The Morality of Food

Angels and Devils

When deciding what to eat day to day do you choose the foods that you love, that give you the most enjoyment and satisfaction? Or do you see your favourite foods yet deprive yourself? Have foods become divided in your mind into go and stop, fake and real, right and wrong?

For many people foods have become just this; firmly placed into separate camps that either welcome and nourish or tempt and erode health. However, as I’ve touched upon in previous posts (see the dangers of dichotomising food) there is absolutely no need to draw these distinctions and place morality and emotions onto our food. So why is this something that we see every day?

We might think that we are eating a ‘perfect diet’ full of good foods that nourish our body. But if that comes at the expense of not being able to give ourselves what we truly want to eat, feeling guilt when we do and constantly worrying that we are eating too many unhealthy foods then where is the mental and emotional contentment? I know I’ve experienced this and have been guilty of dichotomising foods in the past; but really foods are so complicated and our eating occasions so broad that there really aren’t any inherently good or bad foods.

And just fyi…there is no such thing as a perfect diet.

Emotional advertising

Foods should not bring us guilt or shame nor be eaten secretively like nobody’s watching. Advertising and marketing often mislead us with clever wording and packaging that subtly (and sometimes not-so) reinforces the idea that some foods should be restricted to only when we ‘treat ourselves’.

Here are just a few I found from a quick internet search:

Indulgent sticky toffee bars’

Decadent dark chocolate florentines’

Syns’

Free food’

‘Now you can enjoy pasta that’s 100% guilt-free’

Caught in the act

So often we are made to feel inferior or, on the flip side, godly and superior if we choose ‘correctly’. Constantly searching for the best choices seems to have unintended consequences though too.

Ever heard of the health halo?

Health halo is a term given to foods promoted as being ‘healthier’ than their alternatives, often marketed with terms such as ‘natural’,‘gluten-free’ or ‘refined-sugar free’. Good examples are the infamous sweet potato brownie or vegetable crisps. It seems that when people think they are eating foods that are somehow better for them they’re often tempted to eat more than they would of the regular version (i.e. a gooey double chocolate brownie), potentially even consuming more of the ‘bad stuff’ (sugar, fat and salt) than they would by just having a regular amount of the version that is preferred and that would satisfy them better.

Bacon Brownie? Why not?

Bottom line: if you fancy a piece of brownie, go for the kind that will really satisfy you and enjoy the heck out of it!

Let’s take a real-life example…

Say you’re at work and you’ve just eaten a salad with grilled chicken and brown rice for lunch because that’s what’s seen as a healthy, virtuous lunch, even though what you really wanted was the BLT sandwich you saw walking to work. By mid-afternoon you’re unsatisfied and can’t resist the call of the staling biscuits in the office biscuit tin to fill the hole caused by deprivation. By giving yourself what you really wanted at lunchtime, taking time to savour and enjoy it, you might have felt more satisfied and then not felt the need to search out yet more unappealing, unsatisfying food.

Take homes

It’s important to question our assumptions about foods that we perceive as off-limits or forbidden and explore our true reasoning for this. 
The only reason to not eat certain foods are if you:

  1. Genuinely don’t like their taste, or
  2. They make you feel like shit.

Taking the time to question your choices around what you eat, when you eat and why you eat it can help you to un-do the morality that we tie to so many of our choices. If you let yourself truly believe that chocolate gateau doesn’t have to be a ‘naughty indulgence’ then it takes away its power.

And trust me, if you let yourself eat chocolate gateau whenever you want it, free of guilt and reprimands you will not be eating it every day. The more you’re exposed to a food the less you want it, that’s just the way we’re set up.

Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition” – Daniel Gilbert (Psychologist)

For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:

Christy Harrison (2018). How to avoid falling for the wellness diet. Available at: https://christyharrison.com/blog/the-wellness-diet

Udall-Weiner D. (2016). What We Eat: Morality and the Dinner Table. Available at: https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-we-eat-morality-and-the-dinner-table/

Schaeferand Magnuson (2013). A review of interventions that promote eating by internal cues. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.024

The Observer(2016). Clean eating and dirty burgers: how food became a matter of morals. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jul/17/clean-eating-dirty-burgers-food-morals-julian-baggini

Tribole E.(2005). Why and how to give yourself permission to eat anything.Available at: https://www.evelyntribole.com/wp-content/uploads/Tribole-Eating-disorders-o5.pdf

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