Food Morality: Labeling Foods as “Good” or “Bad” is a Dangerous Way to Think

When people find out that I hold the title of registered dietitian, they usually proceed in one of three ways. One, they ask me to make them a meal plan. Two, they want me to explain which foods are “best”. Or three, they tell me that they probably shouldn’t be “bad” and eat dessert in front of me. This last one typically ends with an awkward laugh. These reactions tell me that the idea of food morality, or labeling foods as “good” or “bad”, still runs free in the wild.

Today’s post provides a look at what food morality entails, why people cling to it, how companies capitalize on it, and why we should work to change our food morality perceptions. Let’s get into it!

The Rock saying "gonna be great, let's do it", about our discussion on food morality

What is Food Morality?

I could not find an official definition for food morality after scouring the internet, but plenty of other bloggers have brought up the idea of food morality before. In my mind, food morality is simply the act of labeling or thinking of certain foods as moral or immoral. In this mindset, food is a black-and-white scenario with absolutely no gray area.

In plenty of old cartoons or TV shows, a character has to make a decision, but they feel stuck. Suddenly, a little angel will appear on one shoulder and encourage them to make a “good” or “moral” decision. On the other shoulder, a devil will appear and advise them to give into temptation go the “bad” or “immoral” route. In these scenarios, the character battles between good and evil with a lack of gray area too.

We treat foods like they are either the angel or the devil on our shoulders. Further, we believe that the more we eat “good” things the “better” we are as people. When we choose to eat more “bad” foods, many of us feel dirty or impure.

When it comes down to it, the practice or idea of food morality simply revolves around deeming some foods as superior to others. There is a major lack of nuance, and balance basically gets tossed out the window. Desserts = bad, so they must be avoided at all costs. Vegetables = good, so we must eat them at every meal.

While it’s true that vegetables have more vitamins and minerals than desserts, these labels can cause problems for compulsive and obsessive people like myself. I used to only want to eat “good” food and completely avoid the “bad”. Many, I’m sure, can relate. Why is it so easy to get stuck on food morality?

The Appeal of Food Morality

Of course I disagree with the idea of dumping foods into metaphorical buckets that say “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, or “unhealthy. But at the same time, I see the appeal. People want simplicity. Now that we have access to the internet and more information than we know what to do with, most of us, understandably, feel overwhelmed by it all.

Eating no longer feels simple because we wonder if the food we are about to consume is healthy enough, or organic enough, or whatever else. When everything feels unclear and confusing, humans flock toward a good rule of thumb. We seek out a set of laws that work as guide rails to help us make decisions. It reminds me of one of the most important scenes in the show Fleabag, where the protagonist goes into confession across from the priest and gives this monologue:

“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.

“I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong, and I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out at the end of it, and even though I don’t believe your bullshit, and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared?”

Dang, now I want to go watch Fleabag again. Excellent show.

Anyway, the character here feels utterly overwhelmed and drowning in all of the decisions she must make, and all the information she takes in, on a daily basis. It can get extremely exhausting to try to do what is “right” and “good” all the time, and that can lead us to want someone to just tell us what the heck to do. Young people feel these dilemmas frequently, especially while we do our best to even figure out who we are.

Fleabag understands why people seek out guidance from authority figures like priests because she feels like her whole life has been a series of screw-ups held together with a string. To be fair, the entire show details many of those screw ups, but I believe most of us can relate.

These feelings of total overwhelm about decisions and doing what is “right” all the time is why people ask me to create a meal plan for them when they learn that I am a dietitian. They want to me send them a list and schedule of what to eat when, because listening to their bodies may lead them to choose “bad” things. They don’t want to make a “bad” decision and drown in guilt about it.

They’re like Fleabag asking the priest to tell her what to do, because she feels that she has been getting it wrong all along. When it comes to food, we are taught that eating whatever sounds good is wrong. Instead, our society says that we must show restraint, eat fewer calories, and avoid sugar. When we don’t do those things, we begin to feel wrong and bad as a whole person.

Us to ourselves after enjoy “bad” foods

So yes, I empathize whole-heartedly with anyone who struggles to try to choose foods that are “good” and avoid those that are “bad”, because that thought process is so widely accepted, especially in America and the U.K. It feels like the natural way of life for most of us. But I promise you that you do not have to continue living your life in this way.

In fact, questioning the status quo and sticking it to the man are highly encouraged here at The Diabolical Dietitian. Especially since these ways of life don’t benefit you; instead, they benefit companies that capitalize on our thoughts and feelings of insecurity and guilt when it comes to our food choices and how our bodies look.

