Weekends with Womack

Food Fighting—when we say no to “good” food and yes to “bad” food

This week I’ve been reading and writing about intuitive eating, and thinking more about the meanings food has for us—the humans. I’ve been blogging a bit about this lately here and here.  What we eat, why we eat what we do, and what food does for us are all really fascinating and complicated questions, with no easy or one-size-fits-all answers. Our families, our cultural, ethnic, racial, regional and national traditions, our cooking know-how, our incomes, our biological variations—all these contribute to what we eat and what it means to us.

Lately I’ve been thinking about food as resistance, food as anti-authoritarian means of control, food as a way of acting out against, well, whatever. This reminds me of a scene from 1953 movie The Wild One, with Marlon Brando. The scene is here and the quote is this:

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whadda you got?


Maybe Brando didn’t have this in mind, but food is a prime way of rebelling against whatever they got.

Catrin Smith has a really interesting article on women prisoners’ attitudes about food in prison. They have two sources of food—the prison cafeteria, which serves institutional, non-tasty but supposedly nutritionally balanced food, and the prison store, which sells cookies, chips, and other snack foods, which are high in sugar, salt, and fat content. In nutritional terms, the cafeteria food is “good” and the store food is “bad”. However, Smith found in her interviews with the women prisoners that

“Prison food is frequently defined as ‘bad’, in that it remains symbolic, irrespective of its actual quality, of disciplinary control. Here, controlling a prisoner’s intake of food can be seen as an important means of exerting power in a context in which a woman is rendered a subject to the regulations of the institution. Women prisoners are relegated to a child-like state – told when and what to eat – and food becomes associated with penal authority and denial.

Not surprisingly, prison food and eating practices, in turn, become a powerful focus of frustration and anger. At the same time, ‘bad’ food, as defined in dominant nutritional discourses and the women’s own accounts, becomes a source of pleasure (hence ‘good’), not least because of its taste but also because of its very power and status as ‘forbidden’.

Attempts to control the diet of women prisoners so that they ‘conform’ to the imperatives of the institution, or even, for that matter, to the demands of ‘good health’, may therefore be resisted or ignored in favour of the release offered by ‘unhealthy’ food and dietary behaviour.”

This phenomenon is pretty common—we see “good” food resistance also in students who reject or throw away cafeteria food, resulting in lots of waste and also loss of nutritional intake. What are they eating instead? A la carte items like fries, burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, for one.

friesFor another, lots of schools get revenue from vending machine purchases of sodas, energy drinks, and all kinds of snack foods.

vendingPolicies vary a lot from school to school about student access to vending machines, but they are a part of student eating in many schools. Also, many high schools have policies allowing students to eat off-campus, at places like this.

mcdsI remember well that feeling (for me, starting in college) of freedom to go where I wanted, select my own meals, and control when I eat and how much. It was for me in some ways a vehicle for rebelling against parental authority. My mother denied my sister and me regular access to sugary cereals, snack cakes, chips, candy, etc. Of course this was for our own good, but when I got to college and went to a friend’s apartment, I remember seeing this in his kitchen cupboard.

debbieNow, I don’t actually LIKE this kind of food (probably because I didn’t develop a taste for it, courtesy of my mom’s oversight—thanks, Mom!). But the IDEA of it seemed transgressive, rebellious, bold.

One of the primary tenets of intuitive eating is that no food is prohibited, even Little Debbie cakes or this new burger, recently unveiled by Hardee’s in the US, which features a beef burger, hot dog and potato chips, all housed in a bun.


I know that for some situations in which I desire some nutritionally “bad” foods, I will want to exercise some external control, follow a rule or nutritional guideline, and not buy or eat those foods. An example of this (for me) would be when I pass by the chips aisle in the grocery store. However, for other situations, I know I will want to go ahead and eat some of the foods I consider to be “bad”. For instance, if I’m at a birthday party, I will always want some cake and ice cream. The difficulty is figuring out how to regulate those processes so to be able to exercise my judgment in accord with my own desires and values and health goals.

Bottom line: it seems to me that I need more strategies than those provided by intuitive eating in order to deal with the issue of when-to-eat-rebelliously and when-not-to-eat-rebelliously.

Readers, do you ever eat “rebelliously”? I’d love to hear any comments you have.

18 thoughts on “Food Fighting—when we say no to “good” food and yes to “bad” food

  1. Interesting topic. I’ve been struggling with this issue myself. I want to eat healthy and live a healthy lifestyle, but my heart wants and craves “bad” food A LOT! I try to fight that craving but sometimes I just give in and eat what I crave. The thing is the guilty feeling after that, you would think, should stop me the next time I eat “bad” food, but it doesn’t. Whether it is a rebellious act or not is a question that has various answers as you said. Personally, I do question myself after eating junk food of any sort: What did I gain after I ate what I ate? I may have actually lost more than I have gained (other than gaining major unforgivable calories!). “Bad” food is more tempting than ever. It is our eyes that eat before our stomach; therefore, we question ourselves after golfing down the double extra cheeseburger, fries, and pepsi! It could be a mental exercise that takes one time to follow and maintain in order to stay away from “bad” food and believe in “good” food.

  2. I eat a lot more chocolate, biscuits(/cookies) and ice cream in the week leading up [and sometimes the week during] my period. It’s probably not good for my health, but it stops me hitting and/or shouting at people, which probably makes it good for their health instead, besides preventing them from eating badly 😉 The rest of the time, I’m not too bothered. I eat more veg than a lot of people I know and probably less meat. (And since I have a 6 week cycle, I feel very little guilt for the week of less-than-optimal dietary choices)

  3. Somewhere it’s all about control. Otherwise guilt wouldn’t be part of the picture.
    The intuitive eating idea requires us to notice how we feel physically after eating different foods. And to stop before we become too full.
    Which insinuates bad food will make you feel poorly and healthy foods will make us feel energized.
    This is often not the case.

