What We Eat: Morality and the Dinner TableWe humans enjoy dividing things into categories. Doing so helps us form cognitive shortcuts and organize large sets of information. Our categories apply to nearly everything imaginable, including descriptions of ourselves (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status) and things we put into our bodies (healthy or unhealthy, good or bad).

Few things, however, are as simple as a label would suggest. This becomes obvious when we look at our food choices. For example, fish, which have long been thought to be a healthy choice, are now fraught with issues related to their capture and population decline. Likewise, eating too much fish, particularly species which are larger and higher on the food chain, can result in dangerously high levels of mercury in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Our categories quickly dissolve and lose their utility.

In relation to food, the terms “good” and “bad” typically relate to calories, fat, or carbohydrates. Foods low in these things are considered good; foods high in them are bad. Instead of looking at our food choices in a comprehensive way, we typically apply these labels and take foods out of context.

As a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, I hear people do this all the time. For example, many of my clients believe that doughnuts are bad. They have difficulty with the idea that doughnuts are neither good nor bad, but should be considered holistically in the context of everything we eat. If we were to eat nothing but doughnuts for a week, this would certainly be unhealthy. Likewise, vegetables are not inherently or exclusively good; if we were to eat nothing but asparagus, we would deny our bodies much-needed protein and fat. (Not to mention the smell that would result.)

“Good” and “bad,” as they relate to food, typically mean more than merely “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Morality is at play: When we eat foods that are considered to be “bad,” we are breaking a moral code. In this instance I’m not referring to how animals are raised or killed, or to a food’s environmental implications (all of which, in my mind, might actually deserve to be evaluated on morality). Foods associated with immorality are those that are seen as gluttonous or otherwise sinful, based on the latest fad diet, or at least on the most current scientific information.

The terms “good” and “bad” are problematic not only because of their association with morality, but also because they imply a false, mutual exclusivity: food is either good or bad, but not both. This is clearly not the case, as we saw in the example of fish.

For some, the pairing of food and morality will seem harmless. Take, for example, Trader Joe’s line of Reduced Guilt products—everything from crackers to brownies. Although much of my paycheck goes to TJ’s (you will find me there multiple times each week), I am astounded by this name. It reflects the notion that we ought to—and do—feel guilty for eating certain “bad” goods. There are many other examples, too: the Guiltless Gourmet line, the ubiquitous references to “sinfully” good dessert, chocolate, etc. These references abound.

We have been wary of gluttony for millennia (indeed, the Bible warns of it), and nearly every culture has identified particular foods as forbidden or unfit to eat (e.g., pork in Judaism). Our modern categorization of “bad” — based on calories, fat, or carbohydrates — is not usually thought to affect our chances of getting through the pearly gates. But it does have potentially devastating consequences, partly because we can’t seem to escape the onslaught of media messages which warn us of committing such alimentary sins.

We are bombarded by falsified images of impossibly perfect bodies, and barraged with messages that, if we eat the “right” foods, the “good” foods, we will be able to look like they (the good, the anointed, the moral) do. Those who have eaten the “bad” foods are featured in the “before” shots, and once they have exercised virtue and self-restraint, they are in the “after” shots. It’s a wonder there is no halo superimposed on their new, svelte image.

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.