‘Cheat Days,’ ‘Clean Eating,’ and Other Food-Related Phrases We Need to Stop Using Already

‘Cheat Days,’ ‘Clean Eating,’ and Other Food-Related Phrases We Need to Stop Using Already
Photo: Josep Suria, Shutterstock

Chocolate cake is never just delicious; it’s decadent. Popcorn can’t be merely tasty; it’s guilt-free. Your friend didn’t just help themselves to seconds; they feel the need to talk about working it off in the gym tomorrow.

I know I’ve wasted a lot of my life being that friend, the one who always undermines a good meal as “sooooo bad” (that’s exactly what I sound like, too). And it’s not the food itself that’s bad — in fact, the thing that’s bad (morally) is that the food is good (taste-wise). When we feel like food is somehow bad for us, we take the alarming leap of declaring ourselves bad for eating it.

In past articles we’ve discussed the pitfalls of food shaming, as well as why you maybe shouldn’t equate tasty snacks with serious addiction. From guilty to guilt-free, assigning moralistic language to food is a dangerous road. Good Housekeeping spoke with Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), to describe the pervasive lexicon of diet culture:

[It’s] when we say we need to “burn off” or “make up for” the cheeseboard we shared with friends; when we skip the dessert we want and ponder if even snagging a bite of our partner’s dessert is “worth it”; whenever we ascribe virtue to our food choices, giggling that it’s naughty when we choose to eat what we crave or what comforts us, or good when we opt for low-calorie, low-carb, or other foods diet culture has deemed healthy.

But there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” food, at least according to Dr. Alix Timko, a psychologist in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who focuses on eating disorders. “Food is food,” Timko told us, “and we shouldn’t use moralizing language that only sets us up for failure.”

Below are some common words and phrases that equate fuelling yourself with some kind of character judgment. You can push back against this kind of language and start to repair your relationship with the food you “deserve,” no matter who you are.

“Guilt-free”

Enjoying a pint of ice cream is not a moral wrong. You will not have to stand trial in calorie-counting court. If nothing else, I believe that this sexualized, slender cow owes me financial compensation for lording over the grocery aisle with its “guilty” and “guilt-free” rulings. Plus, this brand of moralistic marketing is yet another cost of diet culture — the financial one, where we’re pressured into buying more expensive alternatives under the gimmick of “guilt-free” choices.

“I’m having seconds — don’t judge me.” / “I deserve these.”

  1. An extra helping of food is not grounds to have other people judge you. (Unless we’re talking about hot dog eating contests, in which it is the sole ground for judges judging you.)
  2. You “deserve” food for simply existing. Sure, our caloric and nutritional needs depend on a lot of factors, but eating is not something you need to “earn.”

“Clean eating”

Blegh. I’m cringing at the visual of getting my mouth washed out with soap. “Clean?” The word choice is at best confusing and at worst puritanical. Generally “clean eating” refers to foods that aren’t blatantly over-processed, but the phrasing has lost its meaning to the point of being nothing more than another diet culture trap.

“Junk food”

Similar to “clean eating,” the idea of what qualifies as “junk” has become too ambiguous to be a helpful term. Like with describing something as “artery clogging,” it’s problematic and dismissive to condemn certain foods as wholly unhealthy. This sort of language prevents us from enjoying so-called “junk foods” as the treats that they can and should be.

“Sinful”

This one isn’t even subtle. I’m not Eve in the Garden of Eden. I’m a hungry writer helping herself to some chocolate almonds. Let’s stop whipping out the biblical language to judge — or more accurately, tempt — various food choices.

Honorable mentions: indulgent, decadent, dangerous.

“I can’t believe I ate that, I’m so fat now.”

“Fat” is a body shape–not a synonym for “uncomfortable” or “bad.” Whether or not you are fat, it won’t be because of the one meal you just finished. The consequences of fatphobic language is a pressing issue on its own, but for now, try to avoid equating fat bodies with shame or failure.

“Well, you’re skinny, you can eat whatever you want.”

Similar to the example above, someone’s body type (skinny, fat, whatever) shouldn’t be used to deny or allow yourself food. This language reinforces the belief in thinness as the ideal to strive toward. And if we assume being thin is a permission slip to enjoy food freely, what are we saying about being fat? Let’s stop using each others’ body types as shorthand for who gets to enjoy food without guilt.

“Cheat days” / “Calories don’t count when you ____”

A calorie is a calorie: a unit of measurement that has no ethical hang-ups. When we say calories don’t count on special occasions, we’re reinforcing the diet culture mindset that they must be counted/monitored/restricted on non-“cheat” days. In reality, calorie counts are misleading for a number of reasons, and they shouldn’t be the lens through which you judge your food (or yourself).

“Somebody stop me.” / “Take this away from me.”

No, I will not take your nachos away from you. This one just makes me sad. Food is about trying new things, sharing experiences, and nurturing yourself — I will not take that away from you!

“I’ve been bad.” / “I’m being good.”

So simple, so elegant, so damaging. Call me dramatic, but it’s no small thing that we casually take the food we eat and make sweeping statements about who we are: someone who is good, or someone who is bad.

Diet culture places thinness as a sign of achievement, freedom, and morality. Anything that threatens this ideal (read: eating) needs to be joked about, excused, or punished as some kind of wrongdoing.

No matter your physical goals, it’s unhealthy to associate the act of feeding yourself with guilt. Assigning morals to your food is arguably worse for you than any sugary dessert could ever be.

And if you’re looking to start repairing your relationship with food, you could try intuitive eating to practice approaching eating with kindness and an open mind.

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