Lost in Translation: The Rhetoric of Nutrition and Starvation

By Cathryn Piwinski

On its bright yellow bag, Skinny Pop Popcorn tells the reader in all capital letters that it contains “NO ARTIFICIAL ANYTHING.” A single cup has “ONLY 39 CALORIES,” “0 TRANS FAT, and is entirely “CHOLESTEROL FREE.” These loud declarations, coupled with the list on the back of the bag which records everything not found within the popcorn—preservatives, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and genetically modified organisms—supports their ultimate assertion that you can “INDULGE GUILT FREE.” The language present on this bag is emblematic of a greater rhetoric that surrounds nutrition, dieting, and food as a whole. Food advertising and diet marketing consistently use rhetoric that portrays a need for non-toxic/GMO-free, nutrient-dense, and authentic food. The absolute, incessant, and almost panicked use of lists and capital letters on Skinny Pop reflects a greater mentality that our bodies are constantly at risk of slipping into “unhealthiness,” as we are too often plagued by dangerous, fake, or apparently toxic food. This anxiety, however, has consequences. In his article titled “What Is Health and How Do You Get It?,” Richard Klein writes that “we may be nearing a point where the institutions of public health, the media, and commercial interests that surround it, and the ideological wisdom it dispenses, do more harm to the nation’s health than good.”[i] In this essay, I use Klein’s argument and position myself “against health,” by “being critical of the myths and lies concerning our health that are circulated by the media and paid for by large industries.” [ii] I argue that the manner in which we have come to define healthy and unhealthy foods, while perhaps initially intended to promote some ubiquitous state of bodily “health,” paradoxically produces unhealthiness. I link this to the newly recognized eating disorder called orthorexia, in order to assert that the overwhelmingly negative way in which we shame certain foods and the bodies that consume them prompting a radical and ultimately harmful drive for “health.”

Rhetoric is language. But rhetoric is more than language in that it also carries the intent of persuasion.   Rhetorical strategies entail consciously and carefully chosen words in order to communicate a message effectively. In the case of nutritional rhetoric, Alison Henderson and Vanessa Johnson, authors of the article “Food, Health, and Well-Being: Positioning Functional Foods,” assert that “the language and symbols used by food producers are linked to organizational values and strategies, to values prevalent in society, and to current discourses related to what counts as ‘healthy’ food.”[iii] In their essay, Henderson and Johnson explore the concept of a “functional food,” which they define as “food products that claim physiological benefits beyond the need for basic nutrition.”[iv] They trace how such foods, specifically the energy drink, are advertized, and identify that they evoke a language of both health and pleasure. The companies emphasize not only “taking care of oneself, and making sensible nutritional choices,” but also “consuming beverages for taste and pleasure.”[v] What arises from this advertising strategy is the intrinsic separation of nutrition and pleasure—the “functional” energy drink is unique and ground breaking in that, unlike any other food product, it has the capability to combine both health and enjoyment. The implication of this is that food is not normally intended to satisfy both criteria; the rhetoric of this advertising campaign therefore benefits from the constructed guilt that arises from consuming pleasurable foods.

Dan Jurafsky, author of the book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, examines how this implicit guilt manifests in the consumer’s language, particularly in relation to the quintessential unhealthy foods. In his survey of online restaurant reviews, he notes that “we ‘crave’ or are ‘addicted to’” certain foods: “it’s the snack-foods and bar foods, guilty pleasures because of their fat, sugar, and deep-fried goodness that invite the comparison to drugs.”[vi] He hypothesizes that this tendency arises from the need to distract “ourselves from our own ‘sin’ of eating fried or sugary snacks: ‘It’s not my fault, the cupcake made me do it.’”[vii] What Jurafsky does not explain, however, is the internal drive behind this guilt: why is eating the cupcake a “sin” to begin with? I connect this with the “functional” advertising strategy of the energy drink: because this food uniquely combines both nutrition and pleasure, we are taught to understand that, in every other instance, these two concepts are mutually exclusive. It therefore becomes problematic when the individual shamelessly consumes an unhealthy food item. As Henderson and Johnson assert, “the responsibility for ‘healthy’ decisions is… deemed to lie with the consumer.”[viii] This idea operates off the concept of shame and self-shame. Institutions characterize a food as “unhealthy” due to its high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar, or deep-friend nature. It is a food that has been shamed as unacceptable, disgusting, and essentially synonymous with drugs. This shame inevitably transfers to the consumer’s body when they consume the unhealthy food—their body is now also unacceptable and disgusting, and so it must adopt the language of guilt and addiction in order to attempt to displace this “unhealthy” habit.

