diets · eating · overeating · weight loss

Why Food Is Beyond “Good” and “Evil”

Orange-JuiceRecently, in response to a comment I made about the calories in fruit juice, a friend said to me that fruit juice is “evil.” I am a philosopher who does a lot of ethics. So “evil” means something quite severe to me. Hitler and Pol Pot were evil.  Fruit juice, not so much.

I checked back with my friend. No, he didn’t mean it was literally evil. Just that it’s as bad as a can of Coke.  Still pretty bad, if not downright evil. It’s a “sometimes” food, not an everyday food. Other anti-juice people jumped in to clarify further. Juice is really, really bad FOR you. Harley Pasternak demonized it the other day in his talk too.  He said that a cup and half of OJ has 240 calories. That’s not quite right, since a cup has 112 calories.

But I don’t want to quibble about orange juice in particular. It’s this whole notion of good foods and bad foods that really gets under my skin. Very few foods, eaten in moderate quantities, are actually bad for you. I ate a big and delicious piece of vegan chocolate cake yesterday.  I don’t believe it was in the least bad for me. Why? Because I don’t eat cake every day. I eat it about once or twice a month.

I can’t trace the quote exactly, but a long time ago I read a great response by George Cohon of McDonald’s, to the claim that McDonald’s food was “bad for you.” He said something like that McDonald’s never said you should eat its food three meals a day, seven days a week.  I hesitate to agree with him (because McDonald’s is problematic in other ways, in my view), but I agree. McDonald’s and orange juice, chocolate cake and potato chips…all of these can be part of a healthy diet without doing damage to the person who ingests them.

Moralizing food by calling some of it “bad” and some of it “good” gives the false impression that foods in themselves have moral qualities. It isn’t a huge jump, and people make this jump all the time, to the claim that people who eat “good” foods in the “right” amounts are virtuous and people who do not are bad.

We frequently think of chocolate cake as “sinfully delicious” and “decadent.”  I’ve spoken to many a dieter who said, not that they had a good week, but that they were “good” that week.  If they wandered off the plan by eating something they weren’t supposed to, they were “bad” that week.  Some foods are considered “guilty pleasures.”

One of my favorite parts of both the  intuitive eating approach and the the demand feeding approach to food is that they both tell us to “legalize” all foods.  Carrot sticks are as legal as carrot cake, neither better nor worse than the other. I can already hear the rumblings in the comments.  “But carrot sticks are better for you than carrot cake!”  I can even hear those who would jump in against carrot sticks because they have a higher sugar content than celery sticks.

The whole thing brings me back to the idea of moderation, which Sam wrote about in such a lovely way recently.  We can live life by strict rules and have all sorts of forbidden foods on a black list if we like.  But forbidden foods are, for many of us, more attractive for being forbidden.

I know that when I finally truly legalized all foods, french fries, which I’d considered my favorite food for all of my life, suddenly lost their appeal. They’re okay, and I do enjoy them from time to time. But are they my favorite foods? No. If I had a choice of giving up fries for the rest of my life or giving up mangoes for the rest of my life, I’d give up the fries. And not because they’re “bad” or even “bad for me,” but because I simply love a good fresh mango.

The food police are those people who like to jump in and tell you about the evil foods that are bad for you and that you should avoid. I’m not interested in what they have to say.  I am extremely well informed about nutrition and used to be able to rhyme off all sorts of fun facts about countless foods. I wrote them down every day and kept meticulous count. I avoided fruit juice and all caloric drinks so as not to waste the stingily parceled out grams of this or that.  Like so many people, I felt so incredibly virtuous when I stuck with it, often for months and even years at a time.

I convinced myself, as I have heard so many others do, that I just loved this way of eating. It was so great! And I was so good! Meanwhile, I felt deprived, especially around celebrations and special occasions, which are enhanced by taking a meal together.  I had my false sense of virtue, but it wasn’t much fun.

I have also witnessed the effect of “virtuous” eating on others who were not so virtuous but who thought they should be. People would apologize for themselves for eating. “I shouldn’t be having this, but…”  That is always a preamble to the next day’s self-flagellation, “I was so bad at my daughter’s wedding yesterday.”   Or this one, “I’ll just take a sliver.”  When I was a young adult, my mother and I polished off close to whole banana loaf over the course of an evening by taking little slivers.  Even today I look back and think I should have just cut off a good sized slice, slathered it with butter, sat down with it, and enjoyed it. Instead, I sneaked into the kitchen a few times and shaved off inadequate pieces that left me wanting more.

When we moralize foods into good, bad, evil even, we deny ourselves permission and set ourselves up not just as failures, but as moral failures.

If the foods that made people feel so bad weren’t forbidden or “sinful” in the first place, they’d be less attractive and people would be less likely to eat more of them than is comfortable.

Are there any foods that, for health reasons, we simply should not eat EVER, that even in tiny amounts are “evil”? For some people, there are “trigger” foods that they simply cannot moderate.  I will have more to say about that in another post. And of course, some people are allergic to things that will kill them if they eat them. And as a vegan I am keenly aware of social, moral and political reasons for avoiding certain foods.

But those foods aside, I’m not sure if there are any foods that should never, ever, under any circumstances, be eaten because of our health. And if there are, fruit juice is not among them.

Some other posts about food, diets, and moderation:

Three Amazing Rants about Food, Nutrition, and Weight Loss

Metabolic Health Is a Feminist Issue

Raspberry Ketone, Pure Green Coffee Extract, Garcinia Cambogia, and the Fallacy of the Appeal to Authority

Why Sports Nutrition Counseling Is Not for Me

Moderation versus All or Nothing

[photo credit: Good-Wallpapers]

132 thoughts on “Why Food Is Beyond “Good” and “Evil”

  1. Are you american? It looks like so…you can drink orange juice every fuckin’ day and it 100 times better than drinking a can of coke…and calories count doesn’t matter always, is it that hard to eat properly for you americans? Really, you scare me.

    Fresh Fruit juice are indeed _good_, no matter what, they have a lot of nutrient and fructose has a lower glycemic index than glucose, for example.

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  2. I eat anything and everything at all and I am thin and healthy as a horse. (Knock on wood). The key is to stay away from processed foods as much as possible and everything else in moderation.

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  3. Food is what you make of it….To much of anything is not good for you. It comes down to balance, then again everything comes down to balance. I struggle with keeping my body out of starvation mode. To many years of abuse and eat poorly. My body does not trust me to eat regularly so everything I eat gets stored. All I can do is keep trying to eat better. One day my body will believe that I will feed it regularly and it will start to process my food better. 🙂

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  4. Oh yes! 🙂 I have also been thinking about these moral labels recently. Particularly relate to eating a whole banana loaf by just taking small pieces. Nowadays I don’t even bother pretending 🙂

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  5. Reblogged this on musings of a kitchen witch and commented:
    I’m mostly reblogging this as a reminder to myself…but I think, in context of our societal (and individual) issues with bodies and body image and food and wellness…we could probably all use the reminder!

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  6. Such a great entry… I couldn’t agree with you more. While I tend to stay away from “bad” foods, I also know if I want it, I can have it in moderation. Unfortunately with the clean living/eating lifestyle moving forward quickly, some extremists are banning whole lots of food and restricting their diets to a point of ridiculousness. It sounds like you have a great grasp on health!

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  7. When I initially commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments
    are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I receive four emails
    with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is a means you are able to remove me from that service?
    Thanks!

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