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]

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

  1. great post – as someone who has struggled for most of my teen and adult years with feeling like I’m eating “good” or “bad” it is always wonderful to hear that moderation is key. And it is a concept so natural that it’s almost easy to over-think it. Do I love chocolate cake? yes. But do I love chocolate cake everyday? No – then it loses its appeal! Remembering to savor those special food items and special occasions and not let “good” and “bad” cloud the experience is something that I need to internalize still. Your post helps me feel better about that. thank you!



  2. That’s very true. It’s easy to feel like a bad person after indulging in a supposedly “bad” food. It’s like a child with a toy, if you take it away they only want it more. Once it’s readily available it becomes less attractive and maybe even a little boring.


  3. This post was a nice recapitulation of Thomas Aquinas (your favorite philosopher?): “Although external things are good in themselves, they are not always duly proportioned to this or that action.”


  4. Well said. I find the same thing — when I make the conscious choice to not eat X, I’ll eat a bit of it, or eat it much less often, because you’re not feeling oppressed and angry and miserable. Food is such a great pleasure that denying it is madness. When you can’t stop stuffing your face, you’re not really seeking calories at all, I suspect…


  5. I have been having the same discussion with two friends (one in Spain, the other in Sydney) – “Sugar is bad for you”. My contention; food is food, it is the quantity that is bad for you. Thankyou for your nicely argued post, I will use it. Tony


  6. I’m a vegetarian, trying out vegan foods more and more these days. I agree that not eating animals for ethical/political reasons is not the same as moralizing certain foods as good or bad (or seeing ourselves as virtuous for avoiding them).
    When I go to a family celebration, I never feel left wanting for meat in exchange for my virtue. But, if I am trying to cut out sweets, indeed it isn’t fun and I feel deprived.
    This post reminds me of the health at every size approach to living and eating, in that health, food, and size often come up in the same conversation. People can eat all sorts of things and be healthy, and be any size. People can eat all sorts of things and not be healthy, and be any size.
    I say, let’s all just trust ourselves and let go a little. 🙂


  7. Love this post. When I worked in an office I would put signs with the donuts and cakes people brought in that said, “It’s okay to have some” etc. just to remind ladies that … well it’s okay to eat these things if you want them and to kind of keep them from policing each other.


  8. What an interesting perspective. I think this can be applied beyond food as well. Many aspects of life are considered to be good or bad depending each person’s perspective, but nothing is ever that black and white.Thank you for sharing.


  9. I grew up with the good, the bad, and the ugly foods along with a large side of anxiety. When I decided to free myself from that way of thinking/talking, eating became a joy and cooking a satisfying daily groove. Thank you for the sane discussion!


  10. *love* this!!! When I figured out I could eat anything I wanted, I developed a whole new way of looking at food. And lost 80 lbs (and counting). Now, I eat whatever I want with enjoyment and knowledge of what I am eating.


  11. Garbage in, garbage out. Is this really true? We are what we eat? None of this really makes any sense to me. I believe that we need to be very careful about what we eat, but at what point do we need to change our diet if we’re relatively healthy?


  12. loved it – so well put, there is nothing like bad food…all food is good food if taking in apt proportions without any guilt or inhibitions.
    thank you for your wise insights, congrats on being freshly pressed.


  13. I wish more people just had a more moderate view of food. I generally take no notice of what I eat because over the years I have learned to eat a wide variety of natural, minimally processed foods. So when I have peanut butter pie for dessert once a month, it’s no big deal.

    I loved when the Atkins diet was hugely popular – my wife’s mother tried arguing with me one day that bacon was healthier than an apple, because it was “protein” and not “carbs.”

    Thanks for the good read.


  14. “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.”

    Couldn’t have said it better. It is so important to remember this, as the dieting industry is not going to stop promoting foods as good or evil. Unfortunately, frustration is an excellent seller…


  15. What an impressive post. I have lived my life boomeranging between good and bad foods to no result…. I’m no healthier than I would have been if I’d just stuck to the baddies. I think much of it is a mindset we’re all stuck in. We need to address that before we can fix anything else.
    J 🙂


  16. This is exactly what I have been thinking for ages. Everything in moderation, the “good” and the “bad.” We have a tendency, as human beings, to want to demonize or to force angel wings onto everything. It’s as if labeling something makes it so for us. Carbs are bad. Carbs are good. Sugar is bad. Sugar is good. We can’t just say, if we eat carbs in moderation, we’re okay. If we eat less sugar than we did the day before, we’re fine. It’s about changing our expectations and definitions. Nice post.


  17. I already am of the mind that food isn’t good or bad, so I really liked this post. Personally I have found that I can still have the foods most people think are bad as long as I account for them in my other meals and when I exercise. I enjoy juice myself, but I always make sure its 100% and it is usually a combo veggie/fruit juice.
    So I am like you in that if I know that no food is off limits than I have no real craving for lets say a hamburger.


  18. I try, frequently, to explain to people that I’m losing weight and fixing some health issues by enjoying food in moderation. They can’t seem to grasp that I can still eat “real” food – so I’m glad someone else gets it!


  19. Anything in moderation is good. Though saying that – sparks the whole argument of “what we think is healthy is not healthy anymore” – ue to pesticides and the way in which preservation of food is dealt with nowadays and not everyone can afford to buy organic veggies!


  20. Well put. I think that as long as people are informed and educated on what they are eating, it’s all good! The problem lies with the mass population who buys and eats food without knowing the ingredients they are eating daily are potentially harmful to their bodies.
    When we are armed with the knowledge of nutrition (or lack thereof) we have all the power to make the right (or wrong) choices!


  21. People rely so much on juice and do not think about the amount of sugar. It is great to read this post. People get so upset if you mess with how thier beliefs about food make them feel good. I live in Boulder Colorado and people here are so militant about thier food beliefs. It is kinda comical. No one talks about moderation.


  22. Totally agree , to give food personality traits is quiet disturbing . It leads me to believe people are shifting blame from them selves from consuming the food to the horribly evil food that seduced you into eating it


  23. The lady sitting across the table at a pancake breakfast didn’t realize that I was a nutritionist when she stated, “I wouldn’t drink orange juice, that’s pure poison!” as she placed her fifth slice of bacon in her mouth.

    Any food is fine in moderation (I’d avoid chemically laden Splenda however, but that’s another story) so ultimately a health choice must be made. I don’t ‘suffer’ by only eating wholesome foods and I also consume dark chocolate! I like myself better when I feel energetic, look and eat healthier. It’s a matter of choice and I choose LIFE!


  24. I love the idea that the reason I crave certain foods like chocolate or french fries is because they are “forbidden” and maybe if I said I could eat those whenever I wanted they wouldn’t be appealing anymore. Definitely a new way to think about food! Thanks!


  25. Well stated, nicely written! I would only define “bad foods” as foods that shouldn’t be consumed anytime such as GMOs and their byproducts, like high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and other toxic big agribusiness commodities that damage our health while fattening the corporate bank account. But, certainly not a tasty organic carrot cake as an occasional treat, or daily fresh squeezed organic orange juice, or even better, organic vegetable juice, yum yum!


  26. I completely agree that foods aren’t good or evil. I go to a gym pretty regularly and feel the heat of “You can’t eat that it’s bad for you.” I just want to say, “Why not? I haven’t had it in a while, and I’m really craving it. Better to eat some now while I’m hungry than to stuff myself later when I’m not.” I’ve lost almost 40 pounds, guys. I don’t feel guilty about drinking my Organic Orange Juice.


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