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?

Why the “Thigh Gap” Makes Me Sad #tbt

Sam and I have been reviewing our older content lately to get a sense of our most read posts and topics. I’ve also revisited “the thigh gap” topic this week proof reading a paper I wrote that’s coming out in the Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (Ann Barnhill, Mark Budolfson, and Tyler Doggett, editors) very soon. My paper is called “Food Insecurity: Dieting as Ideology, as Oppression, and as Privilege.” It’s almost five years since I posted these thoughts here on the thigh gap. And it and any other arbitrary thin ideal that makes people, especially women, feel poorly about themselves if they don’t achieve it, still makes me sad.

Tracy

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

thigh gap push pushIt’s not the newest news, but the whole “thigh gap” thing, especially among young women, has been a simmering pot that came into media focus a couple of weeks ago when I was off the grid on a sailboat vacation.  It was on the news and in the paper and on the web. It’s a popular hashtag on Twitter.

Sam alluded to it in her post about bathing suit anxiety.  The “thigh gap” aspiration is the newest thing driving young women to obsessive dieting and disordered eating.

I am a woman in her late forties with no teenagers, so I’m a bit out of the loop sometimes. When I discovered the world of tumblrs (such as “fuckyeahthighgap” and “thigh gap” ) devoted to the thigh gap, I confess to being not just shocked, but profoundly saddened.

I don’t even want to link to the sites because they are so…

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Let’s Talk about the Myth of the Skinny Vegan Bitch #tbt

Here’s a #tbt for you from four years ago. Though I would venture that veganism is more popular now than it was then, and is gaining followers all the time, myths still abound. And one of them is that you’ll get skinny real fast if you opt to eat a thoroughly plant-based diet. You won’t necessarily lose weight at all. But that’s not a reason not to try it. Another myth is that you can’t possibly retain muscle if you’re vegan. You can! I’ll write about that sometime next month. Meanwhile, enjoy this old post. I’m vegan, but I’m neither skinny nor a bitch (or so I like to think anyway)!
Tracy

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

vegan-food-cc-300x400Here’s how the first installment in the Skinny Bitch series (authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin) starts:

Are you sick and tired of being fat?  Good. If you can’t take one more day of self-loathing, you’re ready to get skinny...

This is not a diet. This is a way of life. A way to enjoy food. A way to feel healthy, clean, energized and pure. It’s time to reclaim your mind and body. It’s time to strut your skinny ass down the street liek you’re in an episode of Charlie’s Angels with some really cool song playing in the background. It’s time to prance around in a thong like you rule the world. It’s time to get skinny.

It sounds almost empowering.  Almost.

The first red flag?  If you’re full of self-loathing then…wait for it…getting skinny is the answer!  If that’s not clear from the introduction, it is made…

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Imagine if size really didn’t matter. Can you? #tbt

Today I’m doing a “Throwback Thursday” post where I invite you, once again, to imagine how different life would be if we actually lived in a world where size doesn’t matter. Happy Thursday!

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

tape-measureOne of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.

For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended.  The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.

And he’s gained 100 of it back. According to The New York Times article “After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight,” the regain is despite his best efforts. “In fact,” the article goes on to say, “most of that season’s…

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Why I’m glad I stopped worrying about sugar and other weird food obsessions

I had a funny exchange the other day on Facebook. There was a link about the dangers of the cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese. I commented on my friend’s post that when we can, we should rely on whole foods to make mac and cheese. Being an American, my friend thought I meant the food chain Whole Foods, which is not so cheekily known as Whole PayCheque for the high cost of it items.

Image: White bowl with pasta noodles, red tomatoes, and green basil.

Not macaroni and cheese, but my favourite feta, basil and tomato pasta supper.

Nonetheless we had a good chat about how expensive it can be to eat whole, unprocessed foods, and that led us to a whole other thread about clean eating, healthy eating, good foods, bad foods, cheat meals, etc. We weren’t actually talking about our approach to nutrition but the way the words we use to talk about food get co-opted by all kinds of agendas. It’s quite easy to have all sorts of “isms” and attitudes creep in, altering our meaning and twisting our understanding of food as fuel in our lives and how we relate to it in different contexts.

