I was recently sitting in the green room at a national talkshow, waiting for my turn to go on. A well-known chef was sitting with me, and we were chatting about how a customer of his had become distraught because his restaurant had no skim milk for her coffee.
‘What about my calories!’ she had said to him when she found only whole milk on the bar. He seemed shocked that anyone would be so afraid about a few extra calories, especially when most of us would agree that putting skim milk into coffee is just like adding water to your cup. Also, calorie counting sucks and is pretty much irrelevant and useless for most things, but that’s another post entirely.
This conversation came immediately on the heels of an article in a national newspaper in which I was quoted. I had told the reporter that a recent high-quality review of studies suggested that milk may be anti-inflammatory. Well. People in the comment section went absolutely ballistic at my remarks. How dare I say that dairy is healthy! It’s inflammatory! Milk is only for baby cows! How do I call myself a dietitian! I’m sure there was more in there, but I’m seriously afraid to go back and check. Some people confronted me on social media, and I happily sent them the research that I had used to back up my opinions. Then there was silence. I’m assuming that credible research to back up fear-based reactions like theirs just doesn’t exist.
Food has always been hooked into peoples’ emotions, but the dogma around what to eat/not eat appears to have reached critical mass. I think it’s because people are frustrated and at the end of their patience with mainstream nutrition and science. They don’t know who to trust for nutrition advice, so they readily accept more alternative – and not necessarily correct – views. Some of this advice is legit, but much of it is not. Goop is the perfect example of this: it has a huge following, but uses junk science and obvious scare tactics to appeal to peoples’ emotions and lure them in.
Even with unprecedented access to research studies and actual solid nutrition guidance, the rise of the ‘health guru’ continues on its upward trajectory, spouting nonsense the entire way.
My issue is not that people want to be healthy; it’s that they’re being scared into believing junky science and physiological untruths that aren’t making anyone healthier. There’s nothing healthy about being unnecessarily anxious about food; even though it’s done under the guise of ‘eating clean’, extreme cases can lead to orthorexia in susceptible people, and at the very least can be disruptive to a person’s life. It’s good to eat healthily, but healthy eating has as much to do with our attitude towards food as it does with the food choices we make.
The messed up attitude and fear of food in society is normalizing not-normal relationships with eating. This whole culture sucks the enjoyment, the social aspects, the pleasure – right out of food. Don’t be fooled: that is not normal eating.
It’s ironic that while we’re trying to be smarter about what we eat, it sometimes seems as though we’re becoming the exact opposite of that. In our truth-finding mission, we seem to be getting ourselves deeper into the untruths.
Whether it’s carbs, gluten, dairy, grains, chemicals, biohacking, or ‘eating clean’ (whatever that means), there’s always something that people get hung up on. Much of it is without merit.
For example: Cutting out gluten for no reason is, incredibly, still trendy, with over 3 million people across the US doing it – 75% of them with no celiac diagnosis in sight.
Google ‘should I avoid dairy’, and an unreasonably large amount of information that’s written by unqualified, dairy-phobic people pops up. In a recent survey done in the UK,, 1 out of 5 people under 25 were avoiding dairy, most due to taking the advice of ‘bloggers’.
But! On the other side of that, how much pro-dairy information online has been written or sponsored by the Dairy people? How many times have they, and other food industry representatives, sat at the table lobbying to be in a national Food Guide – supposedly unbiased and created as a guideline for the health of all people?
Why do most major nutrition conferences continue to be sponsored by food companies that many of us associate with industry and/or ultra-processed junk food?
So yes, I understand your consternation. I have the same concerns, and so do a lot of dietitians. It’s tough to know who’s being straight up and who’s not, but many of us are working to defuse your fears and concerns. To be honest, sometimes it feels like I’m a salmon trying to swim upstream.
I totally get it that some of you are distrustful of mainstream health practitioners and scientific studies. I understand that nutrition science and media flip flop annoyingly often and that messages get changed and that makes you suspicious. I know that some of you are disappointed in sponsorships and lobbyists and ‘big food’, and are looking for another, less ‘tarnished’ source for nutrition information. But please remember that not all science, and not all mainstream practitioners, are disreputable. And also remember that many ‘natural’ or alternative practitioners have something to sell, too. Business is business, and we all have bills to pay; even Gwyneth Paltrow.
