Good, Bad, Clean, Dirty…The Morality of Food

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There was a time where food was just food. It was sustenance, an energy source, fuel utilized for a functional purpose. Before the industrialization of agriculture and processed foods, you were pretty limited by your locale, climate and season as to which foods made up your daily diet. Back then, people ate to simply fuel themselves; and probably never thought twice about the nutritional content, macronutrient percentage, or the amount of kilocalories in what they were consuming.

Funnily enough, extensive studies conducted by Dr. Weston A Price, DDS in “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” on primitive tribes that did not yet have access to modern processed foods were always found to be healthier and enjoyed higher immunity than members of the same tribes who started eating modern diets comprised of foods that were imported including processed white flour, pastries, sweets, sugary jams and chocolate. The native peoples in different tribes all around the world ate quite differently in terms of macronutrient percentages, but yet with the commonality of whole natural foods that were available to them in their particular environments. It is significant to note that it was always the introduction of modern processed foods that started the decline of health in these native peoples. When left to their instincts, they were more than able to source a nutrient rich diet with natural whole foods.

Today, in modern western society I’d say that we know so much about our food that it can reach a point of being crippling to our natural instincts. Instead of listening to our bodies and eating in  more intuitive patterns, we follow plans, count points/ calories, measure our macros and the like. I believe that this level of scrutiny and sometimes obsessiveness over the minutia of our diets has given food a certain morality. Instead of thinking of food purely as “stuff we eat to live” we put values on it. For example, “Those donuts are so so bad, but they look yummy”, “I’m being bad today, let’s get some dessert”, or, “I only eat clean foods”, implying that all other foods must then be “dirty” and undesirable. Of course there are foods that are more nutrient dense than others. And clearly, if you are desiring a healthy lifestyle, you will probably choose those nutrient dense foods more often than other foods. But, the fact that we have given a moral code to food which then affects how we think and feel about ourselves when we consume it is worrisome.

As proponents of intuitive eating would say, “there are no bad foods”. I think that the way we think about our sustenance can have a profound effect on us. Putting morality on my food choices gives them way too much weight. Labeling myself as a “good” person for eating only “good” or “clean” foods is not a great idea because when I eventually eat a “bad” food, I am then, by association, a “bad” person. I do want to take a second to acknowledge the fact that some people (myself included) do have to abstain from certain foods due to a disease or condition (celiac in my case). Even though this is the case, eating intuitively within those parameters can still be achieved.

Changing the language that you use around food can be a great first step to changing how you view food. For example, instead of using “good, bad, clean or dirty” to describe your food, use words that describe what it actually does for you. It can give you energy to do things. I can make you happy, nostalgic, or celebratory at a family gathering or party. It can fuel a tough workout, help your child to grow or be enjoyed with friends combined with conversation at a dinner.

Using tools to track nutrition, macros and energy input/ output can be very helpful and healthy foods are very important, but so is enjoyment of one’s life. If concern over the cleanliness of your diet begins to consume you, you can become so stressed out about it that your health is negatively impacted anyways. Orthorexia, a new disorder that has cropped up in recent history, is characterized by people who are so obsessed with being “healthy” that they end up putting themselves in harm’s way. According to Steven Bratman, M.D., who named the disorder “orthorexia nervosa” in 1997, “some people’s dietary restrictions intended to promote health may paradoxically lead to unhealthy consequences, such as social isolation, anxiety, loss of ability to eat in a natural, intuitive manner, reduced interest in the full range of other healthy human activities, and, in rare cases, severe malnutrition or even death.”

Do you think of your food as “bad” vs. “good” or “dirty” vs. “clean”?

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