Food Neutrality: Everything You Need to Know


Food neutrality is the belief that food does not have any moral value. 

Food neutrality recognizes that foods have different nutritional values, but does not attach feelings or morality to the different nutritional values. This is because eating certain foods will not make you a better or worse person.

When you practice food neutrality, you avoid labeling a food as “good” or “bad”. For example, yogurt might contain a lower amount of sugar than a brownie, but that does not mean that yogurt is good and brownies are bad. 

Instead, you may say that brownies are “not a good choice right now” because you’re looking for something that will keep you full for a few hours.

Food, nutrition, and health all require nuance, and all mean different things to different people at different times. Your words matter more than you think. 

Why Food Neutral Language Is So Important

The goal of using food neutral language is to support a healthy relationship with food. 

Labeling a food as “bad” can cause harm to yourself – and to others – because it can create feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety around that food. You never know who is around and listening, especially little ears who are trying to figure out their own relationship with food. 

Food Morality

Research has shown ties between food and feelings of purity. Sound far-fetched?

Think of all the lower calorie, lower fat, “health” foods out there that have “guilt-free” written in big bold letters on their packaging. Have you felt a sense of relief from eating that over the “indulgent” option?

Or what about all the desserts you’ve crossed paths with that are playfully labeled as “sinful”?

As a reminder, eating certain foods will not make you a better or worse person. And eating certain foods should not give you feelings of guilt or shame.

You can recognize that foods have different nutritional value, and some may be more appropriate to eat at certain times than others, but the decision has nothing to do with your morality. That is what food neutrality is all about. 

every day examples of food morality

Labeling Food as Junk or Garbage

You may call a bag of chips “junk food,” but a bag of chips may be the only food you have access to one day. It may be all you can afford or all you have time for at that moment. Or all you feel like eating.

Does eating the chips help your hunger? How satisfied are you afterwards? Are you full for hours or hungry an hour later? Does it make you feel physically sick? All that matters is you ask yourself those questions and let it guide your future eating decisions. 

Okay, I lied, one other thing that really matters is that you try to stop referring to food as junk or garbage unless it is actually inedible and headed for the landfill. 

Chips (or other “junk” food) may be a perfectly appropriate food choice for someone. Implying that someone is eating “junk” is inaccurate and can be damaging. 

Again, the goal of being food neutral is to support a healthy relationship with food… and the truth is that all foods can fit in a healthy, balanced diet. 

Example of food neutral language

What does a Negative Relationship with Food Look Like?

Trying to eat healthy or “clean” 100% of the time is not healthy, and may be a sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder. 

One study found that fear of weight gain, thinking about dieting, and guilt are key symptoms of an eating disorder and predict severity. 

Another study found that females who dieted moderately were 5 times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18 TIMES more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who do not diet. 

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics describes signs or symptoms of disordered eating as:

  • Frequent dieting
  • Anxiety associated with specific foods
  • Meal skipping
  • Chronic weight fluctuations
  • Rigid rituals and routines around food and exercise
  • Feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, and body image that negatively impacts quality of life
  • A feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits
  • Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to “make up for bad foods” consumed

If you are experiencing or can relate to any of these, it may be possible you are suffering from disordered eating. 

Please note this article is for informational purposes only and no material in this article is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is best to seek personalized help from a registered dietitian or other qualified healthcare provider.

Food Neutrality and Diet Culture

Diet culture perpetuates the idea that smaller, thinner bodies are healthier, better bodies. This isn’t true. 

Diet culture tells us women that all we need to do is lose weight and then we will unlock a better, prettier, happier version of ourselves. This is not true either. 

Christy Harisson said it best – diet culture is “sexist, racist, and classist, yet this way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society that it can be hard to recognize. It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness, and for some, it is all-consuming”.

Diet culture makes us believe that our body types and sizes are entirely up to us – but we have a lot less control than we think.

There are many other variables besides eating habits (like genetics, age, and environment, to name a few) that impact our body type, size, and health. 

The good news? You have control over your relationship with food and with your body. You can start fighting diet culture today by working on food neutrality.

What Does Food Neutrality Look and Sound Like?

Being food neutral means you are aware that food has different nutritional value, but no moral value. Practicing food neutrality also means you are mindful of your relationship with food. 

Let’s say you’re at a party and the host brings out fresh baked brownies with ice cream. 

Person with a poor relationship with food may say, “I love brownies but they are SO bad for me. No, thank you.”

Person with a healthy relationship with food might say, “I love brownies but they are not a good choice for me right now. I had sweets earlier. No, thank you.” 

A different person with a healthy relationship with food may say, “I love brownies but I am still full from dinner. Maybe later… thanks!”

Another person with a healthy relationship with food would say, “I love brownies and would love one! Thank you.”

The only foods you shouldn’t eat are ones that:

  • You are allergic to
  • You know make your medical condition worse
  • You know you don’t like
  • You don’t feel like eating
  • Are not food at all i.e. actual junk out of the garbage can like spoiled food, plastic, aluminum foil, paper towels, etc.

How to Start Practicing Food Neutrality

Practicing food neutrality is easy and you can start today. 

Here are 3 simple ways to practice food neutrality:

  1. Educate yourself on what it is and why it matters. If you’ve made it this far in the post, consider this step done!
  2. Catch yourself the next time you think/say a food is good or bad. Remind yourself that while food may have different nutritional values, it all has the same moral value. Some foods are more appropriate to eat at certain times than others but that doesn’t make them good or bad.
  3. Regularly check in on your relationship with food and with your body.

How to Check in on your Relationship with Food

Every so often, try to pause and reflect on your relationship with food. Here are some prompts to help you get thinking:

  1. Do you have any food rules? What are they? Where did they come from? What would happen if you broke the rule? What would happen if you strictly followed the rule forever?
  2. What foods make you feel good and why? What foods make you feel bad and why?
  3. Do you eat certain foods to look a certain way? Where did you learn that?
  4. How do you talk about food around others? How do others talk about food around you?
  5. Was food scarce or abundant growing up? Were you taught to finish everything on your plate? How has this impacted your relationship with food?
  6. How well do you listen to your hunger cues? Do you eat past fullness? Suddenly find yourself ravenous?
  7. Where do you get your health information? Do you trust those resources?

Final Thoughts

Food neutrality is the belief that food does not have any moral value; it recognizes that foods have different nutritional values, but does not attach feelings or morality to the different nutritional values. 

Using food neutral language is important in supporting a healthy relationship with food.

Instead of labeling food as good or bad, try rephrasing it as a “good choice for right now” or “not a good choice for right now.” 

If you liked this post, you might enjoy “Disordered Eating” and “Body Neutrality”

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