The Food Morality Thing

Fad DietsAllison is a new reader, and she e-mailed to ask me  a question that I get a lot regarding my feelings about food moralizing – the practicing of labeling food as good, bad, clean, sinful, junk, trash etc.  Specifically she asked:

Because some foods, (such as fruits, vegetable, lean meats and dairy, etc.), contain more nutrients that are good for your body than some other foods (chips, cheese puffs, candy, etc.). So why is it bad label foods that can fuel your body better as “healthy” or “good”? It’s not like I’m saying people are morally obligated to eat certain foods. But isn’t it true that eating foods that can better feed your body is good for you. If you can just clarify on this a little bit, I would appreciate is so much. Thanks for running a good blog!

Thanks for asking Allison! First of all there are a lot of things that go into food choices – availability and affordability of foods, availability and feasibility of cooking methods, availability of time, tools, and skill for food preparation and consumption, allergies, sensitivities, health conditions, culture, religious beliefs, personal moral beliefs, tastes and preferences, and the circumstances at each time someone eats.

Next, the ideaa of foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy” are not absolutes.  For example, vegetables are generally seen as universally “healthy” but there are some people who can’t digest fresh vegetables because of health conditions so they aren’t healthy for them at all.

There are also many ways of eating that people believe are the “healthiest” way or “right” way to eat – many of them are diametrically opposed to each other:  low carb, low fat, raw foods vegan, vegetarian, paleo etc.  People are allowed to choose to eat any way that they want for any reason that they want, but making it a public and adding an element of food being good/bad becomes problematic really quickly.

Our culture encourages us to make our decisions about eating into a performance – we talk about our food choices in a way that we don’t talk about our other bodily function choices. (For example, it wouldn’t be unusual to be at lunch with three other people where we spent most of the lunch discussing what we eat and why.  It would be unusual if we spent the meal discussing how, when, and why we used the restroom even though that’s just the other side of the equation.)

When we turn our personal food choices into a public performance complete with moralization, we create a construct by which people are then judged and often shamed and stigmatized for their food choices, that ignores both context and personal choice.  This disproportionately affects the poor, people with health issues, and people from cultures and religions that are considered different than the “mainstream” (by which I mean the culture doing the judging.)  It also affects fat people since our current paradigm of size bigotry suggests that fat bodies are public property and our choices are up for public comment. It can also contribute to disordered eating and  eating disorders, the understanding being that genetics “loads the gun” by predisposing some to developing eating disorders, and environment- like one in which food choices are constantly put under a social microscope and it can seem that no choice is ever healthy “enough” – pulls the trigger.

So while it’s fine to believe that a certain way of eating is the “best” or “healthiest” for us,  if we feel the need to reinforce our choices by discussing them publicly, and calling other food/food choices “crap” or “trash” or “sinful” or “bad”or whatever, then I think we need to assess why that is.  Is it because we are trying to feel superior?  Is it simple pretension? A need to have our choices validated by insisting that those who make other choices are wrong and putting them down?  An attempt to gain social approval? Regardless I would suggest that, considering the negative outcomes that food moralizing/policing/shaming can have, opting out of it allows us to do a positive thing for our culture with no impact to our ability to make our own choices.

In my dream world everyone would have full and easy access to non-biased information about food and nutrition available to them, and would have access (including affordability, cooking method and time to prepare and the ability to learn the skills to make) the foods that they would choose to eat, and live in an environment where they are not judged for their choices.

For now I think that when it comes to nutrition we should confine ourselves to making decisions for ourselves and, if we are interested in helping others then we can work to make sure that people have access to neutral, unbiased information (giving advice only when directly asked,) and access to the foods that they would choose to eat, and respect their choices in the same way we want ours to be respected.

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33 thoughts on “The Food Morality Thing

  1. “It would be unusual if we spent the meal discussing how, when, and why we used the restroom even though that’s just the other side of the equation.”
    Thank you, this made me smile.

      1. Complete with farting contests &, not infrequently, pissing contests. But, generally, no, I don’t spend a lot of time discussing my bodily functions with people & I absolutely refuse to waste time discussing what I eat, why, or why I should not eat what I do, etc.