The divide between the “unhealthy” food and the “healthy” food, however, is not clear; it has been blurred by the rhetorical strategies of advertising that not only promotes “functional foods,” but also the foods that we have understood as quintessentially unhealthy. Later in his book, Jurafsky analyzes the language on a potato chip bag, noting that “potato chips turn out to be a health food, at least in the special world inhabited by advertising copywriters. All the bags were covered with language emphasizing how healthy and good for your body the chips are, using phrases like ‘healthier,’ ‘0 grams trans fat,’ low fat,’ ‘no cholesterol,’ ‘lowest sodium level.’”[ix] He also notices a trend of potato chip bags claiming “natural authenticity” and “the lack of anything artificial or fake.”[x] This advertising strategy accomplishes two things. First, it thoroughly confuses the consumer’s understanding of what constitutes a health food. The potato chip, historically and widely regarded as “unhealthy,” is repositioned as healthy and actively nutritious for the body. Second—and most important to my analysis of food rhetoric—it positions certain food constituents as inherently bad for the body. Potato chips are healthy, according to their advertisers, because they contain less fat, cholesterol, and sodium. This, in turn, rhetorically characterizes these essential nutrients as bad for the body and therefore undesirable and best avoided. Additionally, the claim that these healthy potato chips are more “authentic” and, resultantly, not “fake” or “artificial” subsequently demonizes food additives. Klein writes in his article: “These days, we do not eat for pleasure, but to lower our numbers.”[xi] This fear-mongering rhetorical device, much like the panicked advertising of Skinny Pop Popcorn, fuels this motivation, as it scares the consumer away from the fake and unhealthy potato chips and into the arms of the “healthier” brand. Advertisements capitalize off of the language of health; but in the pursuit of this profit, consumers, in their obligatory quest for healthiness, are left confused by and afraid of their food.

The theoretical savior of the confused consumer is diet culture. Diets and their propagators offer food doctrines and dogmas that claim to not only make sense of and reject the mixed messages from advertisers, but also rescue unhealthy bodies from themselves. In doing so, however, they adopt an equally panicked rhetoric of their own. Kara Shultz, in her article “On Establishing a More Authentic Relationship with Food: From Heidegger to Oprah on Slowing Down Fast Food,” examines how specific diets and their theories have constructed a sort of “diet culture,” in which consumers are taught to live in fear of the perilous food they eat. In response to corporate advertising, Shultz writes that “a vast majority of the non-cookbook food publications on the market today decry the ‘toxic food environment’ manufactured by the corporate food industry,”[xii] and that this industry is, therefore, “quite literally killing us.”[xiii] The authors of these non-cookbooks take the demonization of food a step further than the advertisers, claiming that “eating the overly homogenized, chemically doused, artificially flavored food of the corporate food industry is responsible for a multitude of health problems.”[xiv] Despite the authors’ claim of opposing the corporate food industry and their advertising, they adopt and utilize a manipulative rhetoric that is incredibly similar, if not even more extreme. They frequently and bluntly describe food as “toxic” and capable of “killing” us, attributing this quality to the “artificial” and “chemical” nature of its ingredients. This type of language extends beyond the “non-cookbook” authors and into dieticians who promote a certain meal plan. Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram, the creator of the popular Fully Raw Diet, claims that the benefit of her regime is “that you stop abusing your body each meal with toxic residue that it must deal with, leaving it free to cleanse and heal itself” of the “fermentation and putrefaction taking place in the colon.”[xv] This description is overflowing with dramatic—even violent—buzzwords. Not only does it assert that the normal American diet is rife with “toxicity,” “abuse,” and “putrefaction,” but it also promotes a fundamental mistrust of the human body, meaning that the individual must take steps to routinely “cleanse” and “heal” it. Despite their claim of resisting food industry and advertisements, dieticians and their diets reproduce the same fear-mongering and shaming language as these groups, further exacerbating the panicked drive towards “health.”

