Language of Food 2

The Language of Food

Since 2009, our Whole30® program has helped you change your relationship with food. Last month, Whole9’s Erin Handley encouraged you to change your relationship with your body image. Today, we ask you to take an honest look at one more aspect of your life-changing transformation.

Your vocabulary.

Negative self-talk is one of the fastest ways of destroying self-esteem, sabotaging your goals, and negatively influencing your mood and emotions. “Fat-talk” (negative self-talk about your body) can lead to eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and low self-esteem. Statements like “I could have,” “I should be,” and “I used to” short-circuit progress towards your goals, and keep you focused on the past or future, not your accomplishments here in the present.

And what about the words we use to describe our food choices?

I was so good today, I ate strict Paleo.”

I was so bad today—I ate ice cream and chocolate cake at the party.”

I cheated on my Whole30 with a glass of wine.”

 “I totally failed—there were bread crumbs in that dish.”

 “I’ve been behaving with my diet, no gluten or dairy.”

 “I’m a disaster—I can’t stop eating sugar.”

You have no idea, the power of these words we choose to describe our food.

The Weight of Words

Linking your food choices with your self-worth is damaging and destructive. You are worth more than the food you put on your plate. Your value as a person has nothing to do with ice cream or broccoli.

Thinking of yourself as a good person or a bad person based on your food choices is damaging and destructive. You can be a good person who makes a healthy choice, or a good person who makes an unhealthy choice… but either way, you can be a good person.

Treating your diet like a jealous lover who will be critical and disapproving if you flirt with another is damaging and destructive. Food does not judge you. You are the only person with the power to do that.

Deeming yourself a success or failure (implied: in life) based solely on what you ate is damaging and destructive. Are you a success because you ate broccoli, or because you demonstrated kindness to someone? Are you a failure despite your kindness, simply because later that day, you caved to a craving?

Treating yourself like a child who needs to “be good” on their diet is damaging and destructive. What happens when a child misbehaves? They are punished. And food should never be associated with punishment.

Insulting yourself for your choices—any choices—is perhaps the most damaging and destructive behavior of all. You aren’t a mess, a disaster, a train wreck. You are a good person, struggling with a difficult issue. You are more than just the results of your struggles.

Learn a New Language

Someone asked us on Facebook recently, “I ate Paleo all day, and I know what to call that—I just say I ate ‘strict Paleo.’  But what should I call it when later, I eat some fried dough?”




 What if we just called it, “eating fried dough?”

As you have changed your relationship with food, and are changing your relationship with your body, today we invite you to develop a new language around your food.

You are not good or bad based on your choices. They are simply choices.

You do not cheat, you make a choice.

You do no fail, you make a choice.

You can be a good person who made a bad choice.

There is no guilt, only consequence.

There is no punishment, only consequence.

Imagine, for a moment, that your food is just food, and that your choices are just choices—good, bad, those words describe your decisions, not you. Imagine how freeing that would be?

Your food choices are not a statement about your self-worth, your value, or your significance in this world. Believe this, and everything changes.


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  1. says

    I’m really enjoying these articles that address the aspects of health beyond appearance, calories, and reps and sets. I think this sort of thing is exactly what we need to develop. Healthy relationship wih health.

    Language is immensely powerful. When I first decided to turn my life around back in 2009, focusing on healthy living and eating, changing my words was the only thing I had going for me. No matter how bad things got, I always couched them in terms of optimism, hope and the potential for future growth. Every ‘failure’ was a ‘lesson learned’.

    I think it’s important to be aware of negative language, but I also think its better to adopt positive, rather than neutral language. As long as you keep your head and don’t lose touch with reality, it provides more motivation to keep growing than simply calling things what they are. After all, we choose how we see the world, so we might as well see it as a journey of constant growth.

  2. April says

    Thank you so much for this- I loved the part of ISWF when you talked about how it’s just a choice of what you eat each day and I’m glad you touched on it here. I struggle so much with guilt when I want to eat something I know will make me feel bad later. I think this kind of negative self talk can also make you more likely to binge or eat something that you don’t REALLY want to, but you just feel so bad that you want to make yourself feel better. Since I’ve started thinking of it as choices, I find that a lot of stuff just isn’t worth it!

