What is labeling food?

We have a real affinity for labeling foods and putting them into categories. This looks and sounds like referring to food as healthy and unhealthy, toxic and clean, junk food, garbage, and more. 

This is harmful for adolescents and distances them from developing a good relationship with food. 

Here’s why, and what you can do instead. 

Why is labeling food a problem?

All food nourishes us. Whether it provides carbohydrates, fat, or protein, food is not “empty calories”.

We eat different foods in celebration, to connect socially, for religion and culture, and loads of other reasons. 

When we label food as “junk” or “toxic” or even “empty”, we create a negative association with that food, and thus ourselves when we eat them. But those foods served a purpose when we ate them, and there’s no reason to beat ourselves up or wallow in guilt or shame for eating them. Not only shouldn’t we, but that’s actually the more harmful part of eating- those negative emotions! 

On the flip side, when we call food ‘treats” or “fun food” it makes these foods more desirable. Especially when we say “eat something healthy and then you can have a treat”, kids learn two things: 1.”Healthy” food is not enjoyable and 2. “Treats” have to be earned with undesirable foods 

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The way we talk about food informs adolescents’ relationship with food

We want adolescents to be able to eat and enjoy all foods without feeling guilt or shame. 

When we call food “good” and “bad” (or any of the other descriptors above), that’s kind-of impossible! Those are judgement laden words, so by definition, they create judgement around the food, leading to feeling badly about eating them. 

Often, these negative feelings can lead to sneaking food or turning to diet culture rules instead of trusting themselves around food. 

If we talk about food neutrally or positively, then when adolescents eat those food, they can feel neutral or positive about it, supporting a better relationship with food

How to stop labeling food

Recognize that all food provides some benefit

Once we realize there’s a reason we eat any food, we can’t call it junk or garbage or whatever negative name, because we’re getting benefits from it! Sure, it may not be as nutritive as another food, but that doesn’t make it all bad or necessary to remove from our life.

Neutralize the food by calling it by its name

Chocolate, candy, chicken, potatoes, bread, etc.

Rather than looking at “proteins”, enjoy eating eggs, nuts, meat, fish, seeds, and chicken.

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Instead of talking about “carbohydrates”, say bread, noodles, crackers, cereal, or cookies.

Nix “treats”, and offer (or deny) ice-cream, candy, soda, or chips.

When we stop labeling foods, we stop labeling (unintentionally) the people who eat these food, and help support a good relationship with food and body!