There’s no denying that we as a culture assign moral value to food. Fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed foods are called words like “clean,” “pure,” “whole,” and “honest.”
Desserts are often described as “sinfully delicious” or “indulgent.” You may have seen foods specifically made to be lower calorie and lower fat than the originals (think banana ice cream, black bean brownies, and other sweet riffs) marketed as “reduced-guilt” or “guilt-free.”
“Somehow, we decided that some foods are good and some are bad, and that if we eat them, then our behaviors — and even we as people — are good or bad,” says Jillian Lampert, PhD, RD, a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and the chief strategy officer of Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program (both eating disorder treatment centers), who is based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
While many people might not think twice about this kind of labeling — viewing foods as ”good” or “bad” foods, and assigning guilt to some and purity to others (certain foods, after all, do have scientifically verified health benefits) — experts say that it’s actually a very unhealthy way to think about healthy eating.
Healthy eating is nuanced, and it looks a little bit different for everyone. Yes, certain foods contain more vitamins and minerals than others, and there are health benefits to eating a balance of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat).
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (PDF), which are published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, get updated roughly every five years, takes all existing nutrition research into account in order to make recommendations for a healthy eating pattern.
But the guidelines leave a lot of wiggle room. For example, they recommend limiting your intake of added sugars and saturated fats, but don’t say that you need to avoid these things altogether.
They also talk in broad strokes about food groups and overall eating habits, instead of labeling specific foods good or bad, in order to avoid being too prescriptive.
“Healthy eating depends on your own unique needs,” Lampert says, giving the example of a mango as a food that’s great for most people, but life-threatening to those who are allergic.
Similarly, sugary drinks aren’t the most nutritious choice most of the time, but can be extremely helpful to keep energy up during an endurance sports event, or as a way for someone with diabetes to reverse low blood sugar quickly.
And salads are filled with nutrient-dense veggies and other foods, but eating only salad for every meal could lead to deficiencies in other nutrients (like fat and protein) and could be a sign of disordered eating.
Because of all these little complexities, there’s no one way to eat healthy. And, while different foods have different nutrition contents, no single food is inherently good or bad.
So when did “good” and “bad” come into the conversation around food?
“Messages we get around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and the way morality has been put on food — it’s largely rooted in anti-fat bias and fatphobia,” says Paula Atkinson, LCSW, a Washington, DC–based psychotherapist who focuses on helping people with eating disorders.
The simplest way to define fatphobia is as a fear of fatness. But the reality is more nuanced.
Boston Medical Center (BMC) defines fatphobia, also called anti-fatness or anti-fat bias, as both the implicit and explicit bias against fat people that’s rooted in the belief that fatness is a moral failing.
“Fatphobia fuels our culture’s belief that a good human is one who keeps their body small,” Atkinson says.
Sociologist Sabrina Strings, PhD, an associate professor at the University of California in Irvine, traces anti-fatness back to European culture in the late 17th and 18th centuries and makes the argument that its basis comes from racism in her book Fearing the Black Body.
The argument: Black bodies were typically larger, so fatness was associated with racial inferiority, savagery, and lower class status; and white bodies (and white male bodies in particular) were typically more slender, so slenderness was associated with moral superiority and higher class status. By extension, eating less was seen as virtuous, while taking pleasure in food was seen as glutinous, according to her book, which is frequently cited in conversations around fatphobia.
“One of the most profoundly obvious privileges that thin people have is the ability to eat what they want in public without immediate judgment,” Atkinson says. “When I was in a larger body, I felt so much shame for eating an ice cream cone on the street; when I was thinner, I didn’t feel any of that.”
Some examples are more explicit. “I’ve had clients in larger bodies tell me that strangers at the grocery store will comment on what’s in their cart,” Atkinson says.
Morality implies choice: making the right choices is good and making the wrong choices is bad. But when it comes to body shape and size, there’s evidence that we don’t have as much control over our body size as our fatphobic culture leads us to believe in the first place.
An article published in August 2017 in the journal Diabetes Spectrum explains that approximately 50 percent of weight variance is determined by genetics, while the remaining 50 percent is determined by a person’s environment and lifestyle.
Pointing out a fact that many of us are overtly aware of, Lindsay Wengler, RD, a dietitian and the owner of Olive Branch Nutrition in New York City, notes: “That means that two people could eat and exercise exactly the same way and still have different bodies.”
And factors like what to eat and how to exercise aren’t all entirely within a person’s control.
An article published in January 2014 in the journal Public Health Reports explains that the social determinants of health also play a huge role in both health and body size. A person’s access to healthcare, exercise, and nutritious foods, the built environment where they live (including their ability to safely exercise outdoors or for children to play in a park near where they live), education level, economic stability, and their community and social support systems indeed influence their health and weight.
So, sure, we’re all making choices about food and diet that influence our weight and body size daily, but we’re definitely not choosing from the same buffet of options, nor do the consequences of those choices affect us all in the same ways.
Judging someone (or yourself) based on how they eat is also incredibly reductive, Lampert says. Whether or not you choose the salad, sandwich, or pasta dish has no bearing on your worth as a person.
“Viewing food as good or bad tends to create shame and guilt towards consuming certain foods,” Wengler says. But, despite what diet gurus may say, you’re so much more than what you eat.
In fact, fixating on eating a certain way, or beating yourself up for not eating a certain way, can have health implications in and of itself.
“When it comes to mental health, an obsession with ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods is unhealthy,” Atkinson says. For example, feeling shame and guilt every time you eat a burrito or an ice cream cone (because you think it’s bad, and therefore think you’re bad for eating it) can have a significant negative impact on your mental health.
Shame has been associated with all kinds of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance misuse, certain personality disorders such as borderline and narcissistic, and body dysmorphic disorder, according to a review published in February 2018 in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry (PDF).
Focusing too much on eating “good” foods can even be a disorder in and of itself.
Orthorexia, the term used to describe the obsession with 'healthful' eating, continues to be on the rise since the term was first coined in 1998,” Wengler says.
There’s not great data on the prevalence of orthorexia, probably because it’s not considered a clinical eating disorder with set criteria, but one study published in January 2017 in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy (PDF) surveyed 404 college students and found that over one-third of them showed elevated orthorexia symptoms (like thinking a lot about healthy food, getting stricter about what one can and can’t eat, and socially isolating in order to eat a certain way) based on a validated questionnaire.
“Viewing foods as good or bad can create anxiety, stress, and guilt around food choices which can make simple tasks, from a trip to the grocery store to dinner at home, difficult,” Wengler says. “This can lead to continued disordered eating patterns, which can further impact mental health.”
A better approach we can all take is to give ourselves permission to eat what we want without judgment, and to pay attention to how these foods make us feel during and after eating them, Lambert says. “It’s important to fuel our bodies, and it’s wonderful to enjoy eating.”
But personal mindset shifts are not alone going to fix the problem; it’s one that’s embedded in society at large. “Toxic messages surrounding how we eat and how our bodies look are widespread and integrated into advertising, social media, schools, and even healthcare systems,” Wengler says.
It’s impossible to just opt out of all this messaging, and it’s going to take some big cultural shifts before we can truly stop thinking about foods as good or bad. Those changes will take shifts in decisions being made at the highest levels of all those industries.
In the meantime, try tuning out some of those messages by giving yourself permission to eat the foods you want, and paying attention to how food makes you feel. “By permitting ourselves to eat a variety of foods without labeling them as good [or] bad, we can eat according to our individual needs without guilt or shame,” Wengler says.
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