eating · fitness

Beyond Good and Evil (Food)

This week, Tracy wrote on the blog about thinking differently about “healthy” eating. If you missed it, check it out.  What she had to say boiled down to this:

Foods are not good or evil.

People are not good or evil for eating foods.

As she put it: “It’s food.  We all eat it.  Move on.”

These are wise words, but not everyone wants to hear them.  Why is that?  Why do we moralize so much about foods and our relationships to them?  Isn’t life already hard enough?  Can’t we focus on enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction or various needs by eating food without castigating ourselves?

As a philosopher who does research on eating, agency, and identity in public health, I think about these questions a lot.  Right now, I’m back in Sydney, Australia for a month to work on a qualitative study on eating, dieting, and our evolving relationships with food.  When we have some data analyzed I’ll be blogging about it.

However, I do have some thoughts to add about so-called “healthy” or “clean” eating.

We all have food preferences– what we like to eat, what we love to eat, what we won’t eat even if you pay us.  For example, I am just not going to eat cottage cheese.  I know it’s irrational, but it grosses me out.

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We also have our own ideals or principles of what constitutes “healthy” eating for us.  We get a ton of information from a variety of sources (which are sometimes confusing– are eggs good or bad this year?)  We also use our own experiences to help us figure out what is healthy-for-us or good-for-us (which may differ from others’ experiences).  One commenter on Tracy’s blog said that she found that eating a lot of rice many days in a row wasn’t good for her.  It’s not the rice, she said; it’s just about how she feels when she eats it.

Our food preferences and our healthy eating ideals often come into conflict.  I happen to love pasta dishes of all sorts.  I also know that  1) eating a lot of pasta makes me feel sluggish; 2) I have a tendency to overeat pasta (to the point of feeling uncomfortable and then remorseful and self-recriminating) when it’s easily available;  3) I don’t want to ban pasta from my diet forever.  So I try to limit my access to pasta to situations where my pasta intake will be constrained, say, at a restaurant or when I’m cooking for friends.  This gnocchi with pesto dish looks delicious, doesn’t it?

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I don’t tend to have pasta in my house, as I know from experience that I tend to overeat it and then feel bad about the overeating.  This is clearly not the pasta’s fault. Pasta is beyond good and evil.

Maybe it’s not really my fault, either.  What I mean is that my relationship with pasta is complicated.  I’d like it to be less burdened, to feel like I could eat it in a way that both satisfies my food preferences and wouldn’t result in shame or regret.  And I’ve tried.  But honestly, it just doesn’t work very well FOR ME to have regular access to pasta.

I discussed this issue with a nutritionist I was seeing a few years ago.  She was clearly against my restricting or eliminating any foods from my diet, arguing that foods were not good or bad; rather they all contributed in different ways to fueling me.  She added, “you don’t want to be a person who can’t have pasta, do you?”  I responded, “well, maybe I am one of those people.”  And that possibility is neither good nor evil.

Pasta isn’t good or evil, healthy or unhealthy, clean or.. uh, dirty?  You know what I mean. I’m not bad or good for eating or not eating it.  It’s food.  We eat it.  Or not eat it.  And we move on to the next thing in our day.

I agree with Tracy that being a food moralist undermines us in a lot of ways.  I guess I would describe myself as a food pragmatist.  That is, we eat what works for us.  We figure out what works through a complicated process of experimenting, reading and learning, forming some goals for ourselves about what health means to us, taking into account our preferences and constraints (economic, social, geographic, cultural, etc.).

I know, this seems like a lot of work just to figure out what to have for lunch.  Would that all our relationships– with our bodies, with food, with alcohol, with sex, with money– could be light and easy.  But if some of these relationships are constrained, or difficult or unstable, then maybe we can approach them not with moralism and judgment, but with a sense of what we want and what we think we can get from them.  I can get pleasure from eating pasta, but not if I eat a lot of it or if I eat it very often.  Okay, fine.  I can live with that.  And at the same time:

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53 thoughts on “Beyond Good and Evil (Food)

  1. So I’m puzzled. What’s your take away about pasta? Obv’ly not evil. But you don’t have a good relationship with pasta? It’s not you, it’s me. But really neither of you are evil, you just don’t work well together? This reminded me a bit of Tracy’s public break up with chocolate. Or why I don’t bring potato chips into the house. I don’t even really like potato chips but I eat more than I want to! (

    1. Hi Sam– yes, these thoughts are still unfocused; working on figuring this out still. You’re right– pasta and I just don’t work well together. And that’s really on me, but not in a moral way, just a combo physico/psycho/social way. What I’m looking for is a way to characterize a notion of inner normativity given articulated individual health goals, clear-eyed examination of eating patterns, acknowledgment of the constrained nature of one’s options (given one’s makeup, psychology, social/econ/etc status) and then the move to make a decision for action based on all that. Not coherent yet, but working on it.

