How often do you eat your words? Insights from nutritionist and TEDxLondonWomen speaker, Pixie Turner, on how language influences the way we eat.
We couldn’t get enough of Pixie’s ideas about the ways in which our attitudes to food, diet culture and our bodies intersect, in her thought-provoking talk “Why there is no such thing as good or bad food” from this year’s TEDxLondonWomen.
Pixie’s words clearly resonated with so many of you too, so we decided to delve a little deeper. We asked Pixie to help us explore our use of language in relation to food, and here’s what we learned…
Hi Pixie, your talk references the language we often use around food, such as labelling food items as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and therefore assigning intrinsic values, not only to the food itself but potentially also to those who consume it.
How is it that we came to label food as “good” or “bad”?
We like simple narratives! Health is an incredibly complex thing, and as we’ve received more messages from society around good health being equivalent to good morals and being a good person, we’ve sought out simple answers. Now we have a new diet book every week rather than every few years, and each one has a simple list of foods to eat and foods to avoid. Nice and simple. And also wrong.
How did you come to realise the impact of the language we use to describe food?
One of my close friends of many years, Maxine Ali, is a linguist, and I feel I’ve learnt so much from our conversations around food and health. Once I became aware of it I started seeing black-and-white food language all around, and it hasn’t left my mind since.
Now we have a new diet book every week rather than every few years, and each one has a simple list of foods to eat and foods to avoid. Nice and simple. And also wrong. – Pixie Turner
What advice can you offer on evolving the language we use around food, and how might this help us?
Most people don’t benefit from calling food ‘good’ and ‘bad’, so it’s worth considering our language just for our own benefit, as well as those around us. After all, people have very different ideas of what food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there’s no universal definition. It takes time and practice, but the more you do it the easier it gets – like learning to drive a car. I recommend calling food by its name. It’s not a ‘carb’ , it’s rice. It’s not a ‘protein’, it’s chicken. Instead of ‘unhealthy’, call it ‘less nutrient dense’ food. Now it’s not absolute, it’s relative.
You remind us in your talk that emotional eating is actually a natural phenomenon – “a solution our brain created at a time it was needed”. Yet, this behaviour is often perceived as something shameful instead.
What do you think are the key societal influences that have shaped the prevailing narratives in western societies?
I think our public health narratives and policy around body size has hugely contributed to this. Our fatphobia makes us terrified of gaining weight – which is really what many are concerned about when it comes to emotional eating. There’s also a narrative around ‘being in control’ and having ‘willpower’, rather than being seen as ‘greedy’ for eating when not hungry. People just don’t understand that emotional eating often isn’t a conscious choice in the moment.
What action can we take in our own lives to try to transform this?
I think we can all show ourselves a little more kindness and compassion around food. We know from research that shaming doesn’t lead to health-promoting behaviours, in fact, it tends to do the opposite. That includes judging and shaming yourself.
We can also actively aim to pursue a wider range of coping mechanisms to help with our emotions. Food can absolutely be one of these, but we want more than just food where possible. This will likely involve different tools for different emotions. Journaling may help when you feel sad or anxious, but maybe not when you’re angry. Practice more nuanced, constructive language around food too, especially when with others, and notice the difference in how you feel.
We know from research that shaming doesn’t lead to health-promoting behaviours, in fact, it tends to do the opposite. That includes judging and shaming yourself. -Pixie Turner
Thank you, Pixie, for these fascinating reflections and practical suggestions to help us explore and improve our own relationships with food. Pixie reminds us that food should not be a vehicle for shame or guilt, and fulfils valid emotional needs for many, despite the conflicting narratives that are so often reflected back at us.
Positively changing societal attitudes around food will certainly take time; however, we’re grateful to Pixie for shining a light on how we can begin to realign attitudes to the food we eat, with kindness and compassion. One bite at a time.