Food: The New Morality

sheep and goat
More silly good and b-a-a-a-a-a-d: sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell. (bonus points if you guess the reference)

It would be just my luck that around the time that I finally gave up dieting and starting eating like a “normal” person (i.e., not feeling crazy around food, actually eating when I was hungry, not binge-eating), that the rest of the world would peak (let’s hope this is the peak) with disordered eating, including the classic “good food/bad food” dichotomy.

Years ago, when I first “changed my eating habits” (went on a diet), I kept it quiet. It was my secret fat shame that I felt I had to go on a diet (and this was back in the halcyon days where people didn’t feel quite so entitled to concern-troll fat people for their health. Ah, nostalgia!). So I told no one. I just stealthily lost weight and when people started to notice months later, I confessed I’d gone to Weight Watchers. None of this was for my health – I was 22! I was healthy just by virtue of being young! – it was just so I could fit in with the cool kids at last, and I didn’t feel morally superior for eating in a way that changed my body. If anything, I was amazed that I could still eat Nanaimo bars (look ‘em up) and regular cheese and mostly whatever else I wanted, maybe just not as much as I wanted. I kind of felt like I’d gotten one over on the whole damn system.

At least at first. When, as often happens with weight-centered interventions, I became dissatisfied with my smaller weight and body size, and at the same time my weight became harder to maintain, I decided to get even more restrictive. But to eat this way simply for weight loss or maintenance was not nearly enough motivation; I needed to feel virtuous, like an ascetic, to be able to tolerate such an extreme level of restriction. I ate “good” foods and shunned “bad” foods (unless I was off on a binge after caving into immense hunger) in the name of “health.” I would look at other people’s meals in restaurants, or what they were buying in the grocery store and sniff, mentally patting myself on the back for being so “healthy.”

I’m not proud of this behavior now. I was playing moral one-upmanship so I could feel better about going without. It didn’t really work (thus, binges).

Flash-forward to my totally normal eating habits now, in which I don’t overeat with any regularity (overeating accidentally is normal sometimes), and I don’t underfeed myself either (sometimes that happens by accident too). I don’t think about food all day long, I don’t plan my meals with extreme anxiety (rather, I plan my meals with joy in my heart and anticipation for the week to come!), I don’t simultaneously lust for and fear restaurant meals. I’m in eating nirvana, I tells ya! But having always been at least a step or two off from the rest of society, now I’m the normal eater and everyone else is the dieter!

It seems food, nowadays, is only seen in two ways: good (which is “healthy”) or bad (which tastes good). And if you are eating good foods, you are good. Likewise, if you are eating the bad foods, you are very b-a-a-a-a-a-d. Much like the assignment of feminine or masculine to words in the romance languages, in English we assign good or bad to all foods. The woman I overheard talk about forgetting her salad dressing said, “That’s okay, I have my homemade salsa – it’s healthier than my salad dressing. Salad dressing is bad.” When I asked how salad dressing was bad, she said it was because of the cholesterol (unless her salad dressing contained eggs, it likely didn’t contain much cholesterol, and that’s not even that important anymore anyway).  Her homemade salsa didn’t have any fat or salt. Midway through her meal I heard her grown, “Ech, needs salt,” but even if she didn’t like her meal, at least she could feel good about her virtuous food choice!

I usually try to include some vegetables I like as a part of my lunch and someone will inevitably say, “Oh, you’re SO good.” (They will say the same thing if I take a walk after lunch, something I enjoy very much. For more about how I hate people “healthing” all over my exercise, take a listen here.)

At an office breakfast in which bagels, cream cheese, angel food cake and fruit were kindly provided, the person carving up the cake said, “It’s very light angel food cake so no one has to feel bad about eating it.” I couldn’t help but ask, “Are there foods that we should be feeling bad about?” I’m sure in everyone’s minds, there are! But what a shame.

Food choices don’t make someone a good or bad person, and assigning morality to foods based on their caloric content or macro- or micronutrient profile has only helped people to become more disordered in their eating, but not thinner or healthier (because those two things are not the same) as far the news reports.

So the next time someone tells me I am “good” for eating something they think is calorically virtuous, I’m going to tell them about my friend who was laid off from her job and then went on vacation…to help people get dental and medical care in Guatemala. Now THAT’S GOOD (and all her friends say so!). Eating quinoa instead of wheat or kale instead of candy does not make us good and it doesn’t help us to be good eaters either. Nope, it just doesn’t.

For a dose of hilarity on this subject, check out how Amy Schumer nails this BS:

Dietitians Unplugged Podcast Episode 7 now available!

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20 thoughts on “Food: The New Morality

  1. White Mom May 2, 2016 / 9:09 am

    I can totally relate! Why does every decision become a moral choice these days? Can’t we just feel good cause we ARE good? This reminds me of a point made in the book “the willpower instinct”. It talks about how we moralize decisions and have a balance sheet going in our heads without being aware…so if we are “good” in one area, it gives us license to be “bad” in another. Total mind f#*k.