With this rhetorical pattern of shame, fear, and mistrust—all in the name of achieving health—firmly established, I now examine how this rhetoric affects the consumer and their obligatory pursuit of healthiness. It is already clear, from Jurafsky’s analysis of how people discuss their guilty pleasures, that advertising and diet-promoting strategies affect how we describe our indulgence; but how does it affect our literal behaviors? Pimbucha Rusmevichientong et al., authors of the article “The Impact of Food Advertisements on Changing Eating Behaviors,” attempt to answer this question by conducting an experiment in which they analyze how certain advertising strategies will impact what consumers purchased for lunch. Participants outside the control group were asked to choose a meal, watch a series of health food-related advertisements, and then choose another meal; the authors then compared nutritional values of both meals to determine how these advertisements may have affected consumer choice. They discovered that “healthy food, anti-obesity, and mixed food advertising all reduced the total caloric intake relative to those of the control.”[xvi] These advertisements, according to the authors, also reduced total fat and total sodium intake.[xvii] This experiment establishes that advertising significantly impacts the consumer mindset when approaching food: as a result of the promotion of healthy, low-calorie, low-fat, and low-sodium meals, participants visibly altered their behavior.

In their experiment, Rusmevichientong et al. also learned that healthy advertising was more effective than anti-obesity advertising and subsequently assert that “the use of ‘fear appealing’ emotive messages with information on possible health risks aimed at scaring recipients into changing their behavior to a healthier one, is generally not recommended in health promotion campaigns.”[xviii] This is a slightly challenging result for both advertisers and diet advocates and for my own argument linking their negative rhetoric to issues of health. This experiment acts as empirical pushback to the shame and scare-tactics surrounding the race for nutrition, though perhaps supports the idea of producing the concept of a healthy potato chip or a curative diet. I therefore maintain that negative language is only part of the problematic promotion of a constructed ideal of “health,” as the politics of shame and fear are rhetorically balanced by the false promise of a nutritious, functional, cleansing food or diet plan. In order to prove that both negative and positive rhetoric of health does impact the individual, and to establish that this impact will paradoxically lead to unhealthiness, I now turn to more qualitative narratives, specifically surrounding the eating disorder orthorexia.

Orthorexia is a relatively new eating disorder, first medically recognized and written about by Steven Bratman in 1996. His book, titled Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating, is both an information manual on the various causes, manifestations, and symptoms of the disorder, and an instructional manual on how to recover. Drawing from his own personal experience with the disease and from the lifestyles of his patients, he succinctly describes it as “a fixation on eating healthy food,”[xix] distinguishing it from other disorders: “Whereas the bulimic and anorexic focus on the quantity of food, the orthorexic fixates on its quality” and purity.[xx] He links the development of the disorder to multiple hidden causes, arguing that “the essence of orthorexia is the way in which it makes food carry unnecessary burdens. Food as spirituality, food as self-denial, food as substitute for the chaotic world, food as guarantee against ever getting sick.”[xxi] For the purpose of my argument, the most important cause of the disorder originates from the concept of what Bratman calls “Food Puritanism,” which “assumes that the enjoyment of eating is a guilty vice, tending toward the evil of disease. This assumption, taken as indisputable, maintains that there really is not reason to eat other than to maximize health, that any other motivation is shameful.”[xxii] This mentality directly echoes the aforementioned nutritional rhetoric of shame. The guilt of eating, however, has moved beyond the drug-like addiction to the fatty cupcake, and has instead been displaced onto food as a whole. Only “functional foods” become acceptable, as they provide the necessary nutrients to “maximize health.” However, due to the rhetorically constructed confusion that surrounds the constitution of a healthy, “functional” food and an unhealthy food, the orthorexic’s consumption levels result in excessive restriction and their physical, as well as their mental, health suffers.

Bratman dedicates the second part of his book to explaining and debunking various diets that he claims will often lead to the development of orthorexia, thus supporting my assertion that the rhetorical strategies of these diet fads paradoxically support an unhealthy lifestyle. He attributes his own development of the disease to his adoption of the Raw Foods Theory, which was discussed earlier with reference to Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram’s Fully Raw Diet. He describes a different raw food plan, which explicitly echoes that of Carrillo-Bucaram: Jethro Kloss’ Back to Eden preaches that “bad eating habits and the use of refined and adulterated foods are largely responsible for not only all the sickness but the social ills of the world as well.”[xxiii] Connecting back to the rhetoric of “toxicity,” Bratman writes that “repeated at the end of each of forty chapters, ‘Cooked food is poison.’”[xxiv] All of this language, Bratman believes, leads to “the religious longings to repent, to purify oneself, to return to a state of innocence.”[xxv] This, he writes, leads to further rabbit-hole dieting, such a fruitarianism—the consumption of nothing but fruit—and breatharianism—the consumption of nothing but air or “energy.”[xxvi] These obsessive, even deluded, diets are categorized under the general eating disorder of orthorexia. It is an unhealthy, dangerous, often deadly, way to live, but is paradoxically promoted through the rhetoric of healthful living. Under the rhetorical guise of providing one’s body the ability to cleanse itself of harmful food toxins, to consume authentic, energizing, and nutritious food, and to ultimately reach some sort of definitive state of pure health, the individual conversely slips into unhealthiness.