That same day SamB brought my attention to this article about Anthony Warner, described by the Guardian as “(the Angry Chef) who is on a mission to confront the ‘alternative facts’ surrounding nutritional fads and myths.”  Warner writes a blog on food fads, and he doesn’t hold back. He’s now written a book called The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, and I ‘m adding it to my reading list.

That’s because when you start a fitness program, there’s all manner of advice on how to eat, what to eat, and why the one true way (insert your favourite fad — howsoever you define it —  diet here) will be all that you need. Even if your goal is not weight loss, there’s all kinds of recommendations (cough, cough, rules!) on how to eat to train.

Heck, you don’t even have to be training to get food advice. I’m convinced all you have to be is female and not meet someone’s pre-conceived notion of how female should look, for the advice to come pouring in, accompanied by a generous helping of side eye finished with a soupcon of shade, if the advisor deems your food choices not to meet their definition of “healthy” eating.

What appealed to me about Warner is his evidence-based approach. In the article he says: “A lot of the clean-eating people, I just think they have a broken relationship with the truth. (…) They’re selling something that is impossible to justify in the context of evidence-based medicine.” I like science and research and critical thinking. Sadly, there’s too little of it when it comes to talking about food and part of it goes back to the agendas behind the particular terms used.

Warner says our fascination with fads or trends in food and eating is connected with our innate need for certainty. He explains it this way: “We really want to be able to say: ‘Is coffee good or bad for us?’ Well, it’s not good or bad for you, it just is. And we have to accept that; that’s what science says. So your brain goes, ‘I don’t like that level of uncertainty.’ Certainty is really appealing for a lot of people and that’s what a lot of these people are selling – certainly at the darker end.”

And he’s right. The people who have preached to me about gluten free diets when they aren’t celiac are utterly convinced of the rightness of their belief that going gluten-free cured their ills. Equally certain are the people who now look upon sugar with the same fear and revulsion we bring to edible oil masquerading as coffee creamer.

As I survey the speciality food shelves in my local shops, I’m enchanted by all of the interesting food stuffs and yet, truthfully, I am also challenged by how these same items are elevated in social media, on Instagram, and by celebrities to miracle food status. Warner, who lives in the UK and works for a food manufacturer is clear about the limitations food makers face when it comes to making claims about food: “If I made a food product and I wanted to say ‘it detoxes you’, I absolutely couldn’t. There are really clear laws: I can’t say it in the advertising, I can’t say it on the pack, I can’t make any sort of claim that isn’t hugely backed in evidence. But if I wrote a recipe book, I can say what I want.”

If you have been wondering how Gwyneth Paltrow can make pots of money selling her fans coconut oil as a mouthwash and wasp’s nests as a vaginal cleanser, there’s your answer. The trick is to stop engaging in magical thinking when it comes to food and applying some common sense. Warner’s advice: “eat a sensible and varied diet, not too much nor too little. If you have junk food every so often, don’t feel guilty; if you’re going full Morgan Spurlock, you’re probably overdoing it. Eat fish, especially oily ones such as salmon and mackerel, when you can. Don’t consume too much sugar, but equally don’t believe people who tell you it’s “toxic” and has “no nutritional value.”

Or you can go the Reader’s Digest version and follow Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Excuse me now, as I forage in the fridge for the leftover maple syrup glazed salmon.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in training exploring a whole new world of food as fuel.

 

 

 

The Trump 25?: Stress, weight gain, and American politics

Image description: A digital scale with a wooden surface which reads 0.0.

Image description: A digital scale with a wooden surface which reads 0.0.

We’ve been writing quite a bit on the blog on the things we do to find peace and relieve stress in tough times. We’ve talked about dog walks, hikes in the woods, yoga, time with friends, and beautiful music.

Mostly those things, in addition to being instrumentally valuable in terms of health and stress reduction, are also valuable for their own sake. It’s just plain good to spend time with friends and appreciate joy in the world.

But I confess that in addition to the things that I want more of in my life, I’ve also been eating a lot of delicious food. Delicious food also is good for its own sake. But I’ve been eating more of it than I like, on reflection, and I haven’t fully appreciated a lot of it. I’ve been eating for comfort, not joy.

