The Power of Inclusive Language When Writing About Health

The words we choose and the stories we tell matter. As someone who works in the memoir realm, I understand that every narrative carries weight, and this is especially true when discussing health. Today, I want to step into a more inclusive examination of what it means to be “healthy” and how our language shapes that understanding…but also how it can also be used to validate how an individual may feel about their own health.

What Does “Clean” Really Mean?

One term that often comes up in discussions around health is “clean.” You’ll see this a lot, especially when it concerns nutrition. Much like greenwashing terms like “natural” and “chemical-free,” health discussions that involve the use of the word “clean” are not only simplistic, but they imply that the opposite is some kind of default state. 

We read about clean eating, clean living, and even clean beauty products but what does “clean” really mean? On the surface, it suggests purity and quality, but this term can unintentionally alienate or imply judgment if clean isn’t explicitly implied. When we label certain foods or lifestyles as “clean,” we risk casting others as inherently “dirty” or inferior, overlooking the diverse realities of how people live and make choices about their health.

Instead of using “clean” as a blanket term, we can be more specific and compassionate in our language. If we want to talk about healthier choices, for example, describing food as “organically grown” or “free from synthetic additives”  delivers clear information without moral undertones, respecting diverse dietary choices and circumstances. You can simply tell people you’re eating “healthy” (or better yet: “healthier”) and the meaning should be understood. 

Some people’s medical needs require a diet that may look different than yours, and we, as a society, need to get better at recognizing those differences and not rush to judgment. A person who needs to conserve energy, for example, might rely on food delivery services, take-away options, and ready-made meals. Not every way of eating (e.g., keto, plant-based, gluten-free) will work for every human. That’s fine! We want people to be able to eat, priority number one. 

We can also recognize that food is food, and sometimes a less healthy choice is fine. We don’t have to encourage reaching for it all the time, but we don’t have to vilify a bowl of chips once in a while, either. 

Recognizing Social Determinants of Health

Health is not just a product of individual choices but is influenced by social determinants like where you sit on the economic ladder, access to healthcare, race, gender, education, age, and where you live. These factors can shape one’s ability to pursue what is conventionally deemed as “healthy” behaviours like eating whole foods, exercising, and mental health care. 

A truly inclusive approach to writing about health in any context is to acknowledge that not everyone has the same access to healthy options. It’s easy to judge a mother who is feeding their child mac and cheese multiple times a week when you ignore how expensive food is, how low wages are, any health condition or behaviour that might require opting to feed a child whatever they will eat, and the cost of childcare for a single parent, for example. Even outside the topic of food, talking about physical activity in a way that recognizes different abilities, access to safe and affordable spaces for exercise, and even time constraints can help avoid stigmatization and encourage a more supportive narrative around personal health journeys. 

The Importance of Self-Identification in Health Narratives

In discussions about health, how we refer to someone is not just a matter of semantics—it’s a reflection of respect and recognition of identity. A perfect example is the language used in the disability community, where there is a meaningful distinction between identity-first language (“autistic person”) and person-first language (“person with autism”). While person-first language was developed to emphasize the person over the disability, many people within these communities prefer identity-first language as an affirmation that their condition is an integral part of their identity.

So how would you know which one to use? Answer: Ask!

This isn’t just about preference; it’s about how individuals choose to define their experiences and identities in a way that feels most authentic to them. As writers and communicators, it’s important to listen to and honour these preferences in our narratives and not question how someone chooses to identify (I think it’s safe to say that they know themselves better than you do!). 

If you are writing your story, I encourage you to identify in a way that feels right to you, and I promise to respect that decision in the editing process. 

Challenging Stigmas in Addiction

When discussing addiction, the language we use carries significant weight in either perpetuating stigma or fostering understanding and compassion. Referring to someone as a “person who uses drugs” rather than a “druggie” or “addict” can shift narratives from judgment to empathy, recognizing the person beyond their struggles. 

It’s so important to understand that, for some, substances like alcohol can become a physical necessity, not just a choice. Their body now depends on it to survive, and no amount of will without medical support will change that. Viewing addiction as a disease rather than a personal failure allows us to approach it with the compassion that we apply to other medical conditions.

Choosing our words to better reflect this reality is one small way to support harm-reducing efforts and challenge the stigma associated with addictions. 

Rethinking Narratives Around Weight

I was a young adult when the film Bridget Jones’s Diary came out. In the film, the main character is seen constantly beating herself up over her weight. Other characters, too, consider her to be heavier weight and make it the subject of multiple jokes and mean comments. I remember reading the book before I saw the movie (as I am apt to do) and because it was first published in the UK, I bought the heavier-weight characteristic hook, line, and sinker. Imagine my shock, then, when the story was Americanized and we saw Bridget fretting over the scale showing her in the 125 lbs–130 lbs range. At the time, that wasn’t too far off what I weighed and I never encountered the level of stigma that Bridget did (thanks, 90s pop culture).

The conversation about weight and health is often oversimplified with the idea that being thin means being healthy. The reality is that health can’t be measured by physical appearance alone, and there are many invisible factors at play when it comes to determining overall health.  

It’s important to recognize that people of higher weight can be as healthy or even healthier than their average or below-weight counterparts. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and many conditions and diseases shouldn’t automatically be attributed to weight. 

When you’re writing about your own weight or describing the weight of someone in your writing, the first thing to do is ask yourself if that information is relevant to the story. It certainly would be relevant if your story is about your own health journey but is it necessary for characters along the way? Possibly, but here is where you should pause and reflect on how you plan on describing someone and any comparisons of their weight to their overall health. In a piece of fiction, for example, do you have the only character out of breath, after running up a hill, be the one who is of heavier weight? Is the default assumption that everyone is thin? 

Even if you are writing about yourself, it’s important to still approach it with compassion because you matter

Promoting narratives that respect body diversity and focus on individual health markers, rather than weight alone, can help reduce stigma and encourage a more holistic understanding of health.

Addressing Stigma with Compassion

The stigma around illnesses, especially mental health, chronic conditions, and invisible illnesses can deter people from seeking help or engaging in conversations about their health, let alone writing and sharing their story. Inclusive health writing aims to dismantle these stigmas. This involves choosing words that treat health issues with respect and understanding, not as failings or weaknesses. Rather than “crazy,” “bananas,” or “insane” to describe a hectic day, opt for “busy,” “ridiculous,” “silly” or any number of adjectives that are more specific and give more insight into the kind of thing you are describing that have no connection to existing mental health stigmatizing words. 

Memoir serves as a powerful tool for this. By sharing stories that highlight resilience, challenges, and the real-life implications of health-related stigmas, we foster empathy and understanding, encouraging a more supportive community dialogue.

Moving Forward with Authenticity

The next time you pick up a book, consider how the writer represents any kind of health challenge. If you are the writer yourself, I would encourage you to be considerate when you write about the health of someone else but also how you represent your own health and the struggles associated with it. By embracing a more nuanced approach to health writing, we contribute to a broader understanding of wellness that validates and uplifts all experiences.