Harebrained Ideas About Moralizing and Food

[CW: discussion of eating disorders and pressure to diet and count calories. Discussion of obsessions and scrupulosity.]

I think pretty much everyone has concluded that restrictive eating disorders like anorexia are on the rise. They’re not a modern disorder, but they do seem to be increasing. It’s possible some of this is from the increased availability of food–it can become more obvious when someone was intentionally skipping meals, and thus, more diagnosable. Media and advertising probably play a role, though I’m guessing we overestimate in what proportion of cases this is true.

Recently, I’ve been tossing around a third contributing factor as to why younger generations have both higher levels of eating disorders (the clinical stuff) and disordered eating (neurosis around food or weird food behaviors).

Besides what appears to be thinner body ideals in media and particularly zealous dieting and calorie counting,* what else has changed in cultural food-behaviors?

Food was something you could analyze on appearance: was it healthy, and how much of it. So everyone could pretty well guess that if they were eating stuff that was somewhat plant-based and not too much, they were doing it right. Achieve both of those things, and you had a healthy meal. Even with the emphasis on calories, you could map those numbers onto the food you saw: did it look like it was mostly veggies and fruits? Low calorie.

But, for the more recent generations, there’s been a focus on ‘organic’ and ‘all-natural’ and ‘non-genetically-modified’.

And now you can look at an apple, or a nice salad, and there’s this nebulous, value that is or isn’t there, and you cannot see it. You cannot know. You cannot even taste it. Organic is not an appearance-based characteristic, and yet it has assigned value–or it did, for many of us growing up. You could be eating healthily (by the previous definition) and still be ‘poisoning’ your body. In fact, as a facebook commenter mentioned, it’s framed in terms of ‘purity’. You’re making the ‘responsible’ decision. Organic mac’n’cheese is morally better than regular macaroni. It’s pure, free of ‘toxins’ and ‘chemicals’

Eating disorders seem to come as a flavor of obsessive disorders. One illustration of obsessions is hand-washing. The sufferer washes their hands once, but they might still be dirty so they wash again, over and over again. Deciding not to wash means flooding with distress and aversion. Given the choice between washing one more time and an indefinite time of overwhelming anxiety, the choice seems simple.

A subtype of obsessiveness is that of scrupulosity–pathological investment in doing the correct thing in a moral or religious sense. It can look like obsessive religiosity or anxiety over being good, or utter decision paralysis about what the correct/moral choice is.

And you can see each of these play out in eating disorders. Condiments are a not uncommon one–where food is only okay if nothing is added to it. A burger is fine, but a burger with ketchup and mayo is unacceptably aversive. I had something similar with whole milk, where even a sip of coffee whole milk was Bad, but a cup of coffee with skim was a daily routine.

And I have to wonder if hearing from a young age, or growing up with the idea that food can look fine but have secret poisons in it, and that most food fails at being this kind of Good isn’t contributing to disordered eating. It’s not that I wonder if people are developing eating disorders because they’re trying to only eat food that’s organic and not genetically modified,** though I suppose that could happen. More that I wonder if the secondary message that food can be unseeably bad, that you can’t just ‘win’ by eating smaller portions and low calorie food, that there’s a third axis of what makes Good food to obsess over. We’ve added a moral component to everything we eat, and that seems to easily play into and fuel the scrupulosity bit of obsessiveness.


*This is one of my pet peeves and it seems to be unhelpful

**I’m using it in the colloquial sense here, as people do when they protest GMOs in petitions and such. 

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Harebrained Ideas About Moralizing and Food

  1. “Food was something you could analyze on appearance: was it healthy, and how much of it. So everyone could pretty well guess that if they were eating stuff that was somewhat plant-based and not too much, they were doing it right. Achieve both of those things, and you had a healthy meal. Even with the emphasis on calories, you could map those numbers onto the food you saw: did it look like it was mostly veggies and fruits? Low calorie.”

    Um, this sounds like a highly naive view. What time period are you talking about here? When was this golden age of widespread responsible healthy eating of non-processed foods? From my reading I seem to remember dietary habits during the ages have tended to be more along the lines of: 1) you eat whatever you can grow. 2) you eat whatever you can afford. People ate vegetables and fruit a lot because they couldn’t afford meat. Poor people had better teeth and were slim, because they couldn’t afford sugar or expensive high-calorie foods and they had a lot of physical excercise in their work, while rich people were often obese and unhealthy because they weren’t limited in the food they could eat, while at the same time not necessarily being required to excert themselves physically.

    I can’t really see a rural peasant in the 18C sitting down and thinking “gosh, let’s have the soup with all the vegetables in it today, that’s healthier” instead of “I can’t wait till I get my teeth into a nice fat hunk of meat, pity I don’t own a cow. Oh well it’s vegetable soup today instead.”

    And there will have been variations in this over the centuries, as well as changes to people’s view of what it is to be “healthy”… The past hundred years are in a way unique in that large segments of populations have been able to eat whatever they want, actually choose which kind of meat or vegetable they want to eat and in what amounts instead of just eating whatever they could afford or was seasonally available.

    1. Mmm, sorry, for some reason I didn’t get notifications of this comment. I meant really specifically in the generation immediately prior to mine. (This is partially why the note in the first paragraph about it only recently being true that food was pretty widely and obviously available in stores)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s