The Language of Wellness

Our words matter.

When it comes to wellness, there is so many buzz words that go viral on social media and become part of our culture.

These words are always evolving, and I'll even admit that I've said some diet-y things in the past. I've updated posts I've written from several years ago and can see how my mindsets have evolved - even when I thought I was non-diet focused, little things from diet culture snuck in. Dietitians are definitely not immune to this language and may be struggling with eating disorders, orthorexia, or disordered eating themselves. I won't be calling myself a clean eating, paleo, or 'real food' dietitian anytime soon.

Why Language Matters

Kids pick up on things pretty early on. I've had plenty of clients come to me in eating disorder treatment after their doctors tell them to cut out sugar, carbs, or to lose weight (as a pre-teen or teenager - so unethical!). There's even studies showing a large majority of kids as young as six worry about their body are engage in dieting. This is so sad to me.

When kids hear adults talking about foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, or talk negatively about bodies, they hear that. I've heard awful stories from health classes in school as well, including having kids count their calories or not allowing certain foods at schools.

For many people, it becomes internalized. We start to believe - consciously or not - that when we eat something "good" or "healthy," it means we're worthy, good, or healthy. On the other hand, that also means we feel bad about ourselves or guilty when we eat something that is "bad" or "unhealthy."

As a culture, we're terrified of weight gain or being unhealthy, so we try to control that through our food.

When that fear exists, we fall prey to the fear-based language and ridiculous health claims that promise health, happiness, and unicorns.

Example: All those juice cleanse or detox teas tell you that you need their product to rid their body of 'toxins.' They promise increased energy, weight loss, 'detoxification,' better digestion, and more.

You could be innocently browsing Instagram and a detox ad pops up. All of the sudden, you worry that you're full of toxins and believe you need this product.

Ambiguous, Fancy Language

The problem is all this ambiguous, fancy language.

What are these toxins? Why do we need juice or teas to detox? 

As a dietitian, I know that my liver does a pretty great job of detoxifying, which is its job. I know any weight loss that would happen would be water weight, and there's little (or no) science to support the use of juice cleanses or detox teas.

Yet, the general population does not have the scientific background, and when health care professionals like doctors or dietitians are promoting these things, then it's so easy to fall for these myths. Just look at one of the biggest offenders: Dr. Oz, and there are so many doctors that write annoying diet books.

If you see a book with the name The (insert diet here) Cure or The (insert diet here) Detox or add the word miracle in there, run away fast. While there are many great doctors that can provide health at every size care of refer to a dietitian, many doctors do not have that much education in nutrition.

This can lead people to believe they need certain foods or supplements in their diet to be healthy, or that they need to eat in a certain way to avoid sickness. 

While some foods or supplements may have a positive effect, many don't, and many styles of eating can actually be harmful to physical or mental health. Still, many effects may be a nocebo effect.

There is harm to using this fear-based language. We're creating a culture obsessed with food, exercise, and wellness that believes they are never doing "enough." When you believe unscientific beliefs that sugar in fruit is dangerous, or that you need a superfood smoothie everyday, there can be harm to your health. It can lead people towards disordered eating or eating disorders, orthorexia, or just so much physical, mental, and financial stress around food. 

Our bodies are resilient, and there is no one style of eating that works for everyone. There may be a few guidelines that can be helpful for most people, including eating a wide variety of foods, eating overall balanced meals and snacks on a regular basis, enjoying your food, and learning to tune into your body (intuitive eating). 

Unfortunately, there's nothing sexy or headline-grabbing about those things.

Most people are interested in reading those articles that make big claims or is an extreme way of eating rather than just hearing to eat a wide variety of foods. 

While nutrition science can be fascinating (at least to me, #nerdalert), most of it is not. Some people may see 'eating a variety of foods' is boring compared to hearing that cutting out a certain food will triple your energy.

Many of these sensationalist claims about nutrition are either purely inaccurate or the science is blown out of proportion. A short-term study that's done on rats cannot be applied to humans - or in other words a study that shows rats are "addicted" to sugar does not mean "sugar addiction" is a real thing in humans.

What to Watch Out For

All of us, especially dietitians, health care professionals, therapists, and even wellness bloggers, should be talking about health and wellness in clear, understandable language, or explain it better. If that's you, stop using this diet-culture, fear-based language, such as clean eating, sugar addiction, encouraging restriction of entire foods or food groups, and telling people they must eat or not eat certain foods.

If you're a reader, here's what to watch out for in wellness spheres. If you see something you don't understand, question it, call it out, or unfollow that person. Here are some things to be aware of, but I'm sure there are so many more, and things are always changing. 

  • Fear-based language

  • Hidden diet-culture language like 'lifestyle,' 'eat intuitively and you can lose weight.'

  • Ridiculous health claims, especially claiming a diet or food can cure everything

  • Making claims that a food or diet can cure or heal something on its own. Often, there is a combination of supportive tools. The only example I have is a food allergy or celiac disease where clearly cutting out the food will support health.

  • Ambiguous, unclear language - toxins, detox, cleanse, healing, real, clean, the "best" way to eat

  • Talk about what you 'should,' 'shouldn't' eat or promoting the idea that superfoods or certain foods are critical for health. Or talking about the "dangers of ____."

  • Promoting weight loss - ask them for the science or proof that it works (it doesn't exist)

  • Use of words like cheat, guilt/guilt-free, bad, unhealthy, junk food, or extreme ways of eating

  • Using medical language like will cure hormonal imbalances, detox your body, heal your digestion, and more.

Feel free to question me if you're unsure about anything I say as well :)

As Yoda says in Star Wars, "Unlearn what you have learned."* There's so much wellness BS out there, and it's become normalized in our culture to have food restrictions or follow extreme diets. We need to unlearn and question all the diet culture beliefs we have to create a balanced relationship with food, exercise, and our body.

*I'm years late to the party, but I'm currently watching all the Star Wars movies, and my boyfriend will be so proud of me for quoting it.

Lauren Fowler