Unhelpful hashtags.

27th September, 2015

Hi everyone, this is a long post, but we hope you will take the time to read it in full and reflect on how the language you use in relation to food can impact on the people you care about and the people who look to you for advice.

In particular, if you are a health professional and you use hasthtags in social media, we hope you will read this post in full and really think about the way you talk about food and how this may influence your clients.

Unhelpful hashtags was written by Dietitians Zoe Nicholson and Fiona Sutherland and Nutritionist Tara Leong (The Nutrition Guru and The Chef).

Have hashtags gone mad?

It seems that where food is concerned, perhaps so. #cleaneating is not just about fresh food anymore, #sugarfree rarely means free of sugar and‪ #guiltfree seems to imply that guilt is a whole new nutrient that nutritionists haven’t yet discovered! Let’s start with one of the most common at the moment…..#cleaneating. Honestly, if clean eating was just about eating mostly whole fresh food and being considerate about more highly processed food, then we’re all for it. But it’s not. The hashtags tell us so. There is an element of clean eating that enters the extreme and that’s when it is associated with avoiding all highly processed food or with eating sugar-free, raw, vegan, gluten-free, and/or dairy-free because that’s a “healthier” choice.

Lots of people will say “what’s wrong with clean eating? It’s just being healthy!” and for some, this may be true. But for others, we beg to differ. And believe it or not, it’s not about the food, it’s about the moralizing, labelling or judging of food that makes the difference between it being “just healthy eating” and a very serious problem which can have significant impact on people’s lives. For example, there are numerous cases where in the pursuit of eating “clean”, people have developed an unhealthy obsession with “eating healthily” within a certain set of self-imposed food rules, a condition known as Orthorexia (see articles below to learn more about this condition). As dietitians/nutritionists, we see many clients who have developed an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies through various forms of dieting, and let’s make this clear – “clean eating” is no exception. The difference is that by giving it a lovely hashtag, it normalizes a way of eating that, for some people, is highly problematic and can prevent them from understanding the point as which things move from normal eating to disordered eating.

Labelling your eating “clean” starts to place a moral value on what you are doing. The word “clean” carries a righteous tone and suggests that any food not deemed “clean” is perhaps not worthy of being eating by the “clean” eater, is “toxic” (as often suggested) or is somehow not fit for human consumption. For people who have dieted many times in an attempt to lose weight, who have a shaky or tumultuous relationship with food and their bodies or a genetic history of eating disorders, this can be a slippery slope into the territory of eating disorders as shown in the articles on Orthorexia.

It’s important to note that many people, not just those with an eating disorder, can be significantly & adversely affected by the strong messages around clean eating. Increased anxiety and guilt around eating can impact someone’s ability to enjoy social eating, maintain healthy relationships and can negatively impact their children’s eating behaviours. When “clean eating” is associated with a desire to lose weight, many people experience an increase in body image dissatisfaction and a decrease in self worth at times when they’re (inevitably) unable to stick with the demands of “eating clean” which can lead to anxiety, emotional distress and social isolation.

Labelling food “guilt-free” carries exactly the same risks. Simply using the term “guilt-free” implies people have something to feel guilty about with eating. The definition of guilt is “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime”. This simply should not, and does not, apply to eating. There are no foods for which it is an offence or crime to eat. The many reasons people experience guilt after eating certain foods are complex and beyond the scope of this post. However, the self-imposed labelling of food as “bad” or “unhealthy” (which is strongly perpetuated in the media and “wellbeing” crowd) is a very common reason people experience guilt around food. A key issue here is that guilt is the primary driver of the “restrict-over-eat” cycle. Eating a little chocolate never caused anyone any harm, but feeling guilty or that you’ve done something wrong and then thinking “what the hell, I’ve blown it now, may as well eat…” is what can lead to problematic eating behaviours.

Using the hashtag “sugarfree” may seem fairly harmless. But if the hashtag is used with food that still contains sugar (such as rice malt syrup), just not sucrose (or fructose), then it’s NOT sugar free and using the “sugarfree” hashtag is suggesting this version is somehow superior or more virtuous than food that is made with regular sugar.

In the midst of this food labeling, we must not overlook the effect on our children, who are very vulnerable to messages around food, eating and their bodies. Particularly in the under-10 age group, they look to us to figure out how to interpret and analyse quite complex messages and it’s really important that we send the same, very consistent message which can sound something like “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure that you have a variety of foods available to eat. Some will be yummy, others won’t be your favourite. Your body is amazing, and it’s important that you learn ways to take good care of it including feeding it well to help you grow and do all the things you need to do every single day.” Full stop.

Kids (especially under 10) are not cognitively able to understand the complexities of nutrition and it just confuses them when they hear that foods are “good” or “bad” or even “healthy” or “unhealthy.” We provide food, we role model (a positive attitude to food, eating and our bodies), and that’s it. Before too long, they will be bombarded by a range of messages about food, eating and their bodies and it’s really important that we build this resilience young, so that they’re less likely to have the desire to manipulate their foods during their teenage years in efforts to change their natural body shape. We know this can end badly. Very badly. At best, they might dabble in some dieting then give it away when they realise that (a) it’s not much fun or (b) that it doesn’t work. At worst, they can develop an eating disorder or a negative relationship with food that can last a lifetime.

Lastly, we want to mention the pairing of certain hashtags. Possibly the biggest problem with these hashtags is when they are used together. For example, #cleaneating #guiltfree #sugarfree, then throw in #vegan‬ ‪#raw#‎glutenfree‬ #superfood‬ #paleo‬ and you have the perfect storm when it comes to righteous eating.

From a marketing perspective, it’s important to understand that hashtags are used by companies and wellness personalities as a way of increasing followers and gaining popularity. Try to be aware of the role of hashtags and see them for the marketing tool that they are, rather than letting them influence your relationship with food or the way that you eat.

Importantly, if you are a nutrition professional or are running a social media account to do with health or nutrition, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is the aim of my posts on social media to become popular, or to help people improve their health?’ Hopefully is the latter, and this article has shown that these popular hashtags should be avoided.

Thank you for reading and we’d love to hear your comments!

Zoe Nicholson – love what you eat Dietitian
Fiona Sutherland – Body Positive Australia & The Mindful Dietitian
Tara Leong – The Nutrition Guru and The Chef