In my time traversing the hellscape that is my Facebook newsfeed, its algorithms have shown me many terrible posts: the orange face of He-Who-Shall-Not-be-Named, sexist memes shared by middle school classmates and anti-millennial rants written by baby boomers. But this morning when I saw a Spoon University listicle comprised of “19 Misleading Foods That Seem Healthy But Aren’t,” I groaned aloud.
Among other things, this particular listicle tried to convince me that granola is secretly unhealthy because of its sugar content, sugar-free foods might give me cancer because of aspartame and that juice is “one of the worst drinks for you.” Believe me: I’ve heard these claims time and time again in countless health science articles. But this morning, after I’d just stirred honey into my morning tea, I really was not having it.
When I scrolled down the rest of Spoon’s Facebook page, it didn’t get a ton better. There are articles about what 100 calories of your favorite snack looks like, foods that are surprisingly high in trans fats and why eating gluten-free will make you, the average college student, feel better. Does this sound normal to you? Unfortunately, it is – but these messages aren’t healthy. Their thinly veiled message: calories are bad, all foods are secretly terrible for you, and if you don’t constantly monitor what, how, and when you eat, you will gain weight. And in a culture that fears and hates fatness – think “How to avoid the Freshman 15” articles – weight gain is framed as ultimate failure.
Put bluntly, this is junk science. No responsible dietician would tell you that you should avoid eating sushi or smoothies like this article does, and they’d never say that all juice is bad for you. Focusing on calories and the specific breakdowns of macronutrients is pointless, and while it’s generally better to not eat processed foods, they’re far from poisonous to your body. And any good nutritionist will tell you to trust your body to do its job of maintaining its baseline weight and keeping you alive.
To be clear, this isn’t about Spoon at Northwestern; this isn’t even just about Spoon University as a national platform. They’ve also published stories by contributors who write bravely and candidly about struggling with eating disorders. But for every story that shares students' experiences with eating disorders, the countless articles about “unhealthy foods” only fuel the dangerous idea that calories are inherently bad (note: they’re not). They reinforce the idea that “perfect” eating – clean, gluten-free, low-sugar, whatever you want to call it – is a possible, healthy way to live.
Spoon University doesn’t operate in a vacuum. All of this is also about Time.com telling me not to eat out at restaurants and to keep an eye out for hidden sources of sugar, as if food is actively conspiring to poison my body and kill me. It's about the fact that my uncle told me he read somewhere that wheat makes you bloated, so he doesn't eat it anymore – ever. It's about the fact that nearly every time I eat at Bagel Art, I anxiously Google “how many calories are in an everything bagel” because I can’t forget the article I read dubiously claiming that bagels have the caloric value of four bread slices. It’s about the fact that all this misleading pseudoscience constitutes so much of how we think about food.
I know these articles cause harm because they harmed me. It took me a conversation with a childhood friend about her eating disorder to realize that my obsession with calories and exercise wasn’t normal. Throughout the entirety of 2013, I dutifully logged every food consumed and mile run into MyFitnessPal. I drank cup after cup of tea and chewed gum to stave off hunger pangs I didn’t think I deserved to have. My diet mostly consisted of plain oatmeal, Special K, canned soup, measly hummus and lettuce wraps and portioned-out handfuls of almonds. In my brain, I had fenced off which low-calorie foods were “safe” for me to eat, and I convinced myself that I liked them, too. All the while, no one perceived my restricting and over-exercise as a problem; they just thought I was “being healthier.”
I spent most of that year in a food-deprived, energy-sapped blur. I spent more time calculating these calorie inputs and outputs than I did focusing on my Calculus BC class. I didn’t eat bread for a year because article after article told me about the bloating evil powers of gluten. I opted for salads at my favorite restaurants because salad felt safe. Except, as this Spoon article told me, salad can apparently be deceptively unhealthy if it has enough dressing on it.
Four years, two nutritionists and five therapists later, I’m still relearning how to have a healthy relationship with food in a culture that frames it as the enemy. I can read as many articles about the damaging rhetoric of “wellness” as I want, but the slow drip of clickbait titles about unhealthy foods does its damage on my psyche. Intellectually, I know all of it is shit. But eating disorders don’t deal in the arena of logic, and the anxiety wells up anyway.
And for my classmates who haven’t dealt with an eating disorder, these calorie-focused articles still hurt. They imbue food with themes of morality – “guilty pleasure,” “guilt-free,” “good,” “bad” – and leave you feeling like a shitty person after you’ve eaten a whole bag of vending machine Hot Cheetos because you were hungry. They feed that voice that tells you you’re “being bad” when you take seconds in the dining hall or opt for the higher-calorie drink at Starbucks. They frame delicious foods as something you “deserve” for being “good,” not because you’re hungry and you want to eat it. Or, worded more bluntly, you and your body are inherently “bad,” and you have to discipline yourself and “earn” the right to enjoy food.
Food is more than calories in, calories out. Food is supposed to have carbs and fat and sugar. And food cannot be separated from class issues, either; fresh produce costs a lot, especially when you’re working a minimum wage job, fresh meals take precious time to prepare, and having access to stores that carry “healthy” foods is a privilege. And for the thousands of college students who experiences food insecurity, articles about the evils of processed foods ignore the giant capitalist elephant in the room about food access and nutrition.
Food is fuel, but it’s also more than the stuff that propels our human flesh vessels through time and space. I slather bread with butter and jam at restaurants with my girlfriend because I love nothing more than the crackle of a warm baguette. I prepare beans and rice with tortillas, avocado slices and a spoon of parmesan cheese because that’s how my Salvadoran father has prepared it as long as I can remember. And I buy pan dulce every time I’m in close proximity to a panaderia, because life is short and I can’t eat conchas when I’m dead.
The way these articles talk about food – in 100-calorie increments, in macronutrients, in perfectly proportioned servings – is not normal, and it’s irresponsible to market these ideas to college students. It divorces food from its context, its pleasure and the fact that we all literally need calories to live. Eating disorders don’t happen in a vacuum; we need to critically examine how we talk about food and whether it's "good" and "healthy,” or “sinful” and “bad,” especially around the people in our lives who deal with disordered eating. So you can catch me eating all the things that this list swears are deceptively unhealthy: trail mix by the handful, frozen yogurt topped with whatever I damn please, and microwaved popcorn chock-full of extra butter. Bite me.