Labeling ourselves by what we eat is all the rage. How did we get here?
I’ve been a dietitian for 4 years and formally studying nutrition for 11 years. Backtrack further to the first “food rules” I followed as a 12 year old gymnast and later my first official low-carb diet in ninth grade. We’re talking a lot of years (17, yikes!) of exposure in the overall diet and nutrition industry.
There’s one phenomenon that is different today than any other time I’ve observed, and it’s this: Everybody loves to be something these days. Identifying yourself by what you eat is sexy, exclusive and educated.
It’s Different Than Before
It’s different than any other age I’ve experienced. When low-carb came in style for the first time in my lifetime, someone would say that they were “on the Atkins diet.” We’ve removed the prepositional phrase completely and somehow morphed ourselves into… diets.
It doesn’t make sense.
You are actually not keto. You are a human.
Or maybe it does.
Using Labeling as Your Identity
We use labels to describe ourselves and connect with a greater community. I might describe myself as a dietitian, mom and athlete. Labels are ways we can easily categorize ourselves and draw connections with one another, which makes it easier for us to understand each other and discuss similar interests.
What’s interesting, though, is that we’ve been instructed in the healthcare community to not use labels for patients. We used to say, “He is diabetic.” Now we’re supposed to say, “He has diabetes.” We used to say, “She is obese.” Now we say, “She has obesity.” Does that make sense? Because that person is not their disease.
But now we’re seeing this shift, where people are labeling themselves, and not just in terms of interests, family order, profession or disease state… people are labeling themselves by their diets.
Why Do We Have to Put Ourselves in Buckets?
You see, I’m not vegetarian, but I eat at least one or two meals a day that are vegetarian. I’m not gluten-free, but sometimes my meals are. I’m not diabetic, but I often control my carbs at meals.
What we eat is complex and driven by a variety of different factors that change daily, weekly and throughout seasons of life. Hard-and-fast “diets” in general fail because people suck at following rules long-term. Food rules (and I would argue labels) are why people feel guilty when they stray. If you would give yourself permission to not be perfect and avoid labeling yourself as being XYZ diet then maybe you could relax on Monday mornings when you’re supposed to be “starting over” after a weekend flop. I digress.
So why is this a thing?
I really don’t have an answer for this question. I guess I’m just not sure what happened to… just eating?
Is there an alternative? Maybe instead of labeling yourself you can use a better, more descriptive term? Instead of saying you’re keto, say you’re following a ketogenic diet. Instead of saying you’re gluten-free (particularly if you don’t have celiac disease), say you prefer a gluten-free diet. You aren’t paleo, you follow a paleo eating pattern. I just feel like we’re taking the idea that you are what you eat a little far.
I feel like labeling ourselves pushes us farther apart than it does together. It’s polarizing, generally emotionally-driven, and more often than not, it’s short-lived (with the exceptions of vegetarian- or veganism and clinically-necessary diets).
How Can We Do Better?
I guess what drives me crazy, is the way I usually hear people talk about their personal food labels.
It’s usually something like, “I’m paleo but I’m breaking it tonight” or “I haven’t been good about my gluten-free lately.” First of all, those sentences honestly don’t even make sense. Secondly, if it’s something you are repeatedly breaking up and getting back together with, maybe it’s time to rethink the relationship.
I completely respect peoples’ opinions and rights to follow whatever pattern of eating they feel the most confident about. What you eat is extremely personal and almost a religion in a sense. It’s something for which you alone are completely responsible; you put the fork into your own mouth. That said, I propose that we consider how our language around our eating patterns is formed. And maybe… we can get back to just eating. And maybe we can be less in each others’ faces about it. And if you have a dietary pattern that you follow and love, maybe you don’t have to identify yourself as that diet but refer to it more correctly as your preference or pattern. Maybe… just maybe we can peel our labels off.
Disclosures: None. This post wasn’t created in partnership with any product or brand.