Unlike Bratman, however, certain individuals do not come to understand this state as one of unhealthiness, which—I assert—results from the nutritional rhetoric that constantly reproduces itself. Connie Musolino et al., authors of the article “’Healthy Anorexia’: The Complexity of Care in Disordered Eating,” interview participants who exhibit signs of disordered eating, but have either not received an official diagnosis or do not recognize anything intrinsically problematic or unhealthy with their behavior. One interviewee, Kelly, described her eating habits as “healthy anorexia,” in that she has “mastered starving” while still “maintaining a level of health.”[xxvii] She says: “See [my doctor] doesn’t know I have anorexia. He doesn’t know that, he doesn’t know how I eat, he doesn’t know how I live. But when I go to the doctor and say ‘have I got something wrong with me?,’ he says ‘no’… he says I’m really healthy.”[xxviii] The story of Kelly reveals that “health,” especially with regard to food consumption, is a remarkably vague term—a direct result from the confusing rhetoric that surrounds the notion of nutrition. Another interviewee named Charlotte directly blames the circulation of such language by recounting the following:

“We live in a society that is obsessed with food… I kept going back to the pantry, trying to find something that fit the criteria that would be okay to eat. And I could discount everything in the pantry for one reason or another, based on antioxidants, or fibre or glycaemic index, or the level of refinement or preservatives, or colourings or sugars or, you know? There wasn’t a single thing in that pantry that was okay, if I put all of our society’s messages and health professionals’ advice together about what’s okay and what’s healthy to eat.”[xxix]

Charlotte’s moment in front of the pantry ended in tears, reflecting not only the physical toll that nutrition advice and rhetoric takes, but also the psychological toll. She directly blames the misleading language of the media, society, and medicine, which demonizes food ingredients ranging from chemical additives to fat” and “sodium.” While Charlotte, however, does recognize the problems inherent with her current lifestyle, Kelly represents a fraction that operates under the deluded understanding of “health,” promoted and further bastardized by nutritional rhetoric. She pursues, as she describes, her “healthy avenues of starving” in order to reckon with the confusion produced by the authoritative language of nutrition and match the demands it sets forth.

The concept of healthism acts as a theoretical backing of the direct link between the rhetorical drive for health and the unhealthiness that it paradoxically produces. Musolino et al. define this term as a “specific health consciousness” and assert that “significant socio-political changes (such as the rise of neoliberalism and increasing appetite for health consumerism) have extended and cemented the idea that one should take responsibility for one’s health and place the pursuit of healthy lifestyles at the centre of moral virtue, personhood and citizenship.”[xxx] This condition is familiar, as Henderson and Johnson also recognize this tendency in their article about functional foods: the onus to achieve “health” is placed entirely on the consumer. Likewise, the language of “moral virtue” is reminiscent of the struggle of the orthorexic, who seeks purity and spirituality through the fixation on and consumption of healthy foods and the restriction of unhealthy foods. Healthism, according to these authors, leads to an “ethics of care,” which is described as a form of self-care that is tied up within the constantly challenging and changing “ethics” of social norms.[xxxi] They later note that the above quotation from Charlotte is “related to an ethics of care—to the ability to select the ‘right’ type of foods that would care for her body and demonstrate her ethical relationship with the world.”[xxxii] They conclude that “restriction, clean and natural eating were highly reflexive demonstrations of care of self, positioned against the ills associated with anything ‘bad,’ ‘unhealthy’ and ‘artificial.’”[xxxiii] Healthism, and the ethics of care that it creates, therefore opposes anything “unhealthy” and “artificial,” but can only do so when it asserts an overwhelming and often contradictory understanding of what defines these terms. It demonizes certain food components and ingredients—the “empty” calorie, the saturated fat, any chemical whatsoever—and it shames certain methods of eating—corporate foods are “killing” society and cooked foods are “putrefying” our delicate bodies. The result of this extreme rhetoric is the subsequent destruction of the individual who feels morally and ethically obligated to abide by these rules of care. Healthism, therefore, theoretically links the language of nutrition to the pursuit of an ideal health, and inevitably dooms it from the start.

