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food neutrality is the idea that no one food is superior to another

What Is Food Neutrality? How Can We Achieve It?

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What Is Food Neutrality?

Food neutrality is the understanding that no single food holds superior nutritional or moral value over another.

This idea often receives pushback in a world of diet culture, a system which advocates for foods that change the body weight, shape or size.

Practicing food neutrality is achieved through:

  • identifying and dismissing food rules
  • developing a relationship of trust with our bodies.
  • dismissing rules about moderation
  • identifying and exposing ourselves to fear foods to decrease anxiety around specific foods
  • purchasing, prepping, and enjoying all types of foods

What Is The Difference Between Healthy Food And Unhealthy Food?

I have a single pet peeve.  And it’s the term “healthy.”

When it comes to the term “healthy” food- there are SOOOO Many things that could mean! Here are a few things about food that people could consider “healthy”:

  1. It has protein
  2. The food contains carbs
  3. There are calories (or energy) in the food
  4. The food has fats which give us energy
  5. The food has vitamin A. Or C. Or B vitamins.
  6. The food contains zinc or iron.
  7. The food has calcium

The list is actually infinite! The reality of it is- all foods have at least two (and probably many more) of these quote on quote healthy ingredients.

One thing I can assure you about healthy foods is this: no food on the planet will contain all of the macronutients and micronutrients you need in your body!

Even if a single food contained every nutrient we needed in the world- they wouldn’t be available in a way that your body could use them!

For example say we had calcium and iron in a single food (both nutrients we need).  Since calcium blocks iron absorption, A food containing both of these nutrients would actually be counterproductive!

So the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods is REALLY just a subjective experience!  Most of which is rooted in diet culture and can destroy our relationship with food at best, or leave us severely malnourished at worst.

There is no such thing as unhealthy food

There I said it! With my patients I like to play a game where they pick a food, and I point out all of the nutritional value in it.

Try it! This is actually an excellent way to ease into food neutrality.

Look up the details if you need to!  You can be certain that every food:

  1. provides energy the body needs to stay alive
  2. provides macronutrients the body needs to maintain its cells and vital organs

Do “Superfoods” Have More Nutritional Value Than Other Foods?

The idea behind something being tagged as A “superfood” is that it contains a high level of what us nutrition junkies call “nutrient density.” What this basically means is there is a high variety of nutrients to a low number of calories.

Here’s the thing about nutritional value.  Nutrition (any nutrition) IS value!  That includes ANY nutrition – which includes calories in whatever form they present.

Now I am certainly not bashing on superfoods!  I love a great kale salad or coconut milk soup! It’s is simply important to remember that a slice of chocolate cake is equally as valuable as kale.

Another important thing to remember in nutrition is that enough is as good as a feast.  I say this specifically when referencing micronutrients. Superfoods often highlight massive quantities of micronutrients such as b vitamins or folate.

While these nutrients are valuable and certainly shouldn’t be discredited, we certainly shouldn’t glorify them as the “priority food.”Kale has a place in my heart right next to cookies.

How Do I Break Food Rules?

Dismissing food rules is actually really tricky.

We may convince ourself of internal validations as to why certain foods or even quantity of food is superior to others.  These often happen at the subconscious. level.

We then begin to assign our discipline associated with such rules to our internal value. For example:

  • Good foods = Apples and kale.  If I eat apples and kale, i’m good.
  • Fast food is bad= If I go to fast food I am lazy and sloppy. I am bad if I eat fast food.

Because these rules often come alongside a “moral code” with high levels of cultural affirmation- they can feel a lot more like parts. of our identity that information we have about food.

In order to break a food rule and start looking at foods in a way that doesn’t involve hierarchical value we have to first put the words into concrete terms.

To do this begin to assess the conversations you have around food others and with yourself in your head.  Keep a journal and write them down if you can!

We essentially need to give the rule its own identity instead of assimilating it as part of ours.

To identify food rules look for language about food such as:

  • The food is good or bad
  • This food may impact my body weight/shape/size in this way
  • I can have this food, but I can only have X amount of pieces
  • This food can only be eaten at certain times of day
  • We should only eat this food X amount of times per week.

All of these food rules are red flags we are not practicing true neutrality with foods.

How Can I Raise Kids With Food Neutrality?

Explore all foods with the same enthusiasm.  When teaching kids that no one food is superior to another, kids are allowed to connect with their body and determine their own physical and emotional needs surrounding food.

  • Don’t label foods “good, bad, healthy, unhealthy.”
  • Avoid using language like “this food will make you strong”
  • Practice the division of responsibility 
  • Don’t reward children with food
  • If child moves between family members (e.g. split custody) have a discussion about allowing food freedom and not rewarding with foods.

Your kid actually knows what they’re doing when it comes to what their body needs better than parents to be honest.

If we don’t interrupt their natural cues and provide a variety of foods kids will naturally adapt food neutrality.

What If I Start To Feel Out Of Control With Food?

Some may  get an overwhelming fear that if they allow themselves to eat all food choices with equal access, They’ll only seek out poor choices and have trouble stopping when they’re full.

It’s actually completely the opposite! If we’re feeling out of control with food, it’s likely the result of restricting in some way. The more off limits we convince ourselves a food is- the more likely we are to over-indulge in a binge restrict cycle.

Do I need to Eat Certain Foods In Moderation?

Moderation is another one of those tricky moral codes that seems logical but is really just another food rule.

However, I think it’s fair to somewhat distinguish between “cultural moderation” and the moderation our bodies will naturally adapt as we learn to eat freely.

When we exist in a world of food characterized by hierarchy- the top tiered food off limits foods will always seem more appealing.

At first, it will be difficult to feel like our bodies know when to stop with foods that have been off limits.  We will feel like we have to force ourselves to moderate the food. Don’t do this!

Think of it this way- If pizza is an off limit food and you have it for lunch we will want to consume as much as possible!But what if I told you it was also going to be dinner and lunch for the next week?  I’m guessing it wouldn’t take long for us to get pretty sick of pizza!

That’s our bodies natural way of eating in moderation trust it to know what it’s doing!

Can My Body Really Tell Me What Foods It Needs?

Our body has literally been evolving over thousands of years. It’s got thousands of metabolic enzymes and reactions we haven’t even discovered yet! Not to mention the thousands of genetic variations in the way that our bodies metabolize food.

Yes. Our bodies are far better set up to determine what they need than some 2 page spread in a cosmopolitan magazine touting the latest food trends.

How Are Food Neutrality and Weight Neutrality Related?

Most rules assigned to food are subconsciously linked with ideals about body weight, shape or size.  They may also be linked to the ideal of “healthism” and that achieving a subjective level of health increases our worth and value.

We may have difficulty practicing food neutrality with high levels of body distrust and a desire to change our body.

This is normal. However, in order to order to truly embrace the value in all foods, we have to continue to work on our body acceptance. Just like we did with the food rules, try analyzing the level at which you are body checking yourself or others.

What Are Some Ways You Ditch Food Rules?

For my patients- we flag any food rules that come up naturally in conversation. All food rules go on a collective list for everyone to see on my wall.

Many of us are not aware we are NOT alone in the rules we have created about food. This helps pull the rules to the surface so we can choose to dismiss them if we like.

In what ways are you valuing some foods over others.  How might your life be different if you recognized the value in all foods?  Are there ways you are doing this?

Please do share your ideas in the comments below!

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Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!

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