Why We Need to Stop Telling Women to ‘Eat Right’

It may be well-intentioned, but labelling food as 'good' and 'bad' isn't helping our health.
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Maggie Niemiec
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It may be well-intentioned, but labelling food as 'good' and 'bad' isn't helping our health.

I grew up devouring magazines. As a writer and editor, I read as many as I could every month, I studied their media kits and mastheads, and I ripped out pages to save for inspiration. In the process, I couldn’t help but notice the countless times when women’s magazines directed their readers on how to “eat right.” In theory this concept is smart—Americans are more obese and overweight than ever before, and too many of us have lost what it means to live a healthy life. Eating well is good, and you can’t have too much of a good thing, right?

The problem is that these magazines—and most presentations of eating in general—tend to forget that health is individualized. Not every woman needs to embark on a diet. And those images we see of women who have a pin-thin straight-up-and-down body type are often Photoshopped or not telling the full story. (A friend of mine who works at a health magazine shared that their fitness models actually smoke and drink heavily—not healthy at all.)

It’s important to remember that for the models who are naturally thin and healthy, their body type is not the sole definition of health. With only 5 percent of American women falling into this body type, the other 95 percent are left figuring out what health actually looks like and means for them.

Adding to the confusion is our country’s culture of food—one that’s full of extremes. For all our concern about health, one-third of Americans are obese, and thirty million men and women suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. What gives? With the labeling of food as either “good” or “bad” and the constant perpetuation of fear surrounding food, it’s no wonder that the average person has trouble figuring out what “eating right” even means.

The Morality of Food

In the recently released book Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It, author Harriet Brown describes the problem well:

“The idea that food has an inherent moral component, and that we do, too, when we eat it (or don’t), has become a meme, a contagious cultural idea that triggers an automatic response.

“I saw an extreme example of this when my daughter was sick [with anorexia]. Certain foods were ‘safe,’ and they were all low-fat or nonfat: pretzels, fat-free yogurt, grapes, carrot sticks, ramen noodles. Other foods terrified her, and they were usually the ones high in fats: avocados, cheese, any kind of dessert, pasta. Watching her made me realize I, too, thought of food in categories, though not nearly as rigidly or extremely as my daughter. For me, fruits and vegetables felt ‘safe,’ while doughnuts and fettuccine Alfredo might as well have come packaged with a skull and crossbones. My internal good food/bad food meter was for a long time organized around the same general principles as my daughter’s, though calibrated differently. (For instance, I have no bad feelings about cake or pesto, both of which are higher in fat.)”

How often do we think of food in black or white categories or in terms of how we must compensate after eating something? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone out to dinner with a girlfriend who, after having a hamburger and a beer or something of the like, remarks that she needs to go for a long run to ensure that the meal doesn’t make her fat. Newsflash: One less-than-super-healthy meal doesn’t completely change your body or add five pounds to your hips. If excess calories and eating poorly becomes a regular habit, that’s when extra pounds can creep on. Maybe, if we quit thinking of eating in terms of good or bad, we can learn how to take care of our bodies intuitively and feel less eater’s remorse. As Brown wrote, today’s eating habits are equated with moral reasoning, as if we’re somehow less of a woman or less virtuous for not being able to turn down “bad” food.

Sure, many American children and adults could stand to clean up their diets and learn the importance of proper exercise and nutrition. Yet thinking that this means we need to embark on restrictive diets—or that enjoying a cupcake once in awhile is a grave mistake—is not only faulty logic, but it also risks hurting one’s health instead of helping it.

The Clean Eating Disorder

Earlier this year, Salon published “We’re Clean Eating Our Way to New Eating Disorders,” an article that caused me to reflect on this obsessive mentality. I’ve been there before, categorizing food and thinking I was somehow better if I could just “eat clean.” For those who are already healthy or genetically prone to a more controlling personality, clean eating can become obsessive, even leading to a lesser-known eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa.

We at Verily have published articles on eating disorders and often receive comments from readers who are recovering or who ask for follow-up articles. One reader commented:

“Please, could you write an article on when the fight for ‘health’ also becomes toxic? Recently I just don’t know what to do because it’s become an obsession, and if I eat gluten or something with processed sugar and MSGs, then I spiral and despair. :-(”

This reader’s struggle is one reason I wanted to write this piece. 

Orthorexia is ripe to be the next eating disorder to enter the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the guidebook of psychiatric disorders. Orthorexia nervosa by definition is a fixation on righteous eating. “The message in the past has mainly been about thinness, but there’s been a turn, and it’s become more about cleanness and purity,” nutrition therapist Sondra Kronberg told Fast Company. “Those same people who struggle with compulsion and rigidity in their eating will take that cultural message to an extreme. It interferes with their quality of life.”

The Case for Intuitive Eating

Eating whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible is a good thing. But it’s also totally fine to eat some foods every now and then just because you feel like it. This is a little something known as “intuitive eating.”

According to the groundbreaking book Intuitive Eating, this type of eating emphasizes becoming the expert of your own body: “It’s knowing that your health and your worth as a person do not change because you ate a food that you had labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘fattening.’ The underlying premise is that you will learn to respond to your inner body cues because you were born with all the wisdom you need for eating intuitively.” Some of the ten intuitive eating principles outlined in the book include rejecting the diet mentality, honoring your hunger, making peace with food, respecting your body, and honoring your health. Sounds awesome, right?

It is. It’s time for us to stop the judgment around food and health. Remember that your health is just that: yours. Seeking true health requires listening to yourself—not to what others deem “eating right.” Every body is different, after all.

Changing our food culture to one that’s positive, less obsessive, and less focused on “eating right” is no easy task, but if we work together to fight food fear and move toward intuitive eating, one by one we’ll get that much closer to becoming the healthiest, best versions of ourselves.