Now I’m a defender of eating for comfort. It’s not the worst thing you can do. (For me, and for lots of people, alcohol might be worse. There is also a lot being written right now about drinking one’s way through the next four years. I’ll pass on that.)

Food serves a lot of purposes besides nutrition. My blog post which defends eating to relieve stress is also about what I cooked on the US election night. That post seems sad and naive now. I thought it was going to be a stressful evening but that it would all end okay. I confess too that when things started to go bad, I found refuge in sleep. “Wake me when Hilary wins,” I said to Jeff, before drifting off.

Wrong.

Four years is a long time to be comfort eating. And it turns out I’m not the only person thinking about this.  See Stress Eating is Now an American Pastime Thanks to President Donald Trump.

In an interview in the New York Times TV producer, director and writer Judd Apatow talks about stress eating and gaining weight. He says, “Most of us are just scared and eating ice cream.” Me too. Salted caramel ice cream is this year’s favourite. Sometimes I worry I am going to associate the flavour with Trump trauma.

In another New York Times piece called Trump Made Me Eat It, Joyce Wadler writes that her Greenwich Village Weight Watchers group is talking lots about Trump weight.  Trump tweets, she writes, and instead of your usual low cal yogurt you find yourself reaching for a chocolate croissant.

Barbra Streisand is also tweeting about Trump and food. “Donald Trump is making me gain weight. I start the day with liquids, but after the morning news, I eat pancakes smothered in maple syrup!” the singer tweeted.

Oh, and just in time, a new study seems to show a link between stress, elevated hormones, and obesity. However, the researchers note that they aren’t really sure about cause and effect. After all, in a fat phobic society it might make sense that larger people are stressed out by attitudes towards their bodies. That is, being fat might be stressful (duh!) rather than stress causing overweight.

In all of this, I don’t mean to trivialize politics. Or to make this all about healthy eating. Or even to criticize eating as a way of relieving stress. But I am interested in the choices we make in hard times. What fuels us to engage politically? What choices support our active, politically and otherwise, lifestyles?

How about you? Are you making your usual food choices in these tough months? What’s your plan for eating in the time of Trump?

 

Image description: An American flag blowing in the wind, against a blue sky with some fluffy white clouds.

Image description: An American flag blowing in the wind, against a blue sky with some fluffy white clouds.

Sugar free September? Good God no?

 

Image result for sugar free september

We’ve thought a lot about sugar here on the blog. There was Tracy’s plan to dump sugar, your reaction, and her change in plans. See her posts Dumping Sugar: this is not a detox. and Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up.

I’m officially leery of quitting sugar entirely. See Six reasons this feminist isn’t giving up sugar and Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff.

And I think I can safely say, for me at least, I don’t want to open up that particular can of worms again for awhile. However, our experience of blogging about sugar convinced me that it’s controversial and complicated. This issue isn’t easy.

That’s why I was super surprised to see the Canadian Cancer Society advocating Sugar Free September.

About Sugar-Free September

Fancy a month off the sweet stuff to help raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society?

Sugar-Free September challenges you to go sugar-free for 30 days to raise vital funds for the Canadian Cancer Society to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.

Commit to quitting the cookies and brownies, lock up the doughnuts, ditch the candies and kick the sugar habit by signing up to Sugar-Free September and raise money for life-saving research and vital services for people living with cancer.

Most Canadians consume diets high in added sugar, which can lead to excess weight gain. Research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer.

Get your health and body back on track by reducing your intake of food and drinks with added sugars from your diet for an entire month! It’s a great way to learn how easy it is to moderate consumption while also feeling the benefits of healthier eating.

Image result for sugar free september

I worry that this feeds into food fear and that very little good can come of it. I worry that people who want an excuse to adopt a very restrictive diet will find this appealing. And I worry it will hurt people with a history of eating disorders.

But that’s me. I’m the over-thinking worrying sort. Pretty much an occupational hazard!

What do you think? And if you’re doing sugar free September, how’s it going so far?

Image result for worrying