence states that even the BMI scale used in medicine is misleading. Humans are supposed to be different weights and sizes, and all of our bodies have different set-points that they will work toward, no matter what we eat. 

If we are all supposed to be our own unique size, we should not constantly name "skinny" as the goal. No food itself will make you skinny, and labelling it that way makes it seem like weight loss should always be a consideration when choosing what to eat. However, losing weight is generally not a "healthy" thing to do. Skinny is not the goal of eating, and shouldn't be the goal at all, so using "skinny" as a way to describe food can definitely be misleading.

4. Off-limits

While I know that many people have food allergies and ethical concerns that limit what they eat, naming an entire group of foods as "off-limits" based solely on health has become a socially acceptable mask for the unhealthy habit of restriction.

The lists of foods to be avoided changes constantly, depending on what type of food people want to target at that moment. Whether it is fat, simple sugars, all carbs, saturated fats, or anything in between, there is always some food group under attack. The truth is that our body needs some of all of these things, and the one healthy food trend that hasn't changed with time is balance.

As Gina says, your body doesn't put the fat from chocolate cake on your butt and use the fat from avocado as energy. Everything you eat gets broken down into basic components that your body will use in whatever way it needs to. So there is no reason to cut out a group of foods you love, simply because they are the trendy food to avoid at that time. 

5. Cheat

bun, bacon, cheese, beef
Krizza Santucci

"Cheat" foods are often associated with diets, which have been proven again and again to be ineffective. As Gina says, "Would you buy a product like a toy, a TV, or a new phone if it had an 80-99% fail rate? No". Still, we continue to give in to the social pressure to be on an endless restrictive diet. 

Using the word "cheat" also makes a food look like it is only acceptable if eaten in secret, and acknowledges that the food should, for some reason, not really be eaten. Like "guilt," it makes it seem like you should feel bad about eating it, since it doesn't fit into the media's idea of health. But if your body is asking for a burger, for instance, you aren't cheating on anything, and calling it a "cheat" food really just makes it less enjoyable.

Diet culture is everywhere, and these kinds of words can't be avoided. But instead of looking to them as guidance for what to eat, remember that they are based on whatever health trend is on the rise now, and not on what your body needs.

Food should be a positive experience. It is a way to celebrate with friends, nourish your body, practice self-care, and experience different cultures. Deciding what to eat shouldn't have to involve stress or guilt, and shouldn't depend on what is advertised as "healthy." People have been eating since long before the internet came about. Our bodies know what they want and need, so we don't need to rely on Pinterest lists or package labels to tell us what is the healthiest option for us.