  2. Thanks for this, Catherine. As someone who grew up in a house where food was plentiful and enjoyed, but also policed carefully (and in a gendered way), my relationship with *quantity* of food has always been very conflicted. And I have in the past beat myself up about dessert. (As in: I’m up three pounds. I bet it was all the dessert last week…) This strikes me as a typical story for women of my generation. But something important happened to me after I became quite physically active in my late twenties: what I ate or did stopped correlating to what I weighed, in a way that seemed obvious to me. In other words: the scale stopped reflecting (both up and down, mind) what I thought was the “moral” reality of my eating, and I began to understand in an embodied way (as Tracy and Sam have noted repeatedly in posts) that there is no simple 1:1 between what you take in and what the scale says. Factors are many and they are complicated.

    For me this was an important emotional as well as intellectual discovery, because it helped to break the cycle I had been in since childhood where, emulating my mom, I would assume that food – all kinds and most quantities – was there to make me gain weight I did not want, full stop. (My mom still polices her food – she is 78 and in a wheelchair, and it breaks my heart.) Learning that this (food = weight you don’t want) was in fact untrue – and then learning that food was a fantastic thing to enjoy after also enjoying some exercise (or not!) – helped me to change out the moral lens I had with food for one that was more focused on nutrition, replenishment, and pleasure.

    I now let myself eat what I want, when I want – especially dessert. Although I fully admit this is possible because, as a very active person, I also know I need plenty of food, of all kinds, and need not worry about gaining excessive weight and not fitting into my clothes. So I’m not free of the good/evil/moralizing framework entirely. Though I have got rid of the scale: as far as I’m concerned if I can wear the outfits I love and feel great in them, then I’m a size and shape that’s healthy for me.

    Sorry for the long comment! You got me thinking. 🙂

  3. Kim, I’m glad my mother has some awareness of balanced meals…@82 yrs. We have other things to worry about her health and mobility. She does enjoy certain dishes for special times. It’s not that we can even properly inform her because we’ve lost a lot of Chinese speaking fluency. She told us she ate a bag of chips….and you know, at her age, why not? It’s not that she ever did much chip eating anyway or that type of fast food eating at all. She’s had 6 children: shall we tell her at this point in her life what to eat?

    Eating white rice was integral to my family’s cultural background…as it is for many traditional Asian meals. So to feel physically better (since I feel sluggish and unwell when eating too much rice), I shifted to……carefully selected lighter (non-rice) Asian noodles. I actually seldom eat Italian pasta except in restaurants. I now find it too heavy. To me, food is partially tied deeply to identity as someone born in Canada but of immigrant Chinese parents. cultural …family memory. As your family members die over time and loss of mother language speaking fluency…sometimes food memory is what you have left and can easily practice several times per week. It comes to me from sheer memory via my mother, I don’t even cook such recipes from a book.

    I cannot even begin to stress how family heritage can be expressed in food. Even my partner cooks certain German dishes,….his last parent, mother died over 15 years ago. Like me, he’s lost a lot of German speaking fluency.

    Yes, we have some strange mixed up meals…but food becomes an expression of comfort, cultural fusion.

    1. I totally agree with you Jean. Food goes hand in hand with almost every social gathering, and like you say sometimes all that you have left when all your dear ones have gone is food memory ie ;family memory. So whose to say what bad and good food is, when eaten for instance in remembrance of a loved one or at a life celebration?

      I think it all goes down to us people being less judgemental of one another. I myself for one am chubby, and the critic i get for eating my mom and I’s favourite homestyle fried fish and chips is just outrageous.I believe it is up to every individual to allow themselves freedom of being. Eat whatever, do whatever , just be , considering however factors like health and safety.I would assume that no one would want to dig their own grave, but if they do, then so be it. #FREEDOM_OF_BEING.

