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5 Ways I Refuse to Describe Food in 2020

Wellness Food + Drink
by Elisabeth Sherman Dec 27, 2019

I love to eat. I love gooey, melty mac and cheese and creamy, tangy penne vodka. I love crispy chicken sandwiches topped with a crunchy pickle, soft white chocolate chip cookies, and heaps of vanilla soft serve splattered with rainbow sprinkles. Some people get joy from reading or hiking or playing piano. I derive almost all my joy from food.

So you can imagine my dismay when, about five years ago, a new food trend emerged, which tried — and nearly succeeded! — to make me feel disgusting and miserable for taking pleasure in salt, snacks, sweets, and carbs. Fueled largely by Instagram, followers of this trend preached, with near religious fanaticism, the power to solve every problem in your life: depression, acne, bloat, stress.

This dieting trend invented an entirely new language to define the right type of food: Whole fruits and vegetables. Superfoods (kale, quinoa, chia seeds). The diet is clean. It will help you detox and flush toxins from your body. Under these terms, food becomes entirely utilitarian. The words weight loss and skinny won’t appear in posts about clean eating, but the meaning is clear: This diet will transform your life for the better because it will make you thin. And in the universe of this diet, thin equals morally superior. Thin is good, everything else should make you guilty, feel ugly, feel bad.

The restrictive language people use to talk about food these days is especially poisonous when its deployed during travel. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with people who choose to diet on vacation. However, these terms detract from what makes eating unfamiliar food a powerful experience while traveling: Food can be a conduit through which we can connect and empathize with our fellow humans, learn about their history and traditions, and ultimately find common ground. Denying yourself that eye-opening, life-changing experience because the latest lifestyle trend considers food nothing more than a tool to make you thin would be a tragedy.

This language also promotes the idea that eating this way on vacation should prompt immediate penance — a cleanse or faux detox, during which you must apologize or punish yourself for enjoying food. The message that you should shun some foods because they might make you fat isn’t just dangerous to mind and body,but it can also strip food of its fundamental ability to bring people joy and fellowship. No matter how you choose to engage with food, guilt and self-loathing should stay far, far away from the dinner table.

While it is absolutely true that the production of certain foods hurts the environment, not everyone has the resources, time, or priviledge to grapple with those issues in their daily lives. If you can make choices about your diet to help the environment, great. If you can’t, activism and advocacy for sustainable options will change that. Torturing yourself over the platter of greasy barbecue you just devoured definitely will not.

So here is my 2020 resolution: Next year I will not use language that shames people for what they eat or pushes weight loss on them — or myself. Here are five words and phrases I won’t be using to describe food in 2020.

1. Clean eating

Plate of healthy food

Photo: Anna Kucher/Shutterstock

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of dieting culture that has popped up in the past five or so years is the connection between food and morality. Eating a plant-based diet isn’t the problem. It’s that the phrase “eat clean” implies that some bodies are more pure and sacred than people who don’t subscribe to their diet. That your body is dirty or polluted if you ingest anything other than vegetables freshly pulled from the earth.

The word “clean” immediately creates a distinction between two imagined types of people: Those who care about their bodies and health, and those who are too lazy to care. These categories are made up! It helps the health of literally zero people if we make them feel so ashamed of their choices that they stop listening to what their bodies need and start following a diet praised by some stranger on the internet. Also: The term clean straight up doesn’t make sense. Vegetables are covered in dirt and bacteria even after you wash them, sorry!

2. Detox, cleanse, and toxic

These are manipulative, deceptive terms that, according to health experts, can actively harm you physically and can — infuriatingly — make you feel ashamed and anxious about your liver and digestive system’s natural and normal processes. Wellness retreats and spas increasingly offer packages promising to detox your body. While these experiences may be refreshing, it’s a shame that people feel pressured to “clean” their bodies after a vacation spent eating well. Or that they should actually spend their vacation days on a “detox retreat.” The only way to detox your body is through your liver. The air is polluted, certainly, but you can’t flush made up toxins out of your body with some mixture of lemon and cayenne and cucumber. Reading up on how to sample every type of pasta in Italy shouldn’t come with the caveat that you’ll have to repair your body afterwards with a juice cleanse. Let’s let people enjoy things without reservation.

3. Guilty pleasure

Person eating slice of cake

Photo: The Num Phanu Studio/Shutterstock

Countless food-related articles (some of mine included, in the past!) use language that casts certain foods as “sinful” or “naughty” or use the opposite: “guilt-free.” Chocolate, cheesy pastas, bread of all kinds, to name a few. In the context of travel, this language is especially harmful because it immediately casts people who vacation specifically to experience new foods as gluttonous slobs, abandoning their health in order to indulge. Healthy eating (a term which has no one definition that can be applied to everyone) simply is not a priority for everyone when they travel, and that’s okay. Eating can and should be a pleasure, full stop, for people who seek out food-centric experiences. We — not just food writers, but society at large — have a responsibility to stop implying that people who eat whatever and however much they want should feel shame.

4. Diet

There’s nothing inherently shameful about being on a diet (though it’s been scientifically proven that most of them don’t work). People restrict what they eat for a variety of deeply personal reasons, not all of which are unhealthy. But it’s insidious to assume that everyone is on a diet, or should be on a diet, or is even thinking about dieting, especially on vacation when so many extraordinary experiences are centered around food.

I won’t minimize, dismiss, or discourage any experiences that center on eating excessively or purely for pleasure. I won’t talk about restaurants, food festivals, dessert crawls, breweries, or anything in between with language that shames people for skipping or ignoring their diets. I won’t imply that a fatty, salty slab of meat or a cupcake piled with sprinkles and frosting can only be consumed in opposition to an otherwise healthy lifestyle. I will never talk about food in a way that mentions, implies, or even suggests its effect on your weight. That goes double for the phrase, “packing your stretchy pants.”

Cheat day is similarly banned: You aren’t betraying your body by eating food that you think tastes good. Language like this sucks the joy out of eating.

5. Whole, unprocessed, and superfoods


Photo: Pinkasevich/Shutterstock

There is no such thing as a superfood. Superfoods and “whole” foods are words invented by marketing departments to sell you not just products but an idealized lifestyle. When you break it down, this language falls apart. Is Texas barbecue processed because the meat has been butchered and cooked in a smoker? What about dried and cured Italian prosciutto? Or do they get a pass because they are simple, seasoned meats prepared using traditional methods? The label is arbitrary, changes depending on who is using it, and is ultimately deployed to create a made up distinction between good and bad foods. What you eat has no bearing on whether or not you’re a good person. Food is just food. Some of it comes from the ground, and some of it is sprinkled with cheese dust, but none of it can determine your worth as a person.

No matter what you choose to eat on vacation, it should be your choice — not one you feel pressured into making because the language around food is so restrictive and shaming. In 2020, the only way I will be talking about food is in terms that encourage curiosity, exploration, and cultural connection and understanding.

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