Written by Lucy Aphramor

What do you get if you scatter a selection of dairy- and plant-milk cartons around a room occupied by a diverse group of people who share a passion for food justice as backdrop for asking the question “which is the healthiest milk?”  

This was the opening scene for a workshop at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January 2024. A provocation, for sure? I mean, we can reasonably anticipate there will be richly conflicting opinions all held with strong conviction. And, when beliefs and experiences around food emerge from a neoliberal society with a punitive public health system, we can be sure that shame, guilt, overwhelm, righteousness, anxiety, and trauma are likely present in the room too.   

So, as co-facilitators (Lucy [me] and Becca), chair (Beth), and participants we set up a space that would hold this, alchemically. Our discussion mentioned nutrients and also cross-referenced feelings, self-worth, health justice, food systems transformation, undoing binary thinking, and the power of imagination.  

Along the way we articulated some of the so-called ‘externalities’ in the story, that is, detrimental consequences and costs that mainstream nutrition narratives drop from the picture. Sending edible veg to land fill is one externality (see below); antibiotics in foods is another; shame and guilt are in there too.  

Using examples including wonky veg and cheap food, Dan Crossley, executive director at the Food Ethics Council, has previously argued that our language around food needs an overhaul, so we don’t unwittingly endorse ideologies that are in fact antithetical to our values. (Wonky veg is just regular veg when we don’t reject veg as landfill. The phrase ‘cheap food’ hides associated costs and burdens such as poor farmer and animal welfare, lack of food safety, and distracts attention from the underlying causes of poverty.) 

Framing matters: when we assume that the main story is the only possible story, or undeniably the best way of approaching a topic, we perpetuate the status quo.  

Take healthy eating. Back at the workshop I asked the group what they meant by ‘healthiest’?  What criteria were they using to assess ‘healthy milk’?  

It’s not surprising that, given dietary guidelines that condition us to rank ‘healthy food’ through nutrient profile, participants overwhelmingly defaulted to focusing on the type and amount of fat and protein in the milk.  

This is despite all the knowledge held by the group about the need to consider and involve people producing and processing food, radical nature connection, holistic wellbeing, poverty, and liberation in how we understand ‘healthy food’.  

Our discussion made it clear that healthy eating messages harm people and planet. For starters, the over-emphasis on nutrient profile simply disregards the fact that food and eating meet many needs and serve many roles. There is plenty of data documenting how our relationship with food impacts nutrient absorption. Omitting evidence on these relational aspects of eating is intellectually absurd.  It also means that, despite being promoted as scientifically credible, healthy eating messages do not emerge from a process of rigorous scientific enquiry. This unethical practice leads to harm as people struggle to follow food rules that are disconnected from real-life and can’t account for the tastes, histories, and bodies of eaters.  

Framing foods as a carrier of ‘nutrients from nowhere’ like this also teaches us to ignore the seasons, growers, climate justice and in turn presents ‘health’ as an individual lifestyle pursuit rather than a process of social change including food sovereignty for collective flourishing.  

The ‘health’ projected by dietary guidelines is something located in and achieved by isolated, self-serving individuals. It is overwhelmingly understood as a function of diet and exercise in a model that has no place for considering the metabolic and other stresses of living with racism, displacement, violence, shame. This echoes with what abolitionist geographer Ruth Gilmore calls ‘abandonment by design’. 

We deepened our enquiry, also surfacing that dietary recommendations are implicitly presented as if they are universally applicable and ideologically neutral. When in fact they are written to meet the nutritional needs of a specific eater – a non-disabled, lactose tolerant, Anglo adult who has the finances, kitchen facilities, food access, time, bandwidth and so on needed to enact meaningful choice about what to eat.  

In this and other ways, dietary guidelines replicate norms and processes consistent with its colonial legacy. A clear example is organising health and healthcare around body mass index, or BMI, and hence around dieting. It is not just that the best available evidence (within the protocol known as evidence based medicine) finds ‘ the potential benefits of dieting are too small and the potential harms too great for it to be recommended as a safe and effective treatment. . .’ but much more significantly, that BMI is rooted in eugenics (see Sabrina String’s book Fearing the Black Body). 

Dietary guidelines uphold the status quo in other ways. Significantly, the ‘eat less, move more’ BMI-based model ignores biomedical data that helps to explain how non-food factors impact diet-related disease. ‘Health behaviour change’ theory fails to integrate racism as a causal factor in hypertension, and classism as a causal factor in heart disease. It is as if the research linking diabetes and job insecurity doesn’t exist. The conventional approach to healthy eating obfuscates the fact that diet-related metabolic diseases are also strongly power-related.  

