Allison 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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