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December 14, 2020

The Harmful Rhetoric of “Moral Food.”

It is impossible to walk down the aisle of any grocery store today without being inundated with messages about food and morality.

Many food products have labels loudly proclaiming messages such as “guilt-free,” “guilty pleasure,” “indulgence,” or even “sinfully delicious.” These food packages are just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger conversation surrounding food and morality in our society. The basis of this moral lens on food is rooted in religious notions of sin, guilt, and shame. But do those terms belong in the conversation surrounding food?

According to a 2008 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a shocking 65 percent of women reported disordered eating behaviours, while an additional 10 percent reported symptoms consistent with eating disorders (Reba-Harrelson et al., 2009). In recent years, eating, one of our most basic and necessary human drives, has become a source of stress, anxiety, and confusion for many. The internet is plagued with fitness influencers who promote their harmful diets under the guise of “health.” Pick up any magazine and you will see some celebrity’s diet or the newest magic “superfood.”

Foods are lumped into two categories: good and bad—and their moral value extends upon us as the consumer when we eat them. You are “good” if you eat broccoli and “bad” if you eat ice cream. This dichotomous view of food is not only a gross oversimplification that erases all the complexities of nutrition but is also a harmful rhetoric.

Viewing food through this incredibly narrow lens diminishes our ability to see nutrition in a larger context. Of course, food is fuel to our bodies, but it is also socialisation, celebration, and pleasure—things that don’t fit neatly into the dichotomy of good and bad. This rhetoric can also set us up to experience anxiety around food and our food choices. Without this futile moral categorization, experiences like savoring a piece of cake at a loved one’s birthday or socializing with friends over dinner on a Friday night are wonderful and enriching experiences that add to the quality of our lives.

With this harmful rhetoric in play, what was once a time to let go and celebrate may turn into anxiety-ridden thoughts of “this doesn’t fit in my diet, so I need to try to make up for it tomorrow,” or “eating this slice of pizza makes me a bad person, so I may as well just eat three more slices and have some cake and ice cream while I’m at it.”

Both of these thoughts produce stress and can often lead to an individual eating more of the food they deem bad.

No food is inherently bad. As nutrition students, of course we know foods can have varying degrees of nutrient and caloric density. For example, most non-starchy vegetables are nutrient dense and calorically not dense, while foods like pizza and ice cream tend to be less nutrient dense and more calorically dense. But by slapping a bad label on pizza and ice cream, we compromise our ability to truly enjoy them on special occasions. Consequently, we also apply that bad label to ourselves, which increases feelings of guilt and shame and does not allow food to be viewed properly in the context of socialisation, celebration, or pleasure.

Of course, we want to utilise our knowledge of nutrition to maximise health and wellbeing, but this perspective includes looking at the full picture of health rather than demonising all nutrient poor, calorically dense foods. If your strict regime of exclusively “healthy” eating is causing you stress, it’s not healthy. So let’s keep the concepts of shame, sin, and guilt out of the conversation surrounding food.

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