Meet the healthspo mantra of the season taking Instagram and Twitter hashtags by storm: ‘Eat Real, Feel Real.’ Another catchy slogan intent on encouraging us to make sensible choices about our food. But, like its predecessor ‘eat clean,’ which has recently been spotlighted for creating unhealthy perceptions about the food we do and do not eat, is this new saying just furthering the prevalence of disordered eating in health and fitness fanatics?
As a linguist, I am acutely aware of the power held by the language we use and through my time in the industry, I’ve noticed a real issue in the damaging way we sometimes discuss health. Often, health discourse holds moral connotations. You hear of things like ‘cheat’ meals which suggest that eating something of a low nutritional value is an act of foul play, likening those who have the occasional ‘unhealthy’ treat to criminals and crooks. Similarly, eating ‘clean’ endorses the idea that those who eat ‘unclean’ food, that is, food with more than one ingredient, that isn’t organic, that contains ‘chemicals’ or hasn’t been grown in your own back garden, are impure and contaminated. They may just seem like harmless words on the surface, but when this message is reinforced over and over again, it starts to affect our relationship with food and ourselves when we feel the temptation to consume something that doesn’t fit the ‘clean’ category.
The saying ‘eat real, feel real,’ poses an interesting question of semantics. In the ‘mainstream’ world, eating ‘real’ food means ordering a double cheese burger with fries and extra bacon rather than the ‘rabbit food’ most health conscious individuals are perceived to eat. Yet, in the health industry, the opposite is true. We’d probably shun a burger bun for its refined carbohydrates, wince at the high saturated fat content in meat, and if that cheese isn’t from an organic, grass-fed, pasture raised cow? You can forget it! It’s fascinating how our definitions can contrast so massively because of the way different industries describe and market their food.
I can’t argue with the philosophy of eating real in the health industry. There can be no fault found in having a diet abundant in food that has endured minimal processing, that is full of fruits and vegetables grown from the Earth rather than products manufactured in a factory, and that has all the essential macro and micronutrients that you need to sustain a happy and healthy body. What I cannot get on board with is demonising certain foods and, consequently, shaming those who choose to consume them.
One of my least favourite sayings is ‘you are what you eat,’ sometimes followed with ‘so don’t be cheap, fast and fake.’ A person’s character cannot not be judged by what they consume. Last I heard, quinoa salads and green smoothies aren’t so easy to come by for charity workers out in third world countries selflessly striving to build a better life for those less privileged than themselves. Just because someone eats an apple, does not make them any more genuine, kind or loving than someone eating a Galaxy bar. Nutritious food has many wonderful attributes but the ability to change a person’s temperament is not one of them.
By defining ourselves by the food we eat and by suggesting that only those who eat an exclusively ‘clean’ diet are ‘real,’ we are once again promoting an unhealthy relationship and dependence food. People can get obsessed with only eating ‘real’ food, often spending huge amounts of time scrutinising food labels and refusing to eat anything that hasn’t been hand-prepared in their own kitchens, all in an attempt to maintain physical purity. But, when such standards of ‘real’ and ‘clean’ can’t always be maintained, it’s easy to become consumed by feelings of anxiety and guilt and consequently to be incapable of maintaining a relaxed and balanced attitude towards food.
The important thing to remember here is that all food is real food. It all contains calories which convert into energy that allows you to function in your daily life. Although yes, eating minimally processed, nutrient rich whole foods will certainly promote a healthy body, if it’s at the expense of a healthy mind which isn’t fixated on food and doesn’t measure one’s self worth by the number of ingredients on a label, then I would dare to argue that ‘real’ food isn’t so healthy after all.
Whether food is nutritious or not, it’s there for you to enjoy and not for you to get a moral complex over. I can assure you that you will become no less of a beautiful and brilliant person because one day you fancy a pizza or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. The main quality of food that you should be concerned with is whether it makes you feel happier. Because your happiness is really all that matters in becoming a healthy human being.