How Advertisers Capitalize on Food Morality

As we all know, advertisers create narratives and spin features about their products to make them seem appealing and tantalizing. Some food products are advertised as “pure”, “clean”, or “natural” to appeal to the crowd that values these traits in a food, whether they align with reality or not. Using these words to push their food products on those who want to be “good” and lead a healthier lifestyle proves to be an effective marketing tactic time and time again.

We have all seen lists of superfoods on Pinterest or Facebook that promise to keep you young forever. Once a superfood becomes viral and demand skyrockets, distributors and grocery stores can begin charging hefty prices. Quinoa was domesticated thousands of years ago, and it has been a staple in South American diets for years. Suddenly though, it became all the rage in North America as soon as it was labeled a super food. Marketing works, people.

On the other end of the spectrum, some advertisers describe their food products as “sinful” or “indulgent” to add to their appeal. It seems like these brands know people label desserts or “unhealthy” foods as “bad”, so they own up to that perception and confirm that, “Yes we are ‘bad’, but you know you want us.” It’s like a weird “bad boy” narrative portrayed in movies where a character likes “bad” boys, and knows they are nothing but trouble, but they just can’t help themselves 🙄.

Other foods and drinks offer a mix of these two storylines. Some premade smoothies, fiber brownies, and “dessert” teas offer a description of being made with “pure” ingredients, yet taste or feel “indulgent”. This advertising stream follows the logic that you can “be good”, while ingesting something that tastes like it’s a “bad” thing.

These products claim to allow you to enjoy foods or drinks without the guilt associated with the real thing, like a milkshake, an actual brownie, or a dessert instead of a tea. These companies are aware that people feel guilt for their food choices, so they exploit those feelings by promising consumers their products are made in a way that prevents you from feeling guilt or shame.

I tried getting into sparkling water a few years ago, and it didn’t do it for me. I thought it tasted weird, and it gave me the burps. For some reason, I ended up getting into it during the last year or so, and I now drink at least two cans per day. I now enjoy the bubbles and the muted flavors, and I strangely look forward to drinking them with my dinner.

To be clear, I do not drink sparkling water as a way to replace soda or stave off my cravings for other things like many individuals do. Instead, I drink it because I genuinely enjoy it. Unfortunately, I cringe every time I look at the can, because my sparkling water brand of choice has a super annoying claim of, “0-calorie, 0-sweetener, 0-sodium = innocent!”

This claim gets me heated, and now that I am writing about it and giving it a nice hard think, I should invest in my own carbonated water machine or change brands because it feels so stupid and potentially damaging. The implication that this sparkling water is innocent also implies that drinking anything that does have calories, sweeteners, or sodium is immoral or unethical.

Now, I realize I am not an immoral or unethical person for drinking other things on occasion, but this tiny, seemingly innocuous message, might affect people in a more vulnerable headspace in harmful or extreme ways. People who develop orthorexia do their darnedest to only eat “innocent”, “pure”, or “clean” foods, and they may take these claims and run wild with them.

Unfortunately, labels on food or drink products that advertise them as being “innocent” or “guilt-free” are hugely successful. People in our culture inherently feel guilt about nearly anything they ingest. Having a simple reassurance that the food you are about to eat will not cause guilt is enough for people to toss it into their shopping carts.

When we fear guilt or overindulgence, we become vulnerable to all kinds of commercial manipulations, and food advertisers, package designers, and grocery stores exploit that vulnerability to get us to buy, buy, buy. Sadly, it works.

Why We Should Fight Back Against Food Morality

Labeling foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” may not seem like a big deal, especially when people use those labels as a way to try to eat a more nutritious diet and improve their lives. I would offer praise to anyone who tries to implement healthier habits, and genuinely wants to take better care of themselves and their bodies. Unfortunately, these benevolent intentions often take a dark turn and transition to disordered eating and/or compulsive exercise.

Additionally, slapping arbitrary labels on foods can change what we think about ourselves. Whether they make us feel lesser or superior, the results are pretty much never helpful and almost always harmful.

Eating “Bad” Foods Makes us View Ourselves as “Bad” People

Placing a moral label on foods can cause people to see themselves in the foods they choose. I don’t mean that dumb phrase, “You are what you eat.” I mean that when people think of certain foods as “bad”, they begin to think of themselves as “bad” whenever they eat them. We have all heard people say things like, “I’m being so bad today, I had a dessert,” or, “No thanks, I’m being good today.” Maybe we have been that person ourselves.

After hearing and using phrases like this over and over again, our subconscious picks up on this, and makes us feel that we truly are bad. We begin to believe that our food choices make us awful, unethical, or lousy people. Next stop: insecurity, guilt, and shame.

