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Metaphors Of Healthy Living

Contemporary public health promotion exhorts us to care for ourselves by following a healthy lifestyle including, crucially, eating healthily. Injunctions to eat a balanced diet, avoid junk food, and consume appropriate fuel for our bodies proliferate across institutional, popular, and commercialized health discourse. But how do people interpret and reconstitute this mainstream advice in relation to their everyday lives? How do they engage rhetorically with the imperatives of dominant health promotion discourse?

We address these questions through a brief analysis of recurring metaphors in older adults’ responses to open-ended interview questions about healthy eating. These are the metaphors of healthy eating as balanced eating, food as fuel, and food as junk. Conceiving participants as rhetorical actors who draw on and reconfigure the resources of publicly circulating discourse, we explore how their uses of these conventional metaphors function in multiple and possibly strategic ways in their interpretations of healthy eating. Our analysis suggests that the situated uptakes of these metaphors in the participants’ responses not only reproduced but also amplified and ambiguated normative rhetorics of healthy eating.


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Metaphor, according to Michael Billig and Katie MacMillan’s Aristotelian definition, “involves talking about one thing in terms of attributes normally associated with another”. Metaphor pervades everyday language and thought and affects how we understand and experience reality. As a key mode of rhetorical invention and symbolic action, metaphor constitutes ways of seeing the world and influences attitudes, knowledge, values, and actions. Otto Santa Ana argues that “metaphor shapes everyday discourse, and by this means it shapes how people discern and enact the everyday”.

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Because everyday discourse (re)constructs social values and ways of being, the metaphors that circulate within common language at once reveal, enact, and naturalize social orders. Attending to the most ubiquitous — and hence least noticeable—metaphors within rhetorics of health and medicine can, as Judy Segal notes, shed light on the values that these terms “smuggle into” healthcare policy and practice; however, the polysemous, dynamic, and contextualized “social usage” of metaphor means that idiomatic metaphors may not simply reproduce dominant ideology: the complex, shifting, and ambiguous meanings of commonplace metaphors in use shows how these applications may also destabilize naturalized meanings and values.

Outdoor Healthy
Outdoor Healthy
Healthy Diet
Healthy Diet

In 2010, we interviewed 55 adults aged 45-70 in three Ontario communities and one UK community about what healthy eating and active living meant to them. This project explored how citizens negotiated dominant discourses of healthy living in relation to their own lives including, as we examine here, how they drew on and reconfigured commonplace metaphors related to healthy eating. To help ensure that participants already possessed some interest in the topic of healthy living, we recruited through recreational physical activity organizations. We selected older adults because of our interest in how self-care imperatives are especially pronounced for aging citizens.

The metaphor of balance appeared prominently in the participants’ views of how to fulfill the imperative of healthy eating, functioning as a motivational ideal for their efforts to be good health(y) citizens. Often, the term balanced operates as a substitute or equivalent term for healthy. As one participant explained, “I try to eat a balanced, healthy diet as much as I can.” The yoking of the terms balance and balanced with the term good, as in “a good balanced meal” or eating a “good balance” of foods, likewise emphasizes the metaphor’s positive valence.

The association of good and balance reinforces the naturalized assumption that balanced eating is good because it is healthy, and healthy is—unquestionably—good; however, the use of good to modify balance and balanced also begs the question whether balanced eating is intrinsically good or whether it is possible to have a bad balance. This question, though not overtly addressed by participants, potentially destabilizes the commonplace equation that healthy eating equals balanced eating equals good eating.

Eating Healthy
Eating Healthy
Overall Health
Overall Health

Beyond its function as an abstract, motivational ideal in the participants’ responses, many characterized the metaphor of balance more concretely to mean eating the right proportions of the right kinds of foods, which together compose the desirable whole of healthy eating. This meaning evokes conventional public health guidelines that instruct citizens to daily eat a certain amount from a range of food groups, and these instructions are often imaged through a color-coded, pie-chart styled plate.

According to one participant, “I interpret (healthy eating) as balanced eating: in other words, fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins. I don’t think that there is a restriction of any one group; although, if there was, it would probably be in the fat group and the sugar groups, but I still think that it is healthy to eat from all different food groups.”

Others said healthy eating “means having a balanced diet with a variety of meat[s], fish, fruit[s and], vegetables but with allowable fat content probably,” or, less precisely, healthy eating “[is] balanced; so, you know, your proteins, your carbs, your this, your that, you know, [you] get a good balance in those.” This interpretation enacts the quasi-logical technique of dividing the whole into parts, the ideal whole of balanced eating comprising the sum of its parts; however, the participants’ tentative (i.e., “probably,” “possibly,” and “I think”) and imprecise (i.e., “your this, your that”) language suggests uncertainty about the parts that make up the whole, which destabilizes the coherence of balanced eating as a motivating term.

Conversely, the inclusion of fruits and vegetables as two essential, but not exhaustive, parts of a balanced diet was stated more definitively. The repeated naming of these two food groups by the participants (i.e., “healthy diet, a good balance of fruit and vegetables”; “my balanced diet, lots of fruit and vegetables”; and “Healthy eating: It means having a really good balance of a lot of fruits, a lot of vegetables”) may have resulted because these two food groups are consistently present across public health guidelines compared with the more diverse, and contested, categorization of other required groups. Refer to any one of these three sites for more information on this subject: more info here or read more here or, finally, find additional background information on this website. Contrasting with the quantitative division of the whole into (more or less) all its parts, the naming of fruits and vegetables as the two most important food groups constructs a more qualitative—and more manageable—meaning for balanced eating.

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