Stigmatizing Food: Good and Bad vs. Healthy and Unhealthy

The phrase “you are what you eat” has been around for as long as we can remember. Whether we stand by the statement or not, many of us use food to express our identity. In every culture, food is an essential component. Meals are a way to gather people and establish a connection– we all have memories with our food. In the piece Food: Identity of Culture and Religion, Vatika Sabal writes,

“the meaning of food is an exploration of culture through food. What we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, and who eats first is a form of communication, that is, it has a rich cultural base. Beyond merely nourishing the body, what we eat and with whom we eat can inspire and strengthen the bonds between individuals, communities, and even countries.”

Choose Healthy Foods

“Choose Healthy Foods”.
RHN Team Picture Bank, ©2022, Clemson Extension

While many of our associations with food are very positive, there are common misconceptions and even negative stigmas that surround various cuisines and food types. For so long, people have oftentimes subconsciously deemed certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. These terms are ambiguous and do not specify if we are talking about taste, pleasure, calorie count, sugar amount, or protein content. All foods have a nutritional range, and if we label them as only ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we only make it more difficult for ourselves and can even inflict guilt or shame.

Other biases include negative cultural stigmas that exist within the conversations revolving around ethnic food. This is especially prevalent when discussing healthy eating. Often when searching “healthy recipes,” we find that there is very little variety in what this looks like, and our definition of “healthy” has become very narrow. It becomes repetitive with kale, green smoothies, salads, and grilled chicken. These recipes often lack a cultural influence, which can lead to a misconception that other cultures’ foods are not as healthy. For example, it is common to hear that Mexican food is unhealthy or “bad”. However, this is often referring to commercialized Mexican food menu items that are full of empty (high) calories. This could include items such as chips, queso, and other cheesy or fried choices. This is a misrepresentation of the variety in Mexican cuisine. The mindset of “good” and “bad” foods can possibly lead to self-imposed limitations on food choices. Rather than reducing foods to ‘good or bad’, it is important to reframe how we see and talk about our food. For example, avocado toast is nutrient dense and can be part of a healthy diet, and it is considered a staple in many Hispanic countries. In addition, quinoa, acai, chia seeds, and other “superfoods” that have become popular in recent years are all native to Latin America. While these foods are becoming more common in mainstream American diets, it is important to recognize they are native to Latin American and Hispanic cultures. Simultaneously, these foods all have a lot of nutritional benefits and include essential macronutrients.

There are meals and food options that are more beneficial to eat than others if you are attempting to maintain weight or lose weight. However, considering and talking about these items in terms of factual attributes (e.g., low calorie or high calorie) or frequency of consumption (daily foods vs. occasional meals/treats) may help avoid language that has an impact on how you view yourself, feel, and eat. Specificity in describing nutritional value is also helpful in achieving our specific health goals.

In order to add variety to our diets and expose ourselves to different cuisines, it is beneficial that we learn about other cultural foods. It is also important to acknowledge the importance of diversity in food and to expand the idea of what it means to eat healthy while avoiding stigmatizing words to describe food and focusing more on the nutritional content. Get started and learn more about multicultural foods are recipes by visiting the resources below.


  1. Cheung, Helier. (2019, April 13). Cultural appropriation: Why is food such a sensitive subject? Retrieved from
  2. Freedman, Paul. (2019, December 31). Stake for the gentleman, salad for the lady: How foods came to be gendered. Retrieved from,on%20first%20dates%20ordering%20steak.
  3. Fabrizio, Maria. (2016, June 16). Appropriating or Appreciating? An Examination of the Origins and Rise of “Superfoods”. Retrieved from
  4. Garine, Igor. (2001). Views about food prejudice and stereotypes. Retrieved from
  5. Mach, Meridien. (2021, March 25). Food Cultural Appropriation: It’s Personal. Retrieved from
  6. Melton, Tamara. (2018, July 31). Our Idea of Healthy Eating Excludes Other Cultures, and That’s a Problem. Retrieved from
  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Culture and Food. Culture and Food | Retrieved July 28, 2022, from
  8. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Ethnic/Cultural Food Pyramids. National Agricultural Library. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from
  9. Vinopal, Lauren. (2018, September 12). Insecure Men Won’t Order Vegetables in Front of their Friends. Retrieved from

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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