We all want to be healthy, but being fearful is not a part of health; it detracts from it. Being healthy is being satisfied and happy in your own skin; feeding your body emotionally and physically. That is beautiful, that is an overall health that goes far beyond forcing yourself to eat 50 grams of carbs a day or else believing that you’re a failure as a person.
Eating to fulfill some arbitrary calorie or macro count isn’t really eating, it’s checking the boxes without any consideration of the quality and beauty of what you’re consuming. What if we took a step back and stopped counting things? If we cut out all the background noise and just trusted ourselves to make the right decisions about food? If we realized that not everything is life needs to be counted and measured, and that’s okay. We’ll be okay.
Fearing food can be so disruptive to our lives and wellbeing. It can stop us from eating foods that aren’t actually unhealthy for us; it can lead us to spend money on food and supplements that we don’t need; and it can cause us to expend energy and worry unnecessarily. It can cause us to miss or not enjoy social events that are supposed to be fun and relaxing. Really, don’t you have enough things to worry about without being concerned about whether your tomatoes are organic?
I want to get you back to where food isn’t a number or a ‘toxin’ that you need to hide from, and it isn’t something you obsess about all day long. By actually doing the work of stepping back and examining your attitude towards food, I’m hoping that you’ll see that most of what you’re fearful of is not all that scary after all. Educating ourselves and shining a light on what we’re afraid of tends to make it a whole lot less scary.
So what do we do?
Ask questions. Questioning things is not only okay, it’s mandatory and not everyone in mainstream healthcare is trying to sell you bullshit. Take the time to read about what someone is telling you to eat, instead of taking their word for it. Learn how to interpret and assess for quality the actual studies behind food recommendations, and know that media blows small headlines right out of proportion.
Think simply. If you don’t like something, don’t eat it just because you think you should. Eat food that you innately know to be healthy. You all know that vegetables, fruits, eggs, legumes, and other whole, minimally processed foods are better for you than ultra processed foods. And occasionally, ultra processed foods are fine. I mean, I’m not giving up Oreos. Sorry. Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you deviate from ‘healthy’ every so often. It’s called ‘normal eating’.
Take the Brazilian Food Guidelines as an example. Devoid of industry influence, this is what I believe eating and food choices should be about.
Be suspicious of hyperbolic claims and assertions, especially when those go against basic physiology. When someone claims that a food is ‘toxic’, don’t fall for their scare tactic. Also: detoxes don’t exist. If a person is offering advice but also has a product to sell you, be critical. No one can promise x pounds lost in x time, so beware of promises like those. Cast a wary eye on any diet that tells you to cut out an entire food group from your diet…especially for the long term. And it goes without saying that a diet that shames you into make changes is not okay.
Know that you can’t hack nature. Step back and stop the impulse to count everything in your life, as this only creates a disconnect between your body and food. Listen to your hunger and fullness cues, and if you need help with this, consult a registered dietitian to assist. Don’t let anyone convince you that you’d be more beautiful, worthy, or precious if you looked different. You’re perfect the way you are.
By educating ourselves to look past the hype, the bullshit, the sales pitches, and the convoluted ‘skinny is the only beautiful’ ways of our society, we’ll be stronger and smarter. We’ll be happier, less guilty eaters. We’ll love food again, and honour our bodies the way they deserve.
From one counselor to another..AMEN!!
Well said.. and I’ve been convinced for years that as much as the “nutritional” value in food,so in part is the attitude in which we consume it.
As it (emotion)is inherently a numerically unquantifiable, intangible construct, whether or not this will ever be “proven”is doubtful.. but in the meantime your alluding to it is helpful to me!!
This is so great! There is so much fear and so many are against milk and gluten and beef, etc. What will people eat if we are eliminating everything? I’ve tried eliminating milk and gluten and reduced beef to do a cleanse and I was starving all of the time. I went back to eat a variety of choices from food groups and I feel great. Variety is key I think. My Great Grandma ate with much variety with her home cooking and lived to be 93. Thank-you for your wonderful article discussing the problem with fear in the food world.