In our society we are constantly told that food is a moral issue, but it’s not. It’s normal to talk about food as if it has inherent “good” and “bad” qualities. For example, potato chips are considered “bad,” and kale is considered “good.”
When we label foods as “good” or “bad,” we naturally label the people who eat them as “good” or “bad.”
But food is not how we should define a human being. It’s discriminatory to judge a person’s value based on what they eat. And it often fails to take into account issues like:
- Income: not everyone has the money to invest in purchasing and preparing foods that are considered “healthy.”
- Access: not everyone has access to farmer’s markets, organic produce, and other foods that are considered “healthy.”
- Sexism: eating a “healthy” diet is considered necessary for a woman to signal her femininity. Meanwhile men are discouraged from appearing too feminine by eating foods like salads.
- Racism: the foods that we have been told are “healthy” tend to be foods associated primarily with white people.
Images promoting food morality are everywhere. We frequently see primarily white, thin, attractive people eating fruits, vegetables and other foods that are considered virtuous. Conversely, the people who are shown eating high-fat, fast-food are typically of color and size.
The lies diet culture tells us
Diet culture asserts that if we eat only “good” foods, we will be happier and more successful. It tells us that our food choices are either “good” or “bad.” Under this restrictive ideology we are constantly at risk of failure.
Diet culture says that health is equal to weight. And that the way to achieve low weight is to eat less, and to only eat “good” food. But weight is largely genetic and environmental. In other words, it is largely out of our control. Additionally, no single food choice will make or break our health. In fact, balanced nutrition is a “nice-to-have,” not an essential element of health.
Essential elements of health:
- Physical safety: having shelter, warmth, and meeting basic food needs
- Emotional safety: feeling loved, belonging to a community, having social support
- Environmental safety: not being at risk of flood, fire, violence, and other environmental traumas
- Body respect: not being at risk of being marginalized for factors that are out of your control. These include skin color, weight, height, sex, gender, religion, physical or mental ability, sexuality, etc.
These are all complex societal factors that affect health. But we are told that our health rests entirely on our own shoulders. We are told that being healthy means being thin (it’s not). And that getting thin is possible for every body (it’s not). We internalize these beliefs and turn them into our moral compass.
If you want to learn about the science behind these statements, check our out scientific research library.
Food is frequently presented as a moral choice. And yet most social events are based on eating foods that have been labeled “bad.
Isn’t it interesting that we meet for coffee, breakfast, lunch, brunch, a drink, dinner, pizza, tacos, takeout, etc. And yet according to diet culture these activities are “bad.”
This presents a conundrum. When we are alone, we must be virtuous in our food choices. But when we are in a group, we should enjoy the foods that we have been told to restrict.
To deal with this complication, we typically discuss our diets during these social gatherings. We’ll talk about how we’re “being bad,” or will “make up for it” later with exercise or not eating. We try to perform goodness by not eating “too much” or choosing something “guilt-free” from the menu. Socialized food morality is pervasive and often goes unnoticed.
The morality of food
We are living in a time of dangerous morality surrounding food. We are surrounded by images and headlines defining what is good and what is bad. People who have eating disorders internalize food as the pathway to being “good.” They determine that in order to be a “good person,” they must eat the right food. And not eat the wrong food. By focusing our energy on improving our diets, we believe we are improving our selves.
But food is not a moral issue. It’s just food.
This is the core of orthorexia, an eating disorder based on the desire to eat only “good” foods. People who have orthorexia will refuse to eat food that does not fit a rigid definition of “healthy.” They’ll eat only “good” food even if it means they skip social events or make others uncomfortable.
People who have eating disorders find statements regarding the moral integrity of foods very triggering. Most have some degree of perfectionism. Their eating disorder behaviors typically begin with a well-researched diet or eating plan. They want to stay on the “good” side of morality. Dieting can transform all to easily into an eating disorder. Eating disorders can be very hard to overcome. This is why not making food a moral issue is so important.
When we have an eating disorder, we devote our growth, our passion, and our moral compass to ensuring we meet the dietary morality. This comes at the expense of devoting ourselves to emotional growth and development. As long as we focus on food, we stall our emotional maturation and development. We sacrifice the development of our selves for the morality of the food we put in our bodies.
Life without food morality
Let’s stop talking about the food people put in their bodies. We can focus instead on what they do with their souls. Instead of food morality, let’s focus on the truly important moral issues, including:
- How we treat ourselves – how do we soothe ourselves and develop ourselves?
- Our treatment of the people we love – how do we show them we love them every day?
- How we learn – do we have processes in place for learning new skills in personal and professional development? Are we focusing on our emotional growth and development?
- How we treat other people – do we accept them for who they are? Do we support them in their own personal development outside of food and body goals?
- Our treatment of people who have marginalized identities such as people who:
- Are not white and/or have a different skin color than our own
- Are in lower socio-economic classes
- Have a larger body size/high weight
- Are mentally or physically disabled
- Not cis-gender: e.g. non-binary, transgender
- Are female
- Are not heterosexual
- Have different political ideologies
How we treat other people, particularly those people who are in marginalized identities, is a moral issue. But food is not a moral issue. Let’s free ourselves of diet culture’s food morality and build our true morality.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.