Proud2Bme | "Good" Food, "Bad" Food, "Real" Food: Do Our Meals Have a Moral Value?

"Good" Food, "Bad" Food, "Real" Food: Do Our Meals Have a Moral Value?

By Brittany Cullen--How are we supposed to learn healthy eating habits if the media exposes us to problematic diet “solutions” & advertisers try to get us to "indulge" as a reward or a way to rebel?

In childhood, we are taught to associate being thin with willpower and control. Our generation also learned to be fearful of toxins in our food. And to top it off, exercise is no longer about enjoyment but about burning calories. We’ve internalized all this information and we're now used to evaluatuating our foods based on moral values of good and bad. A chocolate donut is labeled “bad” while celery is seen as “good.” In a recent Proud2BMe Poll, 88% of those who responded said they labeled foods as “good” or “bad” based on the calorie content, fat content, or other nutritional information. These depictions are not accurate. Maintaining healthy balanced nutrition requires foods like celery and other fresh vegetables, but also the foods with protein, fat and carbohydrates.

Messages from the media teach us that we should focus all our energies on getting thin. Except if we are upset about a breakup or having a bad day. Then we should binge and eat chocolate ice cream, of course. American culture has developed the idea of “comfort foods,” teaching us that if we eat these foods, then we can reduce emotional distress. If we really want to tackle unhealthy eating, we need to focus our attention on clearing up these confusing and contradictory messages. Binge eating disorder affects millions of Americans. Our culture reinforces the feelings of shame associated with eating large quantities of food while simultaneously teaching us to eat our emotions.

Another popularized concept in our culture is the idea of “real food,” which is about being mindful of what we are eating, checking labels to make sure foods are not processed to avoid ingredients like aspartame that can be harmful to our bodies, and shopping for organic, local and whole foods. While this approach sounds good in theory, it can be difficult for some people vulnerable to eating disorders to develop awareness without developing orthorexia, a term used to describe people who become unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating. It can be a blurry line between being conscious of food choices and becoming obsessed about eating a certain way. Peach Friedman, an eating disorders educator who struggled with eating disorders herself, recognizes this line. She also believes that there are ways we can restore a healthy relationship with food by restoring our connection to food. She writes in her blog:

“So much of our problems with food in this culture, the same problems  that lead to anorexia, bulimia, and obesity, have to do with our enormous disconnect from our food. We don’t understand food. We don’t know where it comes from.”

To imagine a society without an epidemic of eating disorders, we must shift toward a focus on health, rather than weight. Linda Bacon introduces a peace movement that honors our bodies in her book Health at Every Size: “…the best way to win the war against fat is to give up the fight.” She debunks three commonly held beliefs. She teaches us that in fact, “overweight” people actually live longer than people of “normal” weight. Additionally, “thin” does not equate to being healthy and dieting is not an effective means of losing weight. The basic guideline she gives for intuitive eating is to simply become aware of hunger cues, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.

Culture alone is not to blame for the cause of eating disorders, but all these mixed messages can be confusing, whether you are vulnerable to developing an eating disorder or not. Someone in recovery once explained to me that he felt it was one of the hardest illnesses to recover from because triggers and obstacles are so inescapable. Think about an alcoholic living in a bar. Now picture a person trying to recover from an eating disorder. That person has to eat multiple times per day while being exposed to countless contradictory diet, fitness and beauty ads, not to mention real-life conversations revolving around food; there is no way to avoid them. Popularized messages in the media, eating disorder prevention and the concern for sustainable foods are inevitably interconnected. We need to change our mindset to look at these issues as a whole, rather than distancing them from each other.


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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

This site was developed in partnership with Riverduinen and made possible by generous contributions from JPMorgan Chase, Globant, the University of Delaware, and The Hilda & Preston Davis Foundation.

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