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The Language We Speak Shapes the Ways We Eat

By Liz McLean, F.E.A.S.T. Volunteer

I never gave much thought to the language of food and eating until my daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder. Since that diagnosis, I’ve become aware of the words we use regarding food on our screens, at our “girls’ lunches”, family dinners, and holiday parties.

My daughter’s dad and I grew up in homes run by old-school parents. These families required clean plates and not leaving the table until your green beans were finished. Dessert was something to be earned. Large amounts consumed were praised as being a “good eater.” Foods were viewed as good or bad.

Today’s advertising, the FDA, friends, and family tell parents what are the “good” foods and “bad” foods. I remember Jane Fonda’s leotards, leg warmers, and head bands when fats, cholesterol, red meats were “bad”. So people didn’t eat those foods and “good” parents didn’t serve them. If you wanted to be good, “low-fat” was the way to go.

Now “good fats” and Keto based diets with humanely raised and sustainable meats are “good.” Sugar, carbs, MSG, preservatives, GMOs and high fructose corn syrup are “bad.” Food companies will proudly advertise the lack of the “bad” on their boxes and labels. That’s how we keep up with what’s considered bad “no {fill in ingredient or chemical here}.”

When my children were little I used words like “healthy”, “not healthy” or “not good for you.” However, I didn’t realize how they were still hearing “good” and “bad.” Developmentally, young children are concrete and they think eating  something  “good” means they are good, and if they eat something “bad . . .” Yet, how often have we heard an adult, generally a woman, say, “I was so bad today, I ate x.”

If we want our children to eat intuitively and not based on some hierarchy of foods, where avocados are better than goldfish crackers, then we need to change our language. While I can’t change it for everyone, I can try to do it in my own home. Here are some things that I’m trying.

  1. I try to strip judgment words from food and the way I eat. In addition to good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, I try not to say I “should” or “shouldn’t” eat something. I try not to label my worth based on what I ate in a day. I was “good” today. I ate my brussel sprouts, etc.
  2. I call out misguided language regarding food and eating when I see it. My kids are old enough now that we can analyze ads together. We can talk about how we are inherently good and worthy independent of what we’ve done or eaten. We are all good by virtue of the fact that we exist.
  3. I make eating decisions based on my internal cues, not a clock, a scale, exercise, latest article, etc. “Lunchtime” is when I feel hungry. Hopefully my children see that.
  4. I talk about what I eat in terms of how it makes me feel. I say I could eat candy for dinner, but I choose not to because I wouldn’t feel or sleep well. I love dairy, but it doesn’t love me back. I’m eating eggs for breakfast to fuel my day.
  5. Meals are served “family” style. Food is served bowls and  passed without any discussion as to how much or how little a person takes. This empowers my children to eat based on their own cues. (Note, this is not done during the active weight restoration period.)
  6. If there is dessert it is served with the meal. It doesn’t have to be “earned.” I put out plates of broccoli and brownies together. If my son only takes brownies I don’t get to say a word. So hard! However, if I want my son to learn how to feed himself I will have to let him experience that sugar crash. He needs that natural consequence. He can’t learn by me preemptively telling him no.  He can call my bluff but I can’t flinch. Otherwise he won’t  believe me. It takes time to trust he will take the broccoli. But he will.

While eating disorders are extremely complex and we don’t know what causes them, the language we speak around eating and food matters. While we can’t eradicate eating disorders, we can talk about food differently. For my part I’ll serve cauliflower and cookies, not because they are good or bad, but because it’s what I’ve got in the house.







  1. Gwen Ackerman

    I love this Judy. I completely agree. We should all think about how do we teach our children that eating should be intuitive. My body is telling me it needs meat, or oranges or greens. And, of course, it does, if we learn how to listen and dont screw it up with all kinds of other messages. But as you point out — in the throes of ED — it is the friend I’ve come to call Rexia, my daughter’s best friend — who is in control, and she doesn’t really care what the body needs. All she wants is to see it emaciated.

    • Wendy Chantler

      So funny that you refer to Rexia! That’s what I call her too. Definitely someone my daughter and I don’t want to have around. I am currently reading Laura Thomas’ book about intuitive eating called “Just eat it”. The messages that we (and our children) are bombarded with daily about diets and so-called “healthy eating” is just mind blowing. I am inspired by this article because it highlights that whilst we can’t always change the attitudes of the big, bad world – we can at least positively impact our own “world”.

  2. Emma Anscombe

    Thanks Liz, I agree with what you’re saying, but I’ve got to call you out on misguided language – a sugar crash is not a thing

  3. Aerea

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I have reserves as a mother of a teenager with ARFID who is, nevertheless, doing better as she was previously diagnosed as anorexic from emetophobia. My generation fought against authoritarian parents to give our children better chances. What you predicate is what we did, with terrible results. Today, I think that we made an awful mistake by disregarding the methods of the past in the current environment, at least in affluent, Western societies. If children and teenagers are given the chance to choose between broccoli and supermarket cookies, they will go for cookies, because there is a whole food industry that preys on artificially created needs. We thought that they would naturally know that broccoli is best, but we were proven wrong. Thinking about genetic drivers, I believe that my father saved me from anorexia when I was about 8 years old when he forced me to eat my meal, using both his parental power, and a mix of Kantian and religious reasons for not wasting food when having it, is a privilege. Because I rejected his ways, we failed (with a very complacent husband) to teach both our daughters to do what needs to be done in order to remain healthy and thrive. We are in the process of finding new ways to deal with this terrible illness, but things should be called by their name.

  4. Meredith kukola

    I was brought up with old school parents too. I had 3 older siblings to fight over my share at the dinner table. My time with my daughters was eat everything in moderation. We are genetically slim and and we knew if we ate cakes and sweets we would gain weight. One daughter has an ED the other is into Fitness and Health foods. I think its how their brain is wired. My Ed daughter is afraid of growing up and all that comes with that. Her younger sister cant wait to start her independence. What l have learned from them both is they took lessons from me in different ways and l wasnt aware it would be a major issue at the time. Both felt loved and secure growing up, yet are So different going forward. I am aware now that food is not the issue itself but used as a tool to control, to cry out that she is not ready to face the world as an adult.

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