Food Neutrality: Making Peace with Food
Food neutrality is something I introduce all of my clients to no matter what brought them in for nutrition counseling. It inevitably comes up at the initial consultation thanks to diet culture’s labeling of foods such as “good/bad”, “healthy/unhealthy”, “clean/dirty” etc. Categorizing food using rigid rules and moral hierarchy influences our behaviors and choices but not to our benefit. Let me explain more.
The language we use to talk about food reflects how we feel about food. When we feel bad or good about a particular food, that influences our behaviors and interactions with it and ourselves. The basis of food neutrality is that all foods are morally equal and no particular food should be demonized or glorified.
Food neutrality is about determining what foods are best for you based on your individual needs, preferences and circumstances. You are free to make choices without rigid food rules, shame and guilt. By practicing food neutrality you are working to improve your relationship with food and your body, reducing the stress and pressure associated with food shaming.
So why does it matter if we label food as “healthy” and “unhealthy”? Because “healthy” is subjective and food and nutrition is WAY more nuanced than simply categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”.
Defining Food Neutrality
Food neutrality is the practice of unlearning moralistic thoughts about food, ie good vs bad food. Instead it promotes thinking about food objectively, using neutral language therefore removing guilt and shame associated with our food choices. When we view all food as morally equal we can better evaluate what food is the best fit for us in that moment. If the brain is overwhelmed sifting through diet culture BS trying to decide if a food is “healthy” or “clean” it can feel confusing at best and for some even paralyzing.
Food neutrality can be characterized by several key principles:
- Nonjudgmental attitude towards food: A food-neutral approach avoids labeling foods as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy” and instead views all foods as morally equal.
- Aligns with mindful eating: This approach emphasizes paying attention to your body’s internal cues, and making food choices based on what will feel both nourishing and satisfying.
- Celebrates variety: A food-neutral approach promotes enjoying food from all food groups (unless medically necessary).
- Individualized approach: A food-neutral approach recognizes that each person has unique nutritional needs, preferences, and health circumstances. The focus is on encouraging individuals to determine what is best for them when making food choices.
- No rigid rules or moral hierarchy: A food-neutral approach does not involve rigid food rules, eliminations or restrictions and and associates guilt and shame with diet culture. Principle 4 of intuitive eating is dedicated to challenging the food police.
- Peaceful relationship with food: A food-neutral approach encourages individuals to develop a peaceful relationship with food that values the wide nutrients that all food can offer without feeling guilt, shame or anxiety about any one particular food.
The benefits of food neutrality improve aspects of physical, mental and social wellbeing. Without rigid food rules and restrictions, individuals enjoy a wider variety of foods which can help to ensure nutritional needs are being met. Removing moral value from food reduces stress and anxiety associated with choosing what foods to consume. This frees up more mental energy to identify and choose foods that will both nourish and satisfy, as well as an overall more enjoyable eating experience. You can spend your time enjoying the flavors and environment without guilt and shame.
A food-neutral approach can also improve how you feel about your self and body. When you eat food that you have determined is “sinful”, “bad” and “unhealthy” it is common to then apply that same judgement to yourself for having eaten said food. When you detach moral value from food you no longer have to consume those negative thoughts and feelings.
Lastly, food neutrality supports a sustainable and joyful approach to eating. Your eating habits will likely continue to change over time based on many factors such as finances, access to food and cooking equipment, culinary skills, health diagnoses, changes in school/jobs, time constraints, etc. Unlike dieting, food neutrality allows your eating habits to be flexible and determine what serves you best in the moment.
How to Start Practicing Food Neutrality
Here are three strategies for developing a food-neutral approach to eating:
- Don’t categorize food as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, etc. Recognize and try to limit using words that attach shame and guilt to eating such as “indulge” or “sinful”. Instead call the food by its actual name. Example: “I ate a chocolate chip cookie with lunch today.” Instead of “I was good and ate a healthy lunch at first but then I ruined it when I decided to treat myself to a chocolate chip cookie.”
- With a nonjudgmental approach, explore what nutrients the food offers you. All food offers energy and nutrients. Some foods may be more energy dense and some may be more nutrient dense. Example: pizza offers a combination of carbohydrate, fat, and protein. OR ice cream offers my body some carbohydrate, calcium and vitamins.
- Make peace with food by acknowledging it is more than fuel. Instead of obsessing over the nutrient profile of every food, try mindfulness practices that keep you present in the moment. Being present allows you to enjoy the complex flavors, textures and aromas of your food and the experience. If you are unsure of how to incorporate mindfulness, check out my meal time mantra infographic.
Diet culture is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to food neutrality. It is the culprit of attaching moral value to food and proliferating the lie that weight loss is the key to health and happiness. Check out out my resources page to explore helpful books, podcasts and websites that support intuitive eating and body diversity.
Pressure from social media, advertising, friends and family may also be an obstacle to overcome. Others may not understand or even agree with the decision to stop chasing the unrealistic thin ideal. Food manufacturers will continue to advertise products as “guilt free” or “sinless”. Social media accounts will advertise diets, weight loss programs or “what I eat in a day” posts. All of this can make it difficult to embrace a food neutral approach to eating. Limit your exposure when possible by unfollowing any accounts that promote diet culture.
Negative body image can make food neutral language especially hard to practice at first. It may be beneficial to seek additional support from a registered dietitian nutritionist and/or therapist to help with any disordered eating behaviors or overwhelming negative thoughts about food and body.
Food neutrality removes the power and emotional pull from food. It neutralizes language about all food, those previously deemed “bad” AND “good”. Practicing food neutrality reduces food shame allowing us to take care of and nourish both mind and body. Viewing food as morally equal helps us to see food exactly as it is.