  4. You brought up such a good point that I haven’t thought about. I recovered from an eating disorder many years ago, but post-menopause I find myself eating food as a sort of act of rebellion, a back-lash to so much talk about eating healthy etc. I am glad I stopped by and read this post. I’ll be interested to hear what others say about it.

  5. I rebel against being told what to do. I was a chubby child who was put on a weight loss diet as early as age 7. Nevertheless, I stayed chubby into adulthood, and when I became free of parental control, I went from overweight to obese. Now, no matter how much I want to eat healthier, I get angry at the unfairness that other people seem to be able to eat a variety of “fattening” foods without getting fat. I want to be a “normal” eater, but I just can’t eat to taste or satiety without gaining weight.

    1. I was in much the same situation as you growing up! For me, the peace that comes with not worrying about or controlling my food has been worth it, even if my body is heavier than what society thinks is acceptable. My experience has been that “bad” foods lose a lot of their power as tools of rebellion when they’re not “bad” anymore, too!

  6. Yeah, with you all the way on rebellion. I have worried about the extent to which my love of cake and chocolate is a response to rules against women enjoying food, especially fattening food. Part of the pleasure I take in eating and enjoying fattening food in public is being seen to be in violation of those forms. Pleasure is denied to women routinely, whether it’s pleasure in sex or pleasure in food. Owning one’s pleasure is a political act. Food has many layers of meaning as lots of feminist philosophers know well! I have this quote as one of my faves on my Facebook profile: “I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by because of pressing tasks or puritanical virtue.” Isabelle Allende

  7. I love this article. Interesting data they present with the prisoners. I definitely find myself gravitating towards unhealthy food when I’m stressed because I think it makes me think I feel better. I also like the point where it says that it really doesn’t taste different. I think I’m going to have to give that some thought next time I’m craving junk food.

  8. I did the same thing as you mentioned when I first moved out. I would eat everything and anything I ever wanted, which meant a LOT of junk. Now I equate that ability to the relatively carefree days of my early-20s before marriage, kids, and mortgages.

    So, something I realized just recently is I use “bad” food as a way for me to grasp my “single person” life when I have any time to myself. Because I don’t get a lot of me time to indulge, then I use junk food because it’s a fast and easy way to feel indulgent/rebellious. Once I made that realization, it made me incredibly sad…because that’s why my “me time” has been reduced too. Clearly, I need to rethink my life.

  9. Reblogged this on rhemaice and commented:
    Our definitions of “good” food and “bad” food are usually based on subjective views. let us try and seek professional advice. Thank you

  10. This is nice and really educative. we sometimes define food either as good or bad based on subjective views

  11. That is a really interesting question…I really like how you relate it to eating in prison. Do you watch Orange is the New Black? There are some interesting food challenges there! Most of the time, if I eat rebelliously, it is ice cream (and I am rebelling against my self that knows I shouldn’t eat too much of it).

  12. Intriguing..I actually never thought of institutional food as “control”…ie.prisoners, children in cafeterias.

    Sure, like any kid I liked my cookies, slice of pie and candy ..when I was given it. Not sure eating “rebelliously” really caught onto me as a kid/teen. It just wasn’t an option: we were very poor. 6 children and father a cook, the family breadwinner. We all knew that this limited our food options, we knew this was the reason why my mother bought cheap meat cuts and scraped meat off the bones..

    I don’t ever recall my parents threatening us by using food to discipline us…ie. threaten we wouldn’t have a cookie or we had to eat a terrible food as punishment. I mean all of us kids had to have whatever there was on the dinner table..whether or not we liked it. We were asked not to kick up fuss, if we tried something and didn’t like it. Jus quietly set it aside and eat everything else.

    The whole family joined in shared junk food for special occasions, …Christmas, Easter (the chocolate bunny which was shared among 6 children), birthdays and annual summer trip to CAnadian national Exhibition where parents and all children ate hot dogs, burgers, some chips, whatever was cheap to feed a big family.

    Then we went to Chinatown to load up…on healthy Chinese greens, etc. that was not available in Kitchener-Waterloo in the 1970’s.Sometimes we squeezed in a 2 shared platters of stir fried food at a Toronto Chinese restaurant. We thought that was cool too. It was all cool.

    Let me finish…summarize: At university, I rarely bought pizza, hamburger: I couldn’t afford it. Besides my mother, for her food care package, sliced meat for freezing so…I was able to prepare my own meals. And I did. I naturally used some of her simple recipes I learned as a teen from her.

    You need to understand that I volunteered at my high school tuck shop where we sold chips, pop and chocolate bars. I was there twice per wk. I wasn’t interested in the stuff. But then I never had an allowance because..we were poor.

    My unhealthy eating, in my 30’s probably started when I knew my German-CAnadian partner: his mother, knew pastry chef techniques..so that’s where my palate for European desserts developed.

    I really ought to blog about this…how it is possible to eat intuitively….if you focus on ethnic healthy eating that uses whole veggies, fruits and very little dairy (ie. butter, cheese which a lot of Asian cooking is): some of the traditional dishes will be healthy.

    And never as a parent use food to reward nor punish. It’s just neutral.

    I thought as a kid, that hamburgers and roast beef…well, was tasty, but just boring. After being a Chinese banquets with lobster, crab, dumplings, etc.

  13. Up until recently, I found it very hard to keep my cravings at bay. I found the best way to control them was to eat often. Find substitutes for what you want to eat and cut out processed food (this is what your addicted to). And if you can do this, there’s nothing wrong with having a little treat to reward yourself. Its all about balance.

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