  2. This is all so true.

    For me, the “best” breakfast option this morning was the wilted spinach, scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms on toast I ate (and enjoyed every bite of). Because I like all of those things, because I need to eat iron-rich foods, and because I feel most energetic and good inside when I eat meals like that.

    A year ago, when I was so poor I was struggling to buy enough food to meet my basic requirements (enough calories to keep going and will fill me up), it would not have been as good a choice as, say, a big bowl of cheap, hot porridge. Or a plate of leftovers from dinner, because eating leftovers cold the next day allowed me to stretch my food budget more effectively.

    For my nan, who cannot consume any fibre or fat due to a couple of health conditions, the spinach and the fried mushrooms (and the scrambled eggs cooked in butter) would all have been a very bad choice. She loves vegetables, but now cannot tolerate ANY unless they are peeled and then strained through a sieve to remove any fibre, and leafy greens put her in hospital the last time she ate some.

    For my little sis, who feels at her best on a paleo-ish diet, the toast would have been a bad choice and the meal would also not include nearly enough meat protein for her needs.

    For my mum, who feels physically ill if she tries to eat that early in the morning, anything more than a cup of caffeine-free coffee would be a bad choice.

    For my friend whose blood sugar illness makes it necessary for him to carry cartons of custard around to drink in case of emergency collapses, a bowl of very sugary cereal with dried fruit and a glass of some sort of milkshake or smoothie would actually be the best choice.

    For the malnourished children around the world, sometimes the best possible food for them is that rich nutrient paste based on peanut butter that they get fed by the spoonful, simply because they desperately need calories and fat in as high quantities as possible.

    For my friend recovering from ED, any food she chooses to consume for breakfast is a good health choice, no matter what it is, and if that means she eats a cupcake for breakfast because she’s feeling brave and wants to challenge herself, only a complete dickhead would tell her that she made a bad choice.

    There is no such thing as a food item that is universally “good” or “bad” for people’s health. Referring to foods as such has nothing to do with health and everything to do with food moralising.

  3. Remember that old saw ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison?’

    That can actually, literally be true.

    My best friend is vegetarian by necessity. She’s physically allergic to meat. Several of my other friends are vegetarian by choice because they either dislike eating meat or consider it morally wrong. And a couple I know went vegan after his stroke in hopes that it would prevent him from having another.

    If I go more than a couple days without meat, my brains dribble out my ear and my temper becomes foul. Trust me, you don’t want to see loopy angry Twistie. She’s not your friend.

    Another friend went gluten free as a medical necessity,

    Grains not only make my digestive system happy, plenty of pasta allows me to stretch my food budget to cover more of the month. But I have to watch that, too, because my husband has diabetes and I need to keep as many of his meals low carb as possible. And while I adore my leafy greens, again, I have to watch how many I feed to Mr. Twistie because the potassium in them interacts badly with one of his medications and can cause arrhythmia and… well, kill him.

    While I love food, love cooking, and can talk food most of the day most days, I refuse to moralize it. I eat what I eat for a complex set of reasons. You eat what you eat for a completely different and equally complex set of reasons. If I’m feeding you, I will ask what you don’t eat. I don’t care whether your reasons are medical, moral, or preferential. I just want to make sure I don’t poison you.

    And that can actually be harder than it looks on a food pyramid.

  4. At my kids’ school all the foods served in the cafeteria are labelled Go foods or Go Slow foods. Here are a couple of strange menus:

    Tomato Soup Go
    Whole grain crackers Go
    Whole Grain grilled cheese Go slow
    Celery sticks with fat free ranch Go
    Peaches Go

    So the only item with protein is go slow? And they don’t get seconds, so what is the point of Go slow?

    Another day:

    Egg casserole go slow
    French toast sticks go slow
    Fat free syrup GO – really?
    Sweet potatoes go
    Bananas go

    Again sugar is fine but the protein component contains fat so watch out while you eat your entree kids!

    Then there is this:

    Ham slice go slow
    Whole grain roll go
    Green beans go
    Mashed potatoes go
    Pineapple go

    What in the hell is wrong with my kid eating the ham slice?

    Now to totally confuse you:

    Salisbury steak go
    Whole grain roll go
    Mashed potatoes go
    Green beans go
    Cherry crisp No notation at all. How will I know what to do?

