My New Year's Plea for Writers: Stop Moralizing Health Choices
Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash
I remember being so proud when I first became a certified personal trainer in 2014. As a lifelong competitive athlete and self-proclaimed gym bro, I was incredibly enthusiastic about sharing my tremendous (or so I thought) fitness advice with the masses.
I'm a bit more cautious nine years and a whole nursing career later. While I am no less enthusiastic about educating others about health, fitness, and nutrition – my perspective has changed significantly.
Above all, I have learned how emotionally fraught most people’s relationships are with food, exercise, and their bodies. And how conscientious I must be as a coach in helping them to navigate those relationships.
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
We live in a society that spews a non-stop onslaught of diet culture messaging that harms us from a very young age.
But women especially are bombarded with images, programs, celebrities, and media that convey the many, many ways that our bodies can be wrong.
Not curvy enough
The diet industry machine is constantly innovating, creating new ways our bodies can be wrong.
And because they have successfully convinced us our bodies are wrong, they can now sell us the cure.
The waist trainer
As a coach and a writer, I know that covering these topics is our job. And while I hope that you are doing your research and thoroughly evaluating these trends, that’s not what this post is about.
This post is for every trainer, coach, nurse, dietician, doctor, and writer that communicates health information to regular folks.
If you are instructing on fitness or nutrition in any way, this post is for you.
My ask for health communications in 2023 and beyond is simple:
Please stop moralizing health choices. Please.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
What does the moralization of health choices look like in writing?
10 best and worst fruit choices
Grains: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Were you naughty this holiday season? Here’s a 30-minute workout to burn off those calories
The moralization of food choices, especially, has become so common it feels like half the article titles you can browse.
What’s the harm here? I mean, there definitely ARE more nutrient-dense, lower-calorie carbohydrates that most people would benefit from incorporating - right?
The truth is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to say:
These grains = good
These grains = bad
All food holds value from a biochemical, emotional, community, and global resource perspective. The western world has demonized many foods to combat the rise in obesity, and the American diet indeed has a tremendous amount of highly processed, low-nutrient-density foods. But it’s much easier to demonize foods when you exist in a highly wealthy resource-rich environment. So while there are certainly some more nutrient-dense, lower-calorie carbohydrates that most people would benefit from incorporating, labeling a carb source as good or bad is reductionist, lazy, and harmful.
The first presentation is an easy breezy concept to read and understand, while the second takes more time and energy to read and grapple with. Most publications would go for the first option without a doubt. The google gods love listicles!
Any coach worth their salt knows that there is not a single platitude that applies to everyone. Exercise is not always the right choice. Sometimes you should rest instead.
Vegetables are essential and should be prioritized, but if I’m about to hit a three-rep max on my squat, I will benefit more from a pop tart before the session than a bunch of celery.
And it’s not just that the reader is getting subpar information. The problem is that these kinds of reductionist moralized sound bites have real consequences.
Exposure to a lifetime of rudimentary health messages lacking nuance, empathy, or depth, can lead to food obsession, exercise addiction, orthorexia, eating disorders, or, at best, a whole lot of misery.
And this misery is real. It’s heavy. It takes up so much time, effort, and space in so many women’s lives.
The need to be smaller, lighter, and thinner is a crushing burden for many of us.
I’m incredibly grateful that I experienced a career in personal training and then nursing before becoming a writer because I have had the privilege of caring for people up close and personal. It is a privilege to hold space for people while they endeavor to unlearn a lifetime of lies, half-truths, and complete foolishness to find health and balance. But you also get a front-row seat to just how damaging this lousy information is: to their health, bodies, and hearts.
I can’t knock professional writers who don’t have first-hand experience with the topics they are writing about. After all, most writers do an excellent job of communicating the limitations in our understanding, appropriately evaluating the existing research, and connecting those to the human experience of the topic.
But we must better communicate that nuance in a way that does not moralize the subject at hand.
Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash
I can tell you that no one creates lifelong healthy habit changes because they were shamed, judged, or guilted into it. Typically that just leads to feelings of self-loathing. And while that can generate enough energy to spawn action for a little while, the changes associated are often short-lived. Usually, the person ends up in a significantly worse place mentally and emotionally from where they started.
If you write health or fitness content, please evaluate your use of language critically the next time you need to pitch an assignment. The health of your readers depends on it.
Before drafting your next piece, ask yourself:
Do I know enough about this subject to communicate it with nuance and evidence?
Am I introducing nuance to the conversation or reducing it?
Who benefits from this piece? Who is harmed by it?
Are there less emotionally charged or judgemental words I can use here?
It's a privilege to educate others, one we need to take seriously.
Here's to better writing for all of us in 2023.