My fiancé is a barista at a coffee shop, and he hears phrases like this daily. It clearly comes from a place of insecurity, guilt, and shame because nobody truly believes their local barista cares whether or not they are being “good” by ordering plain, zero calorie black coffee.

Which is fine if that’s truly what you want!

Often, when people decide to order a latte or mocha, they will say, “Oh I should treat myself, I have been good about my diet all week,” as a way to justify their choice. Or, “I’m starting my diet tomorrow, so I might as well get something fun today.” Usually, these sentiments are expressed with a hint of an apology, which feels so strange. Why should we feel apologetic for our food/drink choices?

I believe that many people live in constant fear that other people will judge their food and drink choices, because they themselves judge what others put into their bodies. As a result, they feel compelled to apologize, or provide justification, when they worry someone else will lay judgement at their feet.

Too many of us associate fun foods and drinks with guilt and shame, and most of us go along and accept that this is just the way things are. Everyone else talks about feeling guilty after eating a donut, so why wouldn’t I also feel shame? Collective contempt toward “bad” foods only exists because our society decided it should. Luckily, this also means we can change the narrative if we can get our society to decide that fun foods don’t need to come with a side of humiliation. Easier said than done, but let me dream!

It can feel difficult and shameful for a person in a smaller body to enjoy a “bad” food once in a while, but these feelings must be amplified for those in larger bodies. Not only do people with larger bodies have to deal with weight stigma in their everyday lives, food morality hits them harder than anyone else. I can only imagine how hard it is for someone in larger bodies to go out to eat with friends and feel okay about ordering something fun, especially if friends and family members in smaller bodies order something “good” or “healthy”.

It probably feels like everyone is thinking, “Of course the fat person orders a ‘bad’ food while the rest of us ‘take care of ourselves.'” Sofie Hagen, a fat author and comedian, described eating a burger in public while visiting her brother in her book Happy Fat (affiliate). She talks about how a group of people at another table were staring at her and laughing as she ate, probably thinking it was funny that a fat foreigner was eating a burger.

At first, she felt guilt, and kept her head down, which is a perfectly natural response given the social climate. Then, she decided to fight back in a totally peaceful, badass way. Her power move was to order another burger and stare at them the entire time while she took each bite. Eventually, they realized what was going on, and they became visibly uncomfortable. Good.

It’s true that people in larger bodies are likely to receive sneers when they decide to eat a “bad” food in public, or order something fun off the menu instead of a “healthy” salad. At the same time, people in larger bodies might receive comments like, “Good for you,” when they order a salad in public too.

It’s nearly impossible to just enjoy a meal without receiving some kind of unsolicited feedback while in a larger body. Fat phobia and weight stigma are everywhere, and they only show themselves more when food morality comes to the table. When we view ourselves as “bad” for eating “bad” foods, we also view others in the same way.

Food morality can make us feel like terrible people when we eat certain foods that might be more satisfying in the moment, like ice cream, cookies, or potato chips. But we may also lift ourselves up when we only eat “good”, “pure”, or “healthy” foods.

Eating “Good” Foods Leads to Elitism and Nutritional Pedestals

Have you ever encountered a person who puts themselves on a pedestal because of their food choices? Maybe while you eat a delicious piece of chocolate cake at a party, the person in question goes on a rant about how sugar will kill us all and send us to hell. Or maybe the conversation switches to how much they care about the health and safety of their kids, so they only feed them organic foods, unlike the “poors” who feed their kids conventional foods. 🤦‍♀️

Or perhaps, this person silently judges what everybody else eats and feels special because they have stuck to their calorie goals, and everyone else lacks such willpower.

Has that person ever been you?

I never spoke to people about how what they were eating was “wrong” or “bad”, but I did pride myself on the willpower I displayed at potlucks or parties. I felt proud of myself for “not giving into temptation,” like other folks, and that I was actually working so hard on my “fitness journey”. I have never thought of myself as a cocky, confident, or egotistical person, but I did feel a bit of superiority when it came to my “healthy” eating habits.

Our society loves ranking people in terms of status, and unfortunately, food and food choices can serve as another parameter for social hierarchies. This probably seems silly or trivial to many, and it so often is just people’s dumb uppity stances and views on the people around them. Other times, it provides more serious consequences that can cause real harm to those of us that are most vulnerable in society.

Many of you know that I teach nutrition classes to families with lower incomes in my professional life, and it is rewarding and frustrating at the same time. The rewarding part comes from parents telling me that they implemented my suggestions, and it made a real difference in their lives. The frustrating part comes from how often they express feelings of inadequacy for not being able to provide the “best” foods for their children.

Organic, “pure”, “clean”, or “super” foods are now seen as the best things we can feed our families, but those labels often come with astronomical prices. The public view that they are far superior to other foods mostly has to do with aggressive marketing campaigns and a collective cultural norm that those foods truly are “better”.