    So the ham is problem but the Salisbury steak is okay? I don’t get it.

    I really want to complain about this but I am pretty sure since I am fat I will get nowhere.

  5. In one of those bent-brain paradoxes best understood by other people who have an eating disorder, there are times when the very act of eating fruits or vegetables I otherwise love, triggers bad feelings or anger because I discovered that enjoyment in the midst of past restricted eating. The “reward” of that old pattern was, in addition to a size change, a realization that my poor body had been putting up with a huge amount of discomfort when I was eating the things “normal” people ate. The “punishment” was (as many of you could predict) that the pattern was unsustainable long-term.

    It’s turning out to be a long journey back to listening to my body’s cues and eating accordingly, but knowing others have made the trip is a big help.

  6. Thank you for this. My issue is that all this good/bad food talk usually involves privilege. As in someone who is privileged to be able to afford all organic all the time, making disparaging remarks about not eating organic like:

    “You can either pay for it now or later at the docand when you point out to them that for some people paying for it now is not an option ever, be back pedal saying “I didn’t mean those people.”

    When the reality is that they did mean “those people,” because this type of person thinks that all organic all the time is just the smart way to eat and that anybody who doesn’t eat that way is just being stupid. That includes those for whom eating that way is impossible.

  7. That was my email! Thank you for taking time to explain this a little better, I appreciate it. And, I do think that I understand what you’re saying here. I really agree strongly with your point that different foods are healthy for different people, too. I have friends who completely love their low-carb diets, but I like distance running, so if I were to go on a low-carb diet that would make me slower and less able to run far.

  8. Thank you SO MUCH for this. I was born with phenylketonuria (PKU), which basically means that straying too far from an extremely low-protein diet can actually result in brain damage. This is not something one can learn from looking at me. People may judge me for choosing to eat french fries, for instance, not realizing there’s nothing else on the menu I can have. It’s actually extremely common for fries to be my healthiest option! As a result of my rather restrictive diet, I get very frustrated when people remark on my food choices, and I would love to see it become socially unacceptable to comment on what others are eating and whether they’re “being good” or “being bad”, as if those rules are automatically the same for all people.

    1. As far as I’m concerned, the only valid reason to comment on another adult’s plate is to ask what that delicious looking item is and does it taste as good as it looks.

      Then again, my mother took the time to teach me what was and wasn’t my business. It’s been a useful skill in life.

  9. I spent years thinking that my unacceptable and substandard body just threw me a terrible gut-ache now and then because, you know, wrong body, bad body, yadda yadda. Turns out that that upstanding and moral food, oranges, isn’t supposed to feel like boiling coffee going down or give me terrible pain in my mid-intestines. So much for oranges being the standard of comparison for vitamin C content. (Satsumas, BTW, don’t do it to me. Just oranges.)

    1. Congratulations for figuring out what your allergy was and realizing that no, oranges are NOT healthy for you!

      And of course, for anyone with insulin resistance (aka pre-diabetes) or diabetes, fruit is not the all-healthy, all-the-time wonder-food that popular culture now insists it is. I get really weary of all the messages telling me to eat more fruit. I wish I could. I love oranges and consider fresh-squeezed orange juice one of life’s finest pleasures, but I have to think carefully about how much sugar I’m ingesting and despite what many people think, the sugar in fruit is still sugar and still a problem for people with insulin resistance. And fruit juice has to be a very rare, once-in-a-great-while treat. But people try to push orange juice on one as though it were the elixir of youth of something.

    2. The healthy food I dare not eat unless I want to risk intense gas and massive intestinal misery is apples. Pity. I love apples. Worst of all, I can’t guarantee whether or not it will lead to that misery. The risk, though, is rarely worth it, and then only in private.

  10. A friend of mine, who worked with a dietitian as part of treatment for an eating disorder, once shared something with me that the dietitian told her, and it really stuck with me and helped change the way I think about food: unless you have an allergy or other negative physical response to a food, it is actually impossible for any food to be “bad for you.” Food, whether it’s an organic green salad or a McDonald’s big mac, contains nutrients that are necessary to sustain life; at a basic level, food is good for people. With the exception of allergies and other medical issues, the worst a food can be is “not as good for you as other food.” So, in my case, the only food that could be truly “bad” for me is poison ivy . . . and they never have a good deal on that at my grocery store anyway.