  2. melissajanisin May 2, 2016 / 9:18 am

    Brilliant and I’m trying very hard to be just like you 🙂

  3. Kerry May 2, 2016 / 9:38 am

    Great post — the “good” and “bad” is a huge pet peeve of mine. And…I am totally collecting my bonus points for getting the Cake reference. 😉

  4. mmapes2 May 2, 2016 / 2:44 pm

    Gotta love a Cake song!

    I only recently discovered Nanaimo bars, and they are so different than anything I’ve ever had.

    Thanks for posting!

  5. Kelsie May 2, 2016 / 7:45 pm

    I swear, Glenys, every word out of your mouth (er… out of your keyboard?) is a direct reflection of my thoughts! I love it to pieces! And that Amy Schumer video is absolutely hilarious. I’ve now listened to the first 5 podcast episodes and still loving it. You and Aaron are so fun to listen to! I was telling my friend about your podcast and I was like, “Yeah, they’re just cool. Like… I would hang out with them in real life, I think.” Haha. 🙂 Keep up your awesome work. Today I became a Healthy Lifestyle Coach, and I’m hoping to use a lot of your philosophies to help people create a positive relationship with themselves (and food). So glad I found your blog! 🙂

    • GlenysO May 2, 2016 / 10:57 pm

      Thank you so much! Yeah, we’re totally cool and fun to hang with! haha. So glad this is all helpful.

  6. watchheremerge May 2, 2016 / 7:52 pm

    I dont have the energy to preach this any more- I used to, but I got so tired. It takes serious tenacity in the culture. I’m glad you’re doing it, and doing it so well. Trying to help this world make peace with food so we can instead direct our collective focus on value dichotomies that actually matter – that’s GOOD.
    p.s. I love Amy Schumer’s take. Well, on just about everything.

    • GlenysO May 2, 2016 / 10:58 pm

      We can all take turns fighting the BS. One burns out, the next person picks up the baton. 🙂

  7. kritishastry May 3, 2016 / 1:26 am

    I can relate to your thoughts! I have been trying to spread the same message to people. 🙂 Love your writing. <3

  8. soniasstoryge May 3, 2016 / 2:04 am

    Couldn’t agree more.

  9. fireflyby May 3, 2016 / 7:43 am

    O my goodness! I’m so glad you’ve written this post.
    It is such a relief to read some BLOODY COMMON SENSE!! Thank you so much.
    I hate it that I overhear conversations ALL THE TIME where people are discussing how they can make their ‘bad food’ more okay by going to the gym for a few hours. They make excuses if they choose ‘bad’ food… “The diet starts tomorrow (guiltily)”. They talk about how they’ve completely cut out this and that…
    Thank you!!


  10. Becca May 3, 2016 / 7:24 pm

    I love this so much!!! I am right at the brink of figuring all of this out… I will never diet or own a scale again, and I 100% agree with all your posts. My problem right now is the APPLICATION. My binge eating is such a habit that once I start it lasts days and days and I’m constantly thinking about food, even though I love my body and I’m happy the way I am! How do I get out of this rut or this habit chain?

    • GlenysO May 4, 2016 / 6:47 pm

      My suggestion is to first read Intuitive Eating. I list a lot of books on normalizing eating in my Resources page – they are enormously helpful in getting over binge eating. Overcoming Overeating is also enormously helpful. Best of luck!

      • Becca May 12, 2016 / 10:31 am

        I’ve read Intuitive Eating and I am currently meeting with an Intuitive Eating counselor 🙂 I have changed a lot and I’m mostly working on my emotional eating. It comes and goes! But I’m learning a lot!

  11. Gail May 5, 2016 / 9:34 am

    Thank you! I’m not a follower of diets. However, I’m currently under Doctor’s orders to cut carbs and lose weight in order to lower my blood pressure and blood sugar. I think I’ve managed to do those things along with losing 15 lbs. I’m not strict about counting carbs, just trying to shift towards more veggies fewer starches and sweets. I have to say though, there are times when I CANNOT eat another salad! Just the title “Intuitive Eating” resonates, as does this blog post. I hope I’m headed for a more balanced approach, so I can enjoy my food. Again, thank you!!

    • GlenysO May 10, 2016 / 7:50 pm

      I would ask your doctor what evidence he’s using to show that weight loss is actually helpful in the long run and not more harmful as it could create disordered eating and eventually more weight gain. Even the ADA recommends a consistent carb diet over lower carb. If you are looking for some good reading, I recommend Michelle May’s book Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat With Diabetes. Best of luck.

  12. onesockinabath May 24, 2016 / 5:05 am

    Everything in moderation surely? Hopefully? A little of what you fancy does you good, so we are told. We just need to fancy it a little less often.

  13. onesockinabath May 24, 2016 / 8:59 am

    The last part was in jest. Wrong place. Wrong time. As for permission, who do we need permission from? Only ourselves.

    • GlenysO May 24, 2016 / 9:08 am

      It’s true that we need permission only from ourselves but many people have a hard time giving it to themselves when there are so many societal pressures around fat=bad health, don’t eat too much, etc. When societal approval is threatened or at risk, people will go to great lengths to try to keep it.

      • onesockinabath May 24, 2016 / 4:24 pm

        Tis a sad fact to be sure when others opinions of us are more important than our own. Modern living I suppose.

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