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A handy guide to the toxic language of diet culture

Melissa d'Arabian/AP
“Detoxing” is mostly a marketing expression.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The holiday season, with its parties, buffets, and multi-course feasts, is coming to an end—which means that the season of abstinence, atonement, and New Year’s resolutions is upon us. At least, that’s the narrative that diet companies and gyms are eager to foist upon us come Jan. 1—and no wonder, when the bulk of their industries’ yearly revenue is made in the first month of the year, as people try (and often fail) to live up to a set of rather arbitrary standards that have little to do with real health or wellness.

Here’s our handy guide to the toxic diet culture words and phrases you’ll hear a lot of this time of year—and what they really refer to.

“superfoods” or “miracle foods”
While it’s true that humans thrive when eating a balanced diet that’s high in fruit and vegetables, most foods touted as “super” or a “miracle” are simply … food. Many expensive and rare fad ingredients contain the same nutrients as the produce on sale at your local supermarket.
foods that are “poison” or “toxic” or “bad”
Some foods are not particularly healthy when eaten in disproportionately large quantities, or to people with specific allergies, but the fear-mongering language of referring to particular nutrients as “poison” or “toxic” is incorrect and counter-productive. Again, unless it’s truly poisonous, it’s probably just food.
“junk food” or “processed food”
It’s accurate and sometimes useful to identify high-calorie foods with low nutritional value—soda, candy, chips, etc.—as foods that shouldn’t comprise your entire diet. But which foods are “junk” is a moving target. It doesn’t make sense to dismiss all processed food out of hand, and these terms can also be a class-based way of shaming certain food choices. Also, demonizing certain foods without acknowledging that they are delicious, or without understanding why they are cheap and ubiquitous, ignores essential truths. And even junk food can have a place in a varied, balanced diet.
“cheat day”
The concept of a “cheat day” comes from diet culture—the way WW, for example, encourages participants to take occasional days off from the program, or not count points for events like birthday celebrations. It’s also an (unproven) weight-loss strategy that claims to “reset” the metabolism and make a very restrictive diet easier to follow. The language assumes everyone is dieting—and suggests that restrictive eating is normal, and a “cheat day” where you eat what you feel like eating is the exception.
“decadent,” “sinful,” “naughty”
As Kat Kinsman wrote last year in Cooking Light, there’s nothing sinful about overeating: “Food—even sweet, gooey, calorie-laden, carb-heavy, and fatty fare—is morally neutral.” There’s something deeply puritanical about labeling a bodily function as bad when it is also pleasurable. (Sort of like sex.)
a “cleanse”
Subsisting on juices or broths or herbal infusions or some other single category of foods for short periods of time may not necessarily be harmful (though it certainly can be for some). In most cases, however, a more accurate way to describe it is a “crash diet”—not some life-giving salve.
“clean eating”
The mostly white gurus of  “clean eating” have managed to make bland, unadorned food appear more moral, but the use of “clean” to describe some foods is problematic and judgmental. It also has a role in the rise of the eating disorder known as orthorexia. And of course, if some foods are “clean,” others have to be “dirty.”
Sometimes it’s just a nice way to talk about getting a massage or going to yoga; other times it’s a way of re-packaging diet culture into a friendlier-seeming, but still highly profitable, business. The “wellness” industry has managed to market the thin, white, able-bodied ideal as a health concern rather than an arbitrary and class-based standard. And true wellness is much broader than just nutrition and exercise: The “wellness wheel” concept is a useful way to think about what else it includes.
“You look great! Have you lost weight?”
This common piece of body-shaming small talk efficiently conveys that you think a person should be trying to lose weight. This is especially awkward if the person hasn’t lost weight, or has lost weight for a less-than-cheerful reason, such as depression, an eating disorder, or an illness. As a general rule of thumb, it’s not polite to comment on the shape of people’s bodies.
“the body you want”; a “beach body”; a “perfect body”
These euphemisms assume every person is trying to get thinner. Not everyone is trying to lose weight. And, as food writer Mark Bittman and doctor David L. Katz recently wrote: “Not everything that causes weight loss or apparent metabolic improvement in the short term is a good idea. Cholera, for instance, causes weight, blood sugar, and blood lipids to come down—that doesn’t mean you want it!”
“atone” or do “penance”  with exercise
When we consider foods bad or sinful, it’s natural to think that there should be a penance to pay for eating them, and exercise is often framed as the way to exact that punishment. This punitive approach isn’t the best way to sustain a healthy level of movement in daily life. Instead, consider what forms of movement and exercise make you feel great while you’re in the act of doing them.
“earn” certain foods
This is a kind of pre-atonement, suggesting that you must punish yourself with exercise to justify enjoying food—not because it’s delicious or your body is craving its nutrients, but because you earned it.
“holiday weight gain”
The panicked onslaught of advice about how to stave off weight gain during the holidays is based on a persistent myth that tends to dramatically overestimate the amount of weight people gain, on average, during the holiday season. And the broad preoccupation with this weight gain is a kind of societal dysfunction, as the body positivity activist Virgie Tovar points out: “The holidays are the way that the culture normalizes dieting and binging and restricting behavior on a grand scale. It’s okay to indulge during socially sanctioned, culturally approved moments, and then it’s quickly followed up by an expectation of restriction…we have this kind of feasting period as a culture and then January is the deadline of when that has to stop.”
“I’m just concerned about your health.”
Concern-trolling” can manifest as over-emphasizing or invasively inquiring about health metrics such as weight or cholesterol levels, and it can be a way to fat-shame while maintaining a veneer of polite concern.
“war on obesity” or “obesity crisis”
As the writer Michael Hobbes laid out brilliantly in the Huffington Post’s Highline, weight is an imperfect indicator of health. Any talk of the so-called scourge of obesity that does not acknowledge the systemic and societal factors that contribute to the condition’s prevalence, and the ways that fat people are mistreated and misdiagnosed by the health care system, should be regarded with suspicion. Our industrial food system, a shame-based medical approach, and the stigmatizing of fat people are all crises, too.

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