    And, as everyone else’s comments illustrate so brilliantly, there are many, many factors that go into determining which foods are more or less good for any given person. Those decisions are highly specific and, above all, personal. It’s really a shame that so many people in our current society are confused about the location of their beeswax.

  11. It really hurts me when people tell me how eating healthy is “actually cheaper”. The people that make this claim have never tried to make a measly social assistance cheque last for the whole month. I have CFS, and one of the troubles I have with eating healthy is that healthy food tends to take more energy to chew and I don’t have the energy and I also don’t have energy to cook. I could literally starve if I gave into my orthorexic tendencies.

  12. As a fat vegetarian who is both body positive and against food morality (really, I swear my primary partner eats meat hates veggies) one problem I keep running into is that sometimes when I want to have a couple of quick ‘n easy prepared meals in my freezer – they are often the frozen dinners that have morality clauses attached to them. For example Trader Joes carries a baked ziti that has the words “guilt free” printed on the package. Since I don’t care to have a side of judgement with my entree – I find that indigestible – it makes shopping for foods more difficult. The problem is that even when I’m just going about buying my brussel sprouts or what have you – I have to deal with people’s verbal equivalent statements of the words written on the box. While I may use the opportunity to give them a teaching moment, mostly I’d really just like to be able to shop without other’s noses in my shopping cart.

    1. I, too, have always passed on that baked ziti. I hate doing so because the dish looks delicious and Trader Joe’s frozen entrees are generally so very good. I also find it useful to have a few frozen entrees in the freezer for those days when I don’t feel up to cooking because I’m sick, or when I suddenly look up from a Terribly Engrossing Project and realize I haven’t eaten anything in about seven or eight hours and I’m about to collapse from hunger. In those moments, baked ziti with veggies would be just the thing… if only the box didn’t proclaim it to be ‘guilt free’ as though eating pasta and veggies is somehow shameful if it contains enough calories to actually fuel my body for more than half an hour!

      But if I ever see you in Trader Joe’s and comment on those Brussels sprouts, you’ll know it’s me because I’ll just ask you where you found those delicious looking sprouts. Mmmmm… Brussels sprouts!

  13. Good food? Bad food? Here are MY criteria for any foods – the operative word there is ‘MY’, right?
    1. Can I afford to buy that specific food?
    2. Will it taste good?
    3. Will it satisfy my appetite?
    4. Will I feel good after I eat it?

    These four points, for me, separate ‘good’ from ‘not’. Oh, and anyone who tries to moralize food within earshot of me won’t like what I have to say, but I feel it’s my obligation to at least try to set them straight.

  14. This post has been on my mind again recently because I’m quitting caffeine again. I already knew that caffeine was bad for me, mostly because it messes up my sleep cycles at night thus offsetting any benefit I get from it in the morning, but I finally accepted that my sinus headaches now come with bonus migraines and started researching migraine triggers. Lo and behold, both caffeine consumption and caffeine withdrawal are triggers. Excuse me while I find a container for my joy. Anyway, I’ve been off it for six days. The headaches are diminishing.

    Now, my caffeine delivery system of choice is a soda made with sugar and phosphoric acid. My family is prone to diabetes, so whacking my pancreas with sugar is not a good idea, and also widow’s humps, so phosphoric acid ditto. I’ve known this for yonks, and I’ve also known that I’ve grown to depend on the sugar rush for my mood. However, I’m trying to make this bout of quitting caffeine stick by quitting one thing at a time, so I’m still drinking fizzy soda–just not caffeinated types. If I can stay caffeine free until September 30, I’ll quit fizzy drinks. And then sweetened ones.

    :You know, I’ve been trying to do this for years, since long before I found out about the link between migraines and caffeine. But this is the first time I haven’t felt like a pendulum swinging between shame and victory. I think I finally rooted the diet talk out of my head. If I don’t manage it now, I’ll manage it another time. Every day I do manage it is a good day.

  15. Ragen, every time I read one of your blog posts, my consciousness gets raised another level. How I could have been carrying all of the unconscious judgments about good/bad (in addition to all the conscious ones, of course)! I shake my head to remove the boggles from my mind and the goggles from my eyes.

    Thank you again and again!

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