There has been, in spite of the ubiquity of this rhetoric, recent pushback against it. Emblematic of this movement is the widespread circulation of a photograph depicting a plate of ice, with the caption: “Finally settling down to my vegan, gluten free, soy free, antibiotics free, raw, non GMO, organic, fat free, 0 carb meal.” Likewise, in his book, Bratman lists diet discrepancy after discrepancy to force his readers to acknowledge just how limiting these nutritional dogmas are.[xxxiv] He writes: “Maybe one of these eating theories has a monopoly on truth and all the others are wrong, but I would suggest that actually it goes the other way: None of them has a monopoly on truth. Each is just a piece of the truth, worthy of consideration but not veneration.”[xxxv] There is a small, but sure, movement among those who do not feel morally or ethically obligated to reach their full state of “health” to acknowledge and spread the absurdity of the nutritional rhetoric that exists today. The health pursuit has become too panicky and the language surrounding the fear-mongering and magically curative advertisements and diets are becoming transparent. After the tears from the moment in the pantry, Charlotte says: “In the end, I just went ‘fuck it,’ and just grabbed something.”[xxxvi] Nevertheless, as stated earlier, rhetoric is a powerful and incredibly useful tool of marketing and persuasion. Advertisers, diet promoters, and all of those who can continue to capitalize from the strive for healthiness will continue to use extreme language, both discouraging and encouraging, to assert the individual’s physical and moral obligation, as both a liberal self and a neoliberal citizen, to pursue an embodiment of perfect health. This incessant drive, effectively promoted by the extreme rhetoric of shame, risk, and mistrust of both food and the body, therefore paradoxically results in the slippage into unhealthiness. The confusion is too widespread and constant, the instructions too contradictory and restricting, the rhetoric too absurd and harmful—it’s time to just say “fuck it,” and grab something from the pantry.


[i] Klein, Richard. “What Is Health and How Do You Get It?” How Health Became the New

Morality. Ed. Jonathon M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland. (New York: NYU Press: 2010), 16.

[ii] Klein, 16.

[iii] Henderson, Alison, and Vanessa Johnson. “Food, Health, and Well-Being: Positioning Functional Foods.” The Rhetoric of Food: Discourse, Materiality, and Power. Ed. Joshua J. Frye and Michael S. Bruner. (New York: Routledge: 2012), 74.

[iv] Henderson, 71.

[v] Henderson, 77.

[vi] Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), 101-102.

[vii] Jurafsky, 102.

[viii] Henderson, 84.

[ix] Jurafsky, 109-110.

[x] Jurafsky, 111.

[xi] Klein, 22.

[xii] Shulz, Kara. “On Establishing a More Authentic Relationship with Food: From Heidegger to Oprah on Slowing Down Fast Food.” The Rhetoric of Food: Discourse, Materiality, and Power. Ed. Joshua J. Frye and Michael S. Bruner. (New York: Routledge: 2012), 225.

[xiii] Shulz, 227.

[xiv] Shulz, 227.

[xv] Carillo-Bucaram, Kristina. FullyRaw by Kristina. FullyRaw, 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

[xvi] Rusmevichientong, Pimbucha, and Nadia A. Streletskaya, Wansopin Amatyakul, Harry M. Kaiser. “The Impact of Food Advertisements on Changing Eating Behaviors: An Experimental Study.” Food Policy 44 (2014), 62.

[xvii] Rusmevichientong, 63.

[xviii] Rusmevichientong, 63.

[xix] Bratman M.D., Steven. Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession With Healthful Eating. (New York: Broadway: 2001), 9.

[xx] Bratman, 10.

[xxi] Bratman, 77-78.

[xxii] Bratman, 74-75.

[xxiii] Bratman, 108.

[xxiv] Bratman, 109.

[xxv] Bratman, 111.

[xxvi] Bratman, 114.

[xxvii] Musolino, Connie, and Megan Warin, Tracey Wade, and Peter Gilchrist. “’Healthy Anorexia”: The Complexity of Care in Disordered Eating.” Social Science & Medicine 139 (2015), 20-21.

[xxviii] Musolino, 21.

[xxix] Musolino, 22.

[xxx] Musolino, 18.

[xxxi] Musolino, 19.

[xxxii] Musolino, 23.

[xxxiii] Musolino, 23.

[xxxiv] Bratman, 90-91.

[xxxv] Bratman, 92.

[xxxvi] Musolino, 23.

(Cover image courtesy of Vitamin Water).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *