The reprisal of the ‘eating real food’ debate has been a long time coming on this blog. Though I had a short word on the topic last year, the ‘real food’ craze has grown and transformed at an unprecedented rate in the months since then. It’s become what many would consider the wellness industry’s saviour, positioned as the definitive remedy to all our food anxieties and insecurities, or the pint of green juice promised to cure the hangover of clean-eating if you like.
How nice it is finally to have a diet label that doesn’t necessitate restriction. What a relief to be liberated from the ‘dementored’ shackles of meal-replacements and appetite suppressants that had stripped away the joy of whole, satisfying food. Sure, those hunger-fighting supplements were once worshipped for saving us the confusing task of navigating ‘good’ food choices and managing our own satiety cues, but they didn’t work. So now it’s time to oppose those phony forms of nourishment with a monumental new philosophy. ‘Eat Real Food.’ The answer seems so simple, it’s a wonder we weren’t doing it all along…
But where has this fetish for ‘Real’ come from and why is it only now that it has become so engaging?
‘Eat Real’ supports that we eat whole foods in variety, that we don’t cherry-pick or evangelise specific nutrients, or fight our body’s biological need for fuel. A literal interpretation might even call it an ‘anti-diet,’ for surely there’s no food that lacks real, physical substance. And yet, amidst all discussions on ‘Eat Real,’ you’ll find it there again. The implied food dichitomisation embedded in every type of restrictive diet before it, dictating what we should and shouldn’t eat. Here we have yet another ambiguous term that makes very little sense in the context of food but, in translation and through internalisation, manifests diet culture’s most powerful and fundamental marketing tool: paranoia and anxiety.
The rise of ‘Eat Real’ comes at a time when authenticity has never been more in crisis. We’re forced to question absolutely everything. What we read in the news, what we’re told by governing bodies, politicians and officials, what we see on social media and especially what’s in our food. There’s been a surge of reports and articles proliferating food insecurity, making us fear even the contents of an apple from our neighbour’s garden. Instead of fat, carbs and sugar, it’s ‘chemicals’ that are the enemy and those malevolent ‘nasties’ infiltrating our food chain. Villainous manufacturers are said to be poisoning our produce with unpronounceable additives and preservatives, making us tireder, hungrier and fatter. It’s these toxins that are claimed to be responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases, and anything processed or packaged is, by its ‘fake’ nature, a contributor to the catastrophe.
What makes these ‘chemicals’ seem so threatening is not just their ability to intoxicate our bodies and force upon us illness without permission, but also the fact that we cannot see them. That the naked human eye does not detect them. And if these damaging bodies cannot be seen, how can they be real? How could they be trusted?
There’s no shortage of worry when it comes to the prospect of pollution among health-aware individuals. The rise of the organic market, the continued investment in cleanse and detox programmes, even our daily attempts to ‘sweat it out,’ makes clear that the fear of the unnatural and impure holds salience across our culture. We want stripped back, unaltered and untouched food to keep pollution from destroying our natural existence. Another kind of clean, you might say. And there unveils the danger of ‘Eat Real.’
Within these words lies a fundamentally anti-modern notion, reflecting back on an imagined idyllic past where food was whole and unencumbered by man’s toxic hand. Once again, science faces a demonised portrayal and is forced into a position of mistrust over the toxicity advances have spread throughout society. It’s technology and mass-production that have allowed ill health to happen and the only way back is to banish artificial and return to real. Nevermind the amazing role science has played in processing food to make it safe to eat, to be transported and sampled all across the world, and to be fortified so that we can minimise risk of malnutrition. None of that matters when ‘nasties’ could be around.
Of course, ‘real’ is hardly a term of science and you’d be hard pressed to find it used in any medical context with integrity. Phrases like ‘Eat Real’ promote suspicion around science and, additionally, they fight fact by rejecting what evidence-based literature invariably demonstrates time and time again: that nutrition is never black and white and that, when it comes to a healthy, balanced diet, ‘everything in moderation’ is the only rule you really need to follow. But we buy into ‘Eat Real’ so much more than we would substantiated healthful guidance like ‘eat more fibre’ and ‘chew food thoroughly.’ Why? Because, though we may not even realise it, we internalise our language, let it shape our identity and we fear becoming what the alternative suggests. Fake.
In the world of social media and digital personalities, there is nothing more sinful or deserving of vilification than a false identity. Every single day we are compelled to defend our authenticity, whether it’s around sponsored content, airbrushed and filtered images, sharing the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of life, the classic ‘posed’ and ‘unposed.’ We call out those who are in it for the likes, baiting for clicks and lying their way up. And, like a broken record, we all chant the goal to ‘keep it real and ‘be relatable.’ Part of that ‘realness’ comes down to what’s on our plates and what we consume. We love showing our ‘real food;’ the unglamourous and imperfect, the local and fresh, one-ingredient meals. The higher ‘Real’ value of ‘I made this myself.’ In the health world, even our indulgences’ must have some trademark label of ‘realness’ – be it artisan, home-made, hand-prepared and untampered by processes signature to faceless chains. In ‘eating real’ we invest in our own authenticity. We are choosing to be better than fake through what we put in our bodies.
But you see, ‘Real’ in this sense is not accessible to everyone. Organic, artisan, specialist, bespoke… They all have something in common – they are not cheap. Of course, this is the case across all industries: fashion, art, travel, but attaching these meanings to the basic human need to eat means that our day-to-day lives are invaded by problematic thoughts around the validity and authenticity of our food choices. Through the messages of ‘Eat Real,’ it becomes the case that authenticity is not cheap and only a select few hold the key to being ‘Real.’ The language of ‘Eat Real’ is not only psychologically harmful on a personal level, it’s widely discriminatory. It diminishes individual value based on what a person can afford to eat and, worse than that, suggests that it is our own fault and choice if we fall ill as a result of not eating and being real.
I’m not sure how much more I can argue against the misguided message behind ‘Eat Real,’ for, despite my ambitions to make the language of health more inclusive, positive and accessible, these elitist concepts continue to slip through. I don’t believe the intentions behind ‘Eat Real’ and those who use it are malicious or intending to delegitimise a person’s worth. I think it’s simply a phrase that has manifested in a world so engulfed in diet culture and prescribed to the interlinking of food and self, that we wouldn’t know where to begin when disentangling the discourse of food from our identity.
The one message I want to conclude on is this: just because something is deemed ‘Real,’ doesn’t make it better. Just because something claims to be more authentic, doesn’t make it the case. And just because a food is labelled with more positive or negative connotations, does not mean it has any bearing on you as an individual. As always my take away belief is that you are not what you eat – and appreciating this for the benefit of yourself and for others will help make navigating food choices and anxiety a whole lot easier.
*Please note that I am not suggesting that this is a fixed and definitive representation of ‘Eat Real,’ and I can absolutely understand there are many different ways we can read the term and concepts behind it. My job as a linguist and Critical Discourse Analyst is to unpick every possible meaning because, ultimately, language is a social instrument and, whether we intend it to or not, it communicates all of these meanings at one time depending on who is listening. Therefore, just having an awareness of different meanings can make all the difference in health communication.