  3. says

    A change in words can have the power to prompt a paradigm shift, and these are the makers of worlds. The Whole9 paradigm is one I want to see the world through. This post on self-talk links so well to the wise words you often say regarding with whom we should spend our time: positive people, people who root for us, who help us achieve our goals, who are truthful and willing to dig through the tough stuff. These are also people whom we should strive to be. This post provides a step in that direction. Thank you for always providing the steps to get things done (to be people we want to be.)

  4. TimN says

    Hey for those that might want to follow the rabbit hole of conscious language check out the work of Robert Tennyson Stevens.

  5. Su Miller says

    So totally me! I’ve dealt with poor self image for years from mispoken words of others in my childhood that I never let go of 30 years later. I still battle those words I hear in myself, but eventually, I will win the war. :D

  6. Paul says

    “Your food choices are not a statement about your self-worth, your value, or your significance in this world.”

    Interesting observation. I have noticed in the last decade a billion dollar industry has grown up around the exact opposite observation (parodied brilliantly in Portlandia).

  7. says

    I have caught myself saying, “Man today was a total fail” before. And you are very right, we tend to beat ourselves up about it. One thing I got good about doing though was just responsing to myself, “Well, right now, we start again.” While I’m not sure the negative self talk causes us problems, it certainly is an indicator about how we feel about ourselves and our goals.

  8. Mary says

    I have always hated the term “cheat” that is so widely used in the Paleo-sphere. I associate it with really heinous behavior, like cheating on a test or a spouse. But here we’re just talking food!! and it is considered an acceptable thing. “I had a cheat day.” Imagine if you said that about your marriage.

    It’s like every time you let something imperfect pass your lips you have committed a sin. No, like in the article, you have just made a decision to eat something that is less than perfect. It’s not a sin and it’s not going to kill you. I won’t refer to eating imperfect food as “cheating” or even “slipping” – it’s just eating imperfect food. Our bodies are incredibly resilient and they can handle it.

  9. says

    Paul makes an interesting point about Portlandia though. That’s positive eating, and a positive image, but it still associates eating decisions with social value. Those who eat pastured hens are better people, do more for the environment, etc. Should we feel good about good choices, or just forgive ourselves for bad ones? Are there such things as ‘good’ choices in this case?

  10. Lauren L. says

    Wow am I guilty of this! I try not to beat myself up about food choices, but I will say stuff about “missteps” on my journey. It. Is. Just. Food. Very insightful post.

  11. says

    I love love love this post! I’ve focused on this very topic a number of times on my blog. It’s crazy how much, just like body image, we have been programmed to speak about food, our diet and our lifestyle with such condemning and truly irrelevant words. I’ll admit I’ve had to work consciously on not using those types of words to describe food. Instead I try to focus on is this food beneficial to my health? Will it fuel me properly for my day’s activities? And at that point it doesn’t matter if it contains sugar or is loaded with carbs, it serves a purpose in my diet and that is what really matters.

    Thanks for posting!

  12. Shebeeste says

    Years ago one of the staff at the food co-op I volunteered at was sneering at some magazine food ad (you know the type) that said something like “Eat *this* without guilt”. I had never really thought about it before but it was so obvious and so powerful that I’ve noticed that good/bad language around food ever since. Now in world of “guiltless” baked whatevers and “more of the ________ less of the guilt”, I’m so astonished that people don’t rebel against the wording. It’s a freakin’ potato chip for cryin’ out loud. If you’re going to eat it, enjoy the heck out of it. Otherwise why eat it? Guilt is a feeling that should be reserved for, say, felonies, not food. Any yeah, I have to take “cheat” out of my vocabulary…

  13. says

    Love these comments. It’s not always an easy discussion – are there good choices, and bad choices? Can you make a good decision – and conversely, a bad decision? Those things describe the CHOICES, the DECISIONS, not US as people. So yes, I think you can make a good or bad choice, because that says nothing about our inherent worth or value as a person.


