The result of applying such labels to our food choices usually ends in one of two things: guilt or self-righteousness. We feel guilty if we have overdone it, which can mean eating “bad” things or even too many “good” things. “I’ve been so bad all week,” we often say. Alternately, we feel righteous and self-satisfied if we have eaten a limited quantity or only selected “good” food. Yet even if we land on the good side of things, we will typically return to feeling guilty or bad very quickly. This is because we are basing our appraisal on what we have eaten, which is a transitory thing.
This binary system of evaluating food represents black and white thinking, a style of thought that is associated with much psychological dysfunction, including eating disorders. Among those who suffer from eating- and food-related issues, self-appraisal is based on caloric intake and one’s shape and size. But these individuals don’t experience mere guilt for having strayed from their dietary goals. They experience shame. The difference is that guilt applies to our behavior, whereas shame applies to who we are. Shame involves our core sense of self, and is much more profound. In someone with an eating disorder, the phrase “I’ve been so bad” connotes a sense of being a bad person, rather than someone who has committed bad acts.
Black and white or either-or thinking can be harmful when we teach our children about nutrition. Without meaning to, our lessons suggest that “good” foods are boring and undesirable. Take, for instance, the common parental message that dessert is to be eaten only after we’ve completed the meal. By teaching this, we imply that dessert is the coveted reward, whereas the entrée and its accompaniment (read: vegetables) are speed bumps along the way. We increase desire for dessert, the “bad” food, and decrease desire for the “good” food.
Language is very important, and if we are to develop a healthy relationship with food and our bodies, we need to drop the labels of “good” and “bad.” I often talk with my daughters about “growing foods” and “fun foods” (these terms are used in preschools around the country, and I take no credit for devising them). Growing foods are those that are packed with nutrition and which provide them with long-lasting energy and adequate vitamins and minerals. Fun foods are those which are delicious and pleasurable. Obviously we cannot escape the process of categorizing food (or anything else, really), but the terms “growing foods” and “fun foods” are certainly less culturally and emotionally loaded than “good” and “bad” foods. They are less tethered to morality and the concepts of right and wrong.
The terms “growing” and “fun” are also preferable because they are not mutually exclusive; foods can be—and often are—both at once. As a result the categories are less defined, but this is a tradeoff I’m willing to make. Finally, these terms also acknowledge that we should be eating things that are fun and pleasurable. The point of eating, after all, is not merely to nourish the body.
We, and our children, have plenty of moral issues we must face in our lives, such as whether we are living with integrity and treating our environment with respect. And indeed we need to evaluate whether our foods are healthy for ourselves and for the planet. Yet our reliance on morality to categorize foods based on their nutritional value steers us toward dangerous waters. Is it really such a sin to eat a doughnut, after all, or have we blown this whole thing out of proportion? We might need to rethink these issues and kick morality out of the kitchen. I, for one, don’t want it at my table.
Udall-Weiner, D. (2010). What We Eat: Morality and the Dinner Table. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-we-eat-morality-and-the-dinner-table/0005379
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.