Healthism and Food

One of the most commonly expressed forms of healthism comes up at the table, where people feel absolutely free to comment on what other people are eating, with additional suggestions on what they should or should not be eating. Whether it’s legislators attempting to pass soda bans or people at dinner who feel like it’s appropriate to nose into someone else’s plate, food policing is widely culturally accepted and pushing back on it can result in some serious fireworks as people are shocked, genuinely shocked, that people might prefer to eat their food in peace.

There’s a kind of growing awareness in some communities that food policing is a problem and it’s not appropriate, where people are conscious of the fact that maybe they shouldn’t talk about what people are eating. Unfortunately, this sometimes diverts into a stealth form of healthism, where people talk about what they eat, which is in its own way a form of commentary on what other people are eating. It’s hard to pin these people down and explain why what they are doing is harmful, because if you play back their sentences to them (in the metaphorical sense, please do not go ’round recording people), it’s often hard to specifically highlight what the problem is.

‘Vegetables are just so healthy,’ they say. ‘They make me feel so good.’

Nutritionally, it’s a fact that many vegetables contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals. They are in fact a fairly healthy food for many people to eat, although that’s not the case for everyone; not just people who have allergies to vegetables, but those with food sensitivities, texture problems, and other issues that make it hard to eat them. When you hear over and over again that vegetables are healthy, the implication is that other foods are not (not true) and that if you don’t/can’t eat vegetables you are not healthy and should feel bad (not true). What may sound like an innocent statement of fact on the surface is actually not, because of the loaded cultural context in which that statement is occurring. Yes, vegetables are healthy—food is healthy.

‘They make me feel so good.’ Framed as an I-statement, this is one of those fascinatingly borderline comments that always irks me because it’s so hard to push back against it. It is a fact, again, that some people feel great when they eat vegetables. Personally, I notice that when I eat a lot of dark leafy greens in my diet, I do in fact feel more energetic. Yay. Great for me. My dietary habits and body fit in to the dominant paradigm, which is that vegetables are good for you and they make you feel good.

But again, that’s not the case for everyone. I-statements like this sometimes carry a whiff of universal narrative, another implication that the listener should also experience this, that vegetables are healthy and make everyone feel good, and they can carry a particularly complex connotation for people with a habit of disordered eating or those in recovery. Singling out low-calorie vegetables for attention as ‘safe’ foods is not uncommon among people who experience disordered eating, and that’s in part because of this rhetoric, that vegetables are healthy and make people feel good.

Being reminded of this can be extremely triggering, because you’re getting the dual reminder of everything you believe that reinforces disordered eating. Vegetables are healthy! So you should just eat carrots and celery because they will keep you strong and beautiful, and oh yes, soon you will be thin, thin, thinner like you wanted to be. But they’re healthy, so there’s nothing wrong with your diet, and you don’t need intervention or help, because you are eating a balanced, healthy diet. Everyone says so!

And they make you feel good! So you can eat all the (low-calorie) vegetables you want because they make your body feel great. You are really taking control of (shrinking, abusing) your body with all those vegetables you eat and you feel so awesome and energetic and fabulous. Good for you, for feeling good. You can affirm yourself in public and people will support you: Yes, vegetables ARE! healthy! they DO! make you feel good! Go you! You are making such responsible dietary choices!

As someone with my own history of disordered eating, I really struggle with this kind of healthism because it’s so difficult to explain to people that what they are doing is a problem. It sounds too much like telling other people how to think or feel, or like harshing their squee in a sense, because here they are talking about how great vegetables are and here I come along saying ‘you are harming me and people like me.’ But that is, honestly, what people are doing, because they’re not considering the impact of their words on the people around them, and the deeply embedded healthism involved in what they’re saying.

Saying ‘I love vegetables,’ on the other hand, is still an I-statement, it’s still an expression of love for produce, and it carries much less of a healthism value judgement. It’s about how vegetables are wonderful, but it’s not about how they make you feel—and by implication, how you think other people should feel about vegetables. It’s a statement someone is free to agree or disagree with without feeling put on the spot, pressured, or triggered.

Because the fact of the matter is: I really fucking love vegetables. And it’s a-okay if you don’t.