  14. Jennifer says

    I think for me, taking away the guilt also makes it easier not to over indulge. I am stopping and making the conscious decision to have that treat, but I am also taking the time to listen to my body, which now has the ability to tell me enough is enough much faster. It also helps in the decision making process knowing what my body will say if I have that treat. It’s harder to bring guilt into a conscious and informed decision.

  15. Irina says

    It helps reading this and I totally agree… in theory. In fact though, I always make this one logical junction: I ate bad while I had decided not to – so I’m weak – so I’m a failure. It repeats often (I have BED), which doesn’t help. Being chronically hard on myself, thanks perfectionism, doesn’t help either. So what argument would you suggest to beat that perverted logic working with “weakness”?

    Thank you for your blog, love it.

  16. says

    It was either here or in ISWF that I saw this and had an epiphany – it’s not “someone” *making* me eat healthy – it’s me making decisions for myself, and I can choose to eat things that make me feel great or things that make me feel crappy.

    Reframing this as *my* choice rather than this “thing I have to do” really cuts down on the “rebellious eating” – the “I can have this if I want to, and no one’s going to tell me I can’t!”.

    This was a HUGE deal for me.

  17. says

    Irina, I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question for you – BED is a serious considion, and I don’t have any training as a psychologist/counselor. I’ve been wanting to get a trained ED counselor to weigh in on some of these issues on the blog – let me continue to make some contacts and I’ll see if I can’t answer your question in an upcoming Dear Melissa.

    ARC: That’s a really excellent point, and one that I think would help a lot of people. It’s always a CHOICE – it’s not us telling you that you can’t. Good work.


  18. Irina says

    Hi Melissa, thanks for your reply!
    I was actually interested in _your_ point on that because I don’ rely on psychologists for my BED treatment – I rather look at is as something I can and have to fix myself (not sure if you heard about a book called “Brain over binge”, it was of great support there). What I mean is that I think BED is curable though one’s own attitude and self-awareness, not necessarily through therapy. And this is why your post sounded so relevant in that regard.

  19. says


    Okay, then here’s my take. You beat yourself up when you say, “I ate bad while I had decided not to.” This turns it into a game of willpower, of good you vs. bad you. They key is to go back to the beginning and change how you handle the situation from the start. You’ll not have very good luck getting yourself to stop thinking of yourself as “weak,” if you truly view the situation as “I made a decision and couldn’t stick to it.

    So instead, you need to commit to making a conscious, deliberate, perhaps even “out loud” decision when you choose to eat off-plan. This means taking a pause before you indulge in anything – even a bite – and saying to yourself, “I am making a choice to eat this food right now, for XXX reason.” Even if the reason is a crappy one (you’re emotional, you’re looking for comfort, you’re feeling anxious), the fact that you deliberate make a CHOICE to eat off-plan means you’re not weak – you simply, in that moment, changed your mind. And that frees you from the negative self-talk.

    Perhaps in retrospect you made a poor choice – “Boy, I was really upset, and eating that cake sure didn’t help.” But then you are focusing on the CHOICE you made, not YOU as a person. And you can set something up so that next time, you make a different choice, without beating you (the person) up in the meantime.

    Does that maybe help?

  20. Irina says

    Disconnecting “my choice” from “myself” is still a problem for me, but I get your point, it makes sense. Thank you so much :)

  21. Susan says

    Fantastic post. As someone with an autoimmune disease (RA) who’s been paleo for 3 years — and AIP for months and done a Whole 30 several times — this is territory I know all too well. Oh, my joints are hurting. I must have done something (i.e. AM something) wrong. Oh, I still don’t have whatever is causing me pain figured out, I must be failing at this whole diet (i.e. at my LIFE). It’s really easy to become kind of goofy about food and trying to hit on the right combination, especially with a disease that tells you frequently when things are awry. I am so grateful to read this. Thank you for writing it! It is exactly what I need. Especially this: ‘You aren’t a mess, a disaster, a train wreck. You are a good person, struggling with a difficult issue. You are more than just the results of your struggles.”