We 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.