      1. It’s doubtful that you are eating homestyle fried fish and chips very often at all.

        I seriously wonder if some readers if understand what we are trying to express. If one is not connected at all to their family’s cultural/ancestral roots or had lousy family meals as a child (fast food, etc.) then it’s hard to relate.

        Here’s a real life example. I enjoy dim sum meals in Chinese restaurants with others…but it’s only a few times per year. You know some of the stuff can add up after 5-6 different tapas like dim sum varieties. It’s my family’s cultural heritage: None of my 5 siblings make dim sum at home. My mother made about 2-3 types um….maybe 1-2 times per year. It’s quite labour intensive work.

        I eat it for sheer pleasure…but also in unconscious recognition and sharing of family/memory. It is a direct link to what my mother did for her family.

  4. I think food, like any moral issue, becomes a moral issue when our enjoyment potentially infringes on the rights of others. I’d only say food is a moral issue because of the animals who are raised as products rather than sentient beings, with no regard for their suffering. To talk about food as morally neutral reduces these lives to absent referents. I definitely recommend Peter Singer’s examination of this in Practical Ethics; it was very influential to me!

    I absolutely agree that it’s strange how we treat food as “good” or “bad” based on our ability or not to curb our emotional draw to it. What is it that causes us to eat pasta, for instance, even beyond the point when we like it? Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    1. Everything has a moral connection because we are moral beings. We may brush our moral doubts under the carpet if they interfere with our life- style or enjoyment but they don’t go away. Of utmost importance , rather selfishly , is our own health and well-being and that is the crux of food- obsession . Some say live drink and be merry for tomorrow we die and throw restraint out of the window. The majority search for the perfect diet which satisfies and keeps them healthy. I see fat men with contorted faces pounding the pavements at unearthly hours ; their last consideration is to reduce their food intake. Those who fight hardest for freedoms it away from themselves.

  5. Having Crohn’s Disease, I base my food on what my stomach can handle and not what my mouth wants. My mouth wants mounds of pasta and lots of bacon! But I know eating them will lead to pain so I just don’t eat them. I look at food and ask myself…What is in this food that my body needs? If the answer is nothing, I don’t eat it.

  6. At the age of 90 I do not judge food from a moral point of view but on the basis of whether my digestive system permits me to gain energy and satidfaction from what I consume. Many foods that attract me have proven disastrous for permitting me to sleep at night and remain in decent physical condition so I avoid them and operate with small if any problems. Morality is not a consideration.

  7. Your article reminds me of a book I just
    read. Our thirst for redemption can take us in many directions where morality rules in so many expressions.

    We look for redemption through our peers, food, dress and church, etc.

  8. After coming from a doctor’s office where all my beloved foods were banned I applaud this. Unfortunately some foods do bad things in my body as they are chemically broken down or not. But i agree food like money, guns, the Web are all amoral. It is how we choose to use these things that cause a good or bad outcome.

  9. Funny, I never realized I have been a food moralist all my life and not to mention a bit of an unbearable snoot (to some of my friends for sure). Foods like fries, cakes, chocolates are good for kids or sampling. I automatically labelled them as “evil” foods, not to be enjoyed beyond a point. But foods are neither evil nor kind. Its just what works for me or does not colors my judgement.

  10. Is gnocchi considered a pasta now? I know it has flour and egg, but the addition of potato (or farina, in the Roman version) has usually meant it’s in its own category I think. At least it was in my Italian house growing up, when it was served as a pasta alternative some days. Either way, sorry you can’t eat it. Shame!

  11. As I started reading, I kept thinking, “How can a person be so detailed and passionate about food? I mean, it’s just food, right?” Then as I went on I was like, “Wait! Are we still talking about food?” Heehehe…
    It is very well written. We can pick a lesson from this to apply to our approach to day-day life.
    Thank you

  12. I agree. Some foods just don’t work for me when others do.
    My mom is gluten free and gets on me all the time about it ,because it doesn’t work for her, and she sees it a bad food, I however have no problems with it. It’s all how you feel when and after you eat something.

  13. I have sometimes wondered whether I could go for therapy to cure my dessert cravings. I was brought up in a household where food was plentiful and every meal was planned in great detail, the desert discussions were long and everyone had a perspective on it. However later in life as I became body consious my relationship with food detoriated. I went through cycles of eating healthy ,loosing weight and then again going back to desert days. I am yet to find a way to deal with it. But now I go by a rule that I have to earn my desert my working out. So 2 hours of Zumba and sweet.