Of course, food and power are enmeshed and those of us who are more powerful have more choice about what, where, when, and how to grow, procure, cook, and eat than those of us who are marginalised. That said, the common understanding that higher rates of diet-related disease in marginalised communities primarily arise because of ‘poor diet’ is not upheld by the data. ‘Eating a rainbow’ is not an anti-dote to the physiology of oppression. Low-salt butter won’t cancel out racialised hypertension. Dietary modification might help someone manage PTSD, depression, irritable bowel syndrome and the side-effects of psychiatric medication – but it doesn’t address the underlying causal pathways of child sexual abuse or gendered violence. Yes to people finding good medicine by (re)connecting with lineage and care and joy through foods and food ways. No to perpetuating ‘healthy eating’ narratives that exaggerate the impact of nutrient intake on public health and hide the impact of oppression to ensure business as usual.  

It follows that we need to stop saying that the food system needs fixing because fat people exist. The food system needs fixing because it emerges from and perpetuates oppression.  Because – as the Covid lockdowns made plain – it serves a white-bodied elite by sacrificing the lives of people who are marginalised by race, gender, disability, ill-health. However it is packaged, a ‘tackle obesity’ agenda seeks to eradicate fat people, starkly underlining its eugenic logic. Dropping anti-fat rhetoric, including retiring the words overweight, obese, obesity, having conversations about this, and conjuring inclusive alternatives, is something we can enact right away. 

How we talk about food and bodies has consequences. 

An ‘eat less, move more’ imaginary erases context, history, accountability, care. The trope of the disciplined individual making self-interested rational decisions predicated on the morally laudable pursuit of optimal personal ‘health’ in a meritocracy normalises – and rewards – the values of racist capitalism.   

As poet and philosopher Bayo Akomalafe says, ‘what if the solution to the crisis is part of the crisis?’  

Let’s think about how it’s going with healthy eating advice for a moment . . .  


Over the short time we spent together in the workshop we recognised the ubiquitous ‘healthy food’ storyline as oppressive. Reducing foods to ‘nutrients from nowhere’, treating bodies like calorie-burning machines, and legitimising BMI, mobilises feelings and ideologies that predispose people to untold, avoidable, suffering around food, eating, and bodies. It is neither beneficial nor benign but ableist, often traumatising, and politically regressive. ‘Healthy eating’ guidelines are getting in the way of transformation.  

A core problem is that the ‘Eat Well’ (food plate/pyramid etc) approach with its divisions and categories is taken-for-granted as the only way, or the right way of storying food and flourishing. I can imagine a different world where encountering nutrition (or a newly named alternative) resources leaves us feeling witnessed, encouraged, and meaningfully informed. A world where instead of being conditioned into individualism and zero-sum thinking to achieve personal health we are conditioned to respect Life and think through right relationship as we serve the commonswell – or collective non/human flourishing. Imagine if compassion and wonder were conveyed in and co-constituted through nutrition knowledge? How would things be different if nutrition knowledge recognised that not everyone enjoys eating or wants to eat in company and also that pleasure and conviviality are core to what ‘eating well’ means for many people. This shift to collective flourishing is being championed by Nourish Scotland in their current work exploring public diners and by Healing Justice London. 

Having realised how far the focus on nutrient profile flattened possibilities, we explored more generative concepts and sources of knowledge that lie outside mainstream nutrition scholarship. These include pluriversalism, disability justice, fat rights, transness, feminism, and queer ecologies. My own thinking is strongly indebted to these theories and practices as entwined with the work of global south scholars, growers, activists, and the food stories people have shared with me in my work as a radical dietitian.   

It makes sense that we talk about food and flourishing in ways that align with food system transformation. This entails paying attention to language, to response-ability, to care, and troubling certainties. It means we need to notice and interrogate the limits of what feels usual and possible, emboldening each other to co-create radically different futures.  


Dear dietitian,  

What I have learnt is that warmth and regard and community are nutrients too 

Health is decided by the roll call of our lives, our portion size of power 

What it takes to safely claim identity to house ourselves unshuttered in the bodies of our histories.  

To have hurt heard. 

Poetry is not a luxury*. Nor is self-worth. 


*  ‘Poetry is not a luxury’ is a quote by Audre Lorde


Words by Lucy Aphramor 

The ORFC session was co-facilitated by Lucy Aphramor from the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University/Food Ethics Council member and Becca Cartwright from Five Acre Farm, Coventry. It was chaired by Beth Bell from the Food Ethics Council.