I have had parents tell me that they feel so guilty that they have to feed their kids conventional carrots or cereal, and that they wish they could afford to provide “better” foods for their families. These are parents that already struggle to make ends meet, and this added guilt about not being able to afford the elite foods is just another burden and “failure” people of lower incomes feel on a daily basis. This has real emotional consequences for parents trying to do the best they can, yet still being frowned upon by other, more uppity people who don’t have the same worries.

Although I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that provided everything I needed and more, I still remember peers looking at my lunches with scrutiny. Kids and parents alike felt high and mighty about only having the very best foods in their lunchboxes, like organic fruitsnacks and Whole Foods exclusives.

The social status and sneers that can emerge from food morality reminds me of the clip from Bad Moms, where the PTA president shows a powerpoint of which ingredients are not allowed at the upcoming bake sale fundraiser:

The main character, Amy, portrayed by Mila Kunis, decides she has had enough of trying to keep up with the elites in her school district. She starts by not adhering to the ridiculous rules of the bake sale outlined above. So, instead of fretting over baking something that followed the guidelines of these wild ingredient bans, she purchases gas station donut holes.

Clearly, that doesn’t go over well with Gwendolyn, the PTA president:

Obviously, these are exaggerations from a hilarious comedy movie. But it does a fantastic job of showing the very real phenomenon of people believing they are better than others because of the foods they bring to bake sales or give their children at lunchtime.

In the above clips, Gwendolyn uses the purchase of gas station donuts to comment on Amy’s clothing, and even goes so far as to describe Amy’s kids as “dirty”. Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us might actually feel that people who consume “bad” foods regularly are “dirty”, “indulgent”, or “impure”. This includes ourselves when we decide to try to enjoy a dessert, only to feel terrible about ourselves for days and weeks afterward.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing organic or “super” foods, especially from a local farmer if you can afford it. Responsible organic farming done by family farms can help keep our earth a bit healthier, and small farmers need our support. But, if you do begin purchasing organic produce from local farmers, or health foods from Whole Foods, and you feel yourself looking down on others who don’t or can’t… it might be time to ask yourself some questions.

In Conclusion

One of my all time favorite quotes is, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This quote is often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, but who really knows who actually said it?

Either way, it’s incredibly true. I also think that food morality is a thief of joy, especially when it is used as a comparison tool to judge others and ourselves.We may feel just fine about ourselves and our food choices, at least until we see what others have and eat.

Like most aspects of diet culture, we only continue to think and act in this way because everyone around us does. But reflecting on how we think about and label foods is the first step at undoing this toxic way of thinking.

We as a society must begin viewing foods as inherently neutral while we also strive to view bodies as inherently neutral. The minute we slap on an unnecessary label about foods or bodies, our brains begin judging ourselves and others in a harsh, unhealthy way.

One principle of Intuitive Eating is to “challenge the food police” in our heads that chastises us when we eat “bad” foods or “too many” calories. In this article from IntuitiveEating.org, they recommend shouting “no” in your head when you feel self-congratulations about eating “good” foods, or disappointment after eating “bad” ones. This could work! My busy mind usually shuts up for at least a few seconds after I mentally shout “no”.

I also recommend journaling or writing about how you view certain foods. One exercise you could try is to make a list foods that you have always deemed “good”, and then add a column for foods that you think of as “bad”. Next, scribble these lists out, tear up the page, or even set it on fire to destroy these harmful thoughts. Lastly, make a list of all the foods in your life that are neutral (hint, every food should be neutral). The act of taking time out to write these inherent thoughts with an intentional course correction can make a lasting impact.

Once you have given the idea of food morality some time to marinade in your head, it can become incredibly disturbing to hear other people talk about food, diets, or their bodies with such definitive language. It can take time to undo the idea that some foods are better than others, but getting this far in today’s post was a huge step in the right direction.

As Always, a Book Recommendation

Because I have talked about Happy Fat by Sophie Hagen seemingly non-stop in my personal life and on this blog, the time has come to give it a glowing recommendation at the end of a post. Sophie Hagen is a comedian and fat advocate who encourages readers to take up the space they need in a world that prioritizes and covets thin people.

Her personal stories cut deep, especially for anyone that has never experienced being in a larger body before. Hagen truly lets the reader put on her shoes and walk around for a bit, allowing us to think about and reflect on what it must be like to navigate in our thin-centric world in a body that does not adhere to these standards.

This book is primarily about fat phobia and learning to accept your body as is, and food morality plays a key role in perpetuation fat phobia. People associate “bad” foods with “bad” bodies (larger bodies), and “unhealthy” foods with “unhealthy” people.

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