  14. I totally agree with you. There are no good and bad foods, that’s why I preach flexible dieting. Just know what is best for you, what kinds of foods will make you overeat, what should you try to limit, etc.. Banning certain foods from your diet will only make you crave them really hard and you’ll end up binging! Nice article!

  15. Your view that is shared by many seemingly, judging by the comments is amoral, nihilistic and unthinking . Your image of slices of bacon presage what is to follow. There is no recognition (let alone cognition) of the fact that most of the stuff that we call food comes from either a slaughtered animal who has often undergone a life of misery and abuse until s/he is killed in a terrifying act of brutality, or from the super-exploitation of peoples’ labour to the point where many people on our planet die very young from the effects of agro- chemicals or overwork. Have you never come across the concept of fair trade or veganism, movements which at least help to pinpoint and make a dent in this suffering even if they are not preventing most of it from happening? There is no food that is not replete with a story of a being, human or animal, and often that being has suffered immensely.Your words represent the worst aspects of a libertarian (capitalist) society whereby people only think solipsistically and any concept of The Suffering of Others is then neatly filed away to be forgotten. I am not writing this to be horrible to you as I am sure you are a very nice person Catherine. It is simply that I am truly gobsmacked that so many people still think like this.

    1. I firmly believe the immoral way we obtain meat is not because we good re unaware of the fact, but because poverty rates are high. No one would buy cheap processed meats if we could afford healthy meals simply because they taste much better. If you analyze the diet of poor Americans, it’s always fats and sodas compared to the upper and middle class citizens. If we first tackle poverty, I’m sure the issue of animal cruelty could be tackled

  16. Nice article! I’m following the agenda “if it taste good it is healthy”. A varied diet is recommended because we have a large number of environmental toxins in the ingredients.

  17. Loved this, and I totally get it. There are some foods that I just can’t have in the house. Yesterday I had a complete conversation in my head over a bag of Chicago Mix that I bought at my husbands request…Sugar makes me feel sick, too much dairy and I start scratching-yet I couldn’t seem to stop myself from ripping open that Costco sized bag and transferring those sweet/salty kernels into my mouth. ( 2 cheese: 1 caramel=perfect ratio). I followed the popcorn with a big dose of self-recrimination and abuse before I finally came back to remembering that there is no moral value in eating or not eating popcorn. It is what it is. Let it go. And then I told my husband to enjoy it, because we are never having it in the house again.

  18. Food is my life, and I agree. Food does not make us separate people
    because, we portray ourselves in our own way. Really cool post!

  19. Food does not make a person worthwhile or not worthwhile, but there are definitely more or less healthy foods. There is a lot of science regarding foods that are helpful and those that are harmful ( The message that you can eat anything you want without consequences is just as harmful as the message that a particular food is “good” or “bad.” Only in the last 75 years or so has our food choices become problematic as corporate greed has taken over. Information about healthy whole plant foods is overwhelmed by unhealthy processed “food” because there is much less money in fruit and vegetables than in highly processed and highly advertised junk. There are also food industries (meat & dairy, for example) that have financial interests in peddling inaccurate information. Food manufacturers use very sophisticated science to make many products as enticing and addicting as possible. Many of our personal food preferences may not really be our own.

    The truth of your blog is in the danger of food becoming a source of emotional well-being. When your food choices become driven by emotions that you may be only vaguely aware of or that are your primary source of emotional support, as with any potentially addictive substance, you are looking at the wrong solution for your emotional needs. It’s not the food per se that is the problem, it’s what you want it to do for you. If you feel guilty or are self-critical after eating something, that can lead to more eating for emotional reasons in a vicious cycle. That pattern does not mean you are a “bad” person, it means you have an unhealthy pattern that may require help to change.

    Thanks for initiating an important discussion. We do better when all of our decisions are as fully informed, conscious and deliberate as possible.

  20. I don’t think food is either good or evil, but I do feel that what “big food” corporations have done to food on some levels can be considered evil.

  21. Intelligent and well written piece. Telling someone they can never have a certain food often makes them desire the food even more and make them struggle even more with their diet

  22. I think you make a good point, I think the mindset that America should make is avoiding deep fried food and sodas. Other than that we seem to be picky and stressful about what we put into our bodies.

