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.

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?

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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