Hot Topic: ‘Healthy’ food companies need to distance themselves from the emotional language of toxic
A fistful of fries, glistening with salt and dunked in ketchup, definitely isn’t the smartest, healthiest eating option. But treating yourself to them occasionally won’t suddenly make your heart putter to a stop, your legs swell twice their size nor clog your arteries.
We don’t eat purely for the purposes of physical health. Eating is emotional. We eat for enjoyment, for pleasure, for comfort. You’ll know that if you’ve ever eaten warming tomato soup when you’re feeling ill (it’s not actually packed with healing properties), had ice cream from the tub after a breakup or retreated to chicken nuggets and potato waffles when you need to feel safe and soothed.
That’s the lovely side of our emotional relationship to food.
There’s also the damaging side. That’s the one dieting culture uses against us. If a juice is ‘clean’, your can of Coke is ‘dirty’. You need to ‘detox’ and ‘cleanse’ with food that’s ‘guilt-free’ (because, apparently, you should feel guilty for eating food that isn’t ‘clean’ and ‘good’).
Certain foods are ‘good’, we’re told, because they’re clean, they’re green, they’re unprocessed, they’re free of every single ingredient that’s ever been linked to negative effects. These foods are healthy, that’s true, but companies are using marketing tactics to tap into our emotions by casting these foods as morally good and other foods as morally bad.
Diet culture can be spotted in the obvious places: weight loss clubs, adverts for protein shakes, teas promising to make you lose weight in 30 days. But it also seeps into the everyday action of buying and eating food – and that’s dangerous. ‘Healthy’ fast food retailer Leon’s ‘vision’, published on their website and on their large paper bags, asks why fast food can’t be good food.
(Picture: Ellen Scott/metro.co.uk)
‘As children, we considered fast food the biggest treat imaginable,’ it writes. ‘But then we grew up, and realised that most fast food makes you fall asleep and wake up fat.’ In logical terms, this simply isn’t true. Weight is not put on overnight, but happens slowly, over time, as a result of continued eating habits. One McDonald’s meal will not make you ‘wake up fat’.
It’s also not a certain type of food that makes you fat, or unhealthy – it’s your habits around that food.
Eat an excess of Leon’s food and yes, you will put on weight. The same goes for Burger King or McDonald’s. Take in more calories than you burn and weight goes on. Leon’s chicken burger comes in at 460 calories. McDonald’s McChicken Sandwich has 388 calories.
If you stuck to the traditional fast food, then, you might actually lose weight – but you wouldn’t necessarily be healthier. That’s because weight, and being ‘fat’ isn’t actually a good indication of health. It is perfectly possible to be slim and deeply unhealthy. It’s possible to be fat and be in great health. But in order to sell their fast food as the superior option, Leon has chosen to play into our fear and guilt over what just one meal of non-Leon fast food can do. And that’s dangerous.
Those with disordered eating habits often have the idea that one meal, one choice, could completely derail their health and physicality. They’ll feel that if they had a ‘bad’ meal in the evening, they need to ‘make up for it’ by not eating the next day, or restricting their diet to unhealthily small portion sizes. Away from diagnosable conditions, many of us have very complex relationships to food. Fear doesn’t lead to healthy choices – it leads to guilt, worry, and wholly negative feelings.
It’s pretty difficult to never, ever, ever eat anything that isn’t nutritionally perfect. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to ever, ever, eat that is. Telling people those things are ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ won’t stop them eating them, but it will make them feel bloody awful afterwards. Eating disorders are not the fault of diet culture, they arise from all kinds of issue, but as the name suggests, diet culture does influence our, well, culture.
See a message enough and it’ll sink in and change your perspective. It’s been shown by a number of academics and researchers that simply the words and images advertising use can change not only your purchasing habits but how you feel about them – even if you’re not consciously taking that messaging in.
And that’s the problem: These messages around food are popping up a lot, in places they shouldn’t be.
Seeing that language in all the usual places but when they’re popping up in your regular lunch spot, it spreads the culture far wider that just those people search for it. Head into Whole Foods and you’ll see signs talking about ‘real food’, as though food from any other place simply doesn’t qualify as nourishment. Pret a Manger now sells shots of activated charcoal and Daily Greens. At Crussh, salads are ‘healthpots’ and their hot food is ‘fit’.
(Picture: Liberty Antonia Sadler)
I don’t eat at these places because I’m scared to ‘wake up fat’. I eat there because they’re a few f the lunch options near my office. I don’t go in there with the mindset of losing weight, which is why it feels jarring to have diet culture seep in through Leon’s branding. There’s an assumption that if you’re in one of these places, you must be there to be clean, fit, healthy. You can’t possibly be there just because you’re simply hungry and need to eat.
I get it – companies such as Leon and Crussh position themselves as healthy options. They’re big on listing the ingredients of their products and their calorie counts, they use words like ‘greens’ and ‘antioxidants’. But there’s a way to promote health that doesn’t rely on the emotional tactics of diet culture. If your product is an alternative to fast food in that it has less salt and preservatives, that’s absolutely something to shout about. But you don’t need to rely on the emotional subterfuge of guilt, ‘badness’, and being fat.
This may have been acceptable in 2004, when Leon started, but with our society moving towards fat acceptance and body positivity, shouting about being fat as if it’s a terrifying thing is no longer okay.
It’s easy to dismiss these issues as being an oversensitive snowflake, or blocking out the real health implications of obesity. But the reality is that the way we talk about food, bodies, and physical health matters. The way we deal with our emotional relationship food has a serious impact.
Normalising this fear and promoting an unhealthy obsession with wellness and restricted eating doesn’t just encourage disordered eating, but makes it harder to spot when there’s a problem, allowing many of those struggling to slip through the net, their measly lunch or refusal to eat a biscuit viewed as just standard dieting behaviour.
Meanwhile, those facing binge eating disorder – which can very often be a cause of the obesity fat-shaming culture – claims it’s trying to battle against, are internalising and reacting to unhealthy emotional relationships with food in a different way. There’s fear there, too: A fear of a loss of control, that food is more powerful than the person. Piling on more fear and guilt isn’t the answer to that. It’s honest, up front language about the makeup of food – without any moralising.
Food companies promoting health and providing healthy options should focus on what their food offers in terms of nutritional benefits and calorie counts, leaving it up to the customer whether they want to use that information as the basis for their immediate diet choice. That means listing ingredients, describing what products contain and what they offer. There is no need for emotionally charged, diet-focused language like ‘clean’, ‘fat’, or ‘guilt’ to get that across. It’s simple: Do better, and let your food speak for itself without the judgy tone.