  23. You raise some really good points there! From my experience, economics can play a huge role in what you eat and whether it’s good or bad. I don’t know about other places, but definitely in Australia it’s much, much cheaper to eat “bad foods” than to buy fresh vegetables and low fat meats- even if you bulk buy. This can increase the strain and guilt factor when thinking about what’s good and bad to eat!

  24. I think food should always be an experience. Not just the eating of food but the location, the ambiance, the memory, the people. Some of my best memories of food isn’t because of the dish I was eating, but also because of who I was with or what was happening at the time. We were just recently on vacation and an off the path spot was recommended to us. It was an eclectic place – the fountains in the front of the building, the pottery, the outdoor seating, the low roofs, the ethnic touches that showed care and love for what the owner does for a living. And the owner – he came and greeted every guest at every table. When he heard my daughter was a sophomore in college he gave her some advice. He said that she was of the generation that needed to change the world. To be open and part of the solution to bring people back together again. That kind of attitude made the food taste even better that night. She tried food that she wouldn’t normally have eaten and even asked the waiter to make choices for her because he lived the food every day. I tried a dish I had never thought of having before and loved it. I may be off topic from the point you were trying to make but I don’t believe food is good or evil. I think where you are at in your life will enhance your eating experience. If you are in a happy place, every emotion is heightened and food takes on a different meaning. I will treasure that dinner with my daughter at that little restaurant because of the experience as well as the great food we enjoyed.

  25. So glad I ran into your blog today. Find it very overwhelming, the ‘do not eat, it’s bad for you, will kill you, will kill the kids working in the fields, etc. I don’t have a love hate relationship with food, I usually eat what I want, when I want. But then I have a love hate relationship with my body instead. It really is SO complicated. For me, anyway. Thanks for your post!

  26. Much to explore with connections between food/cuisine and aesthetics/ethics/morality. Wendell Berry puts forth that eating is an agricultural act–links to farm workers, farms, animals, etc. Some chefs like Alice Waters and Dan Barber argue that taste leads to ethics. Thanks for your post.

  27. Global warming and its implications seem to have played a certain role in leading certain groups of people to form complicated opinion and thus relationship with food in recent years. Clean food associated with less carbon footprints and etc. The rise in temperature worldwide seem to also have caused a certain variety of food to turn toxic. Anyhow, extensive studies need to be conducted to evaluate possible damage to the humankind in the long-term. From my travels, I’ve noticed that even Theravada Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Thailand eat meat. Monks are supposed to be vegetarian however they do rely heavily on alms to sustain their livelihood. In reality, the saying “beggars can’t be choosers” is so accurate when applied in this context.

  28. Love this blog. Well written and realistic. It’s refreshing to read an article on this topic from a new perspective. I can’t wait to see more from you!

    Bianca Blogs

  29. Shoving personal food choices down people’s throats by fabricating moral semantics is now choking many people – thanks for a down to earth authoritative analysis!

  30. Funny, I just wrote about our relationship with food on my blog, in which I discuss building your relationship with food outside of what everyone else is saying. Because truthfully, people will make fun of you if you are a person who enjoy one too many pieces of cake or ice cream, and you will also be made fun of because you decided to go vegan or avoid glutten and sugar. There is a lot of unlearning to be done so you can build your relationship with food from scratch away from everyone else’s (and your own) judging stares.

  31. I agree you with I had a weakness for eating too much of peanut butter and bread, I just could’nt control myself. So I decided to stop eat anything made of flour and peanut butter, the choice I made I thing is for the best because now I feel much healthier and more energetic.

  32. Nicely written! I agree some food are so delicious it may seem irresistible, but as long as you keep a healthy diet and know what you’re eating and make good choices, sometimes treating yourself to something that you like may not be a bad thing.

  33. Love this post! LOVE pasta too- I can definitely relate to overeating eat it when it’s in front of me. Comfort food that ironically makes me uncomfortable…after my second dish. My motto for the last year or is to aim for healthy- and healthy looks different on everybody (healthy mindset, healthy diet, healthy emotions).

  34. I have been guilty of labeling foods! This has caused some massive cravings but now that allow myself the foods that I love in moderation I’m happier. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  35. Food is emotional – & stress is horrendous on the body & soul – which is why one must answer these questions for themself. Good subject.

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