Food demonizing and the perils of “all or nothing” thinking

Half white half black sign that says "Good" on the white side and "Evil" on the black side. Under "Good" it says "Good is that which is morally right; righteousness" and under "Evil" it says "Evil is profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity."

There’s an article making the rounds and it’s recycling an old idea: “Nice ‘Health’ Foods You’d Be Better off Avoiding.” The recycled idea: some foods are evil. We’ve blogged a couple of times about this already. See my “Why Food is Beyond Good and Evil” and “Let’s Think Differently about Healthy Eating,” and Catherine’s “Beyond Good and Evil (Food)” and her follow-up the next week.

My big theme is about food moralizing and how just makes things worse. You’re not “good” because you ordered the salad instead of the fries. You’re not “bad” because you ordered the fries instead of the salad. Fruit juice isn’t “evil.” Celery sticks aren’t “virtuous.” It’s all food.

So what’s on the latest list? Some familiar items that people like to label as “bad”: fruit juices and smoothies (because sugar); granola (because sugar); fat-free or low-fat things (because sugar); dried fruit (because sugar); agave nectar (because sugar). Then there were a few surprises: almond milk (because not as much protein as cow’s milk); gluten free unless you’ve got celiac disease (because sugar and fat); coconut oil (because saturated fat); and vegetable chips (because fat and salt).

What’s really being demonized here, if you read the explanations? Mostly sugar. Next culprit: fat. And finally, salt.

Now here’s the thing. I don’t have any quarrel with the idea that if all of the foods I ever chose to eat were sugary dessert-type foods, my diet would be lacking in nutritional value. It goes without saying that the body requires a diversity of nutrients and that means branching out into veggies, whole grains, and foods that are rich in protein.

I also like Catherine’s point about being a food pragmatist. She says that she and her fellow food-pragmatists “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’m also something of a food pragmatist these days. It’s the evolution of my successful transition to intuitive eating. There are foods that do not work for me (garlic — I cannot digest it in anything but the smallest of quantities; fried foods at lunch time — they make me want to sleep).

That’s not the fault of these foods. As Catherine and I both say, different foods are neither good nor evil. They just are. Maybe they agree with you. Maybe they don’t. Maybe some have more nutritional value than others, but nutritional value isn’t the only reason we eat. Think of the central place socializing and celebrating around food has in just about any culture you can think of.

When we demonize foods and decide that we will never eat something because it is “bad” (even if we like it), we generate a feeling of deprivation and temptation. It’s human nature often to want what we (think) we can’t have. I see this all the time around food.

Last night I was out for Indian food and at the end, when I was already satisfied and done, they brought the bill along with a mini-chocolate for each person. Instead of pocketing mine, I opened it. I took one bite and realized that not only was it not a good chocolate, I simply didn’t want it. So I left half of it on the table in the wrapper. One of my companions noticed and said “aren’t you virtuous, eating only half a chocolate?”

And a few weeks ago a box of Cinnabon cinnamon rolls ended up in our office. A whole box. As a food pragmatist, I know one thing if I know anything: those things give me a headache.  So terrible is the headache I get from them that I do not feel the least bit tempted to eat even half (nevermind that they are decidedly un-vegan). But the whole day everyone in the office was treating the Cinnabons as if they were the embodiment of the devil. I really shouldn’t was either explicitly said or implicitly conveyed in the guilty look people had as they slunk back to their offices to enjoy their decadent treat in private.

I don’t know, but when I’m going to enjoy something that I think is a delicious treat, I’m going to enjoy it wholeheartedly. I’m not going to proclaim how many times a week a person “should” eat a cinnamon roll or what else they might want to include in their daily diet, but I can promise you that no one in the office lives on these things. They were special treats to be enjoyed. If regarded instead as something that you “shouldn’t” have but are having anyway, then the full potential of savouring it in all of its delicious glory falls to the wayside.

All or nothing is not a great strategy and can work against us.

There are exceptions. Sometimes, as Catherine said about her and pasta, there are things that for whatever reason we have a lot of trouble being moderate about. But again, that doesn’t make them demons for everyone. I am fully abstinent when it comes to alcohol. That’s not because alcohol is inherently evil. It’s  because it’s not something that works for me (pragmatist).

Do you demonize foods? Is it working for you?

About Tracy I

Writer, feminist, vegan, triathlete, sailor, philosopher, sometimes knitter.

2 thoughts on “Food demonizing and the perils of “all or nothing” thinking

  1. laufvergnügen says:

    So timely for me. A new colleague of mine is constantly demonizing food, fretting over whether she should eat the cookies, etc. brought in (I’m a baker). I just want to be like, STFU and eat it or don’t. She asked another colleague of mine to “monitor” her snacking in the kitchen, to which my colleague (a friend) simply said, “I’m not food shaming you.”

    Liked by 1 person

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