An important part of intuitive eating is challenging the food police. Realizing that we assign moral value to foods is the first step in overcoming the food police. (Photo courtesy Mimi Cole)
An important part of intuitive eating is challenging the food police. Realizing that we assign moral value to foods is the first step in overcoming the food police. (Photo courtesy Mimi Cole)

Intuitive Eating With Mimi: How food became a moral issue

The ways we learned to define our personal worth by the foods we eat, and how we can change our perspective

October 11, 2019

(Photo courtesy Mimi Cole)

Over time, our society has begun to associate morality with food. This concept was proposed by Dr. Alan Levinovitz who studied how morality has entered the health and wellness realm. Attention to food has become a sort of religion for people with the glorification of certain ways of eating, the demonizing of certain foods and weight and the assignment of terms like natural, sinful and guilt to the food we eat and the bodies we exist in. 

The fourth principal of intuitive eating is to challenge the food police. Challenge thoughts that say some foods are bad and others are good. Get curious about your fears and avoidance of food groups, and why you might do that. Begin listening to your body’s intuition of what it is craving. Learning to navigate the divide between what you want and what your brain tells you is “good” is an important step to becoming an intuitive eater. 

One of the problems with labeling food with moral value is that it tends to further divide people based on underlying class distinctions. Those who can afford “healthy” organic foods are considered morally superior and viewed more positively. On the other hand, those with less access to more nutrient dense, societally labeled “good “ foods are further ostracized for nourishing their bodies with the food they have.

Furthermore, what we eat does not say anything about who we are. Instead, what we eat displays what we believe is the best nourishment for our bodies. If food had moral value, then I would have been “good” my first year for all of the “superfoods” I aimed to eat, and “bad” this year because I learned how to have a more flexible relationship with food. However, I am neither good nor bad because of the foods that I eat. 

A flexible and intuitive relationship with food requires letting go of old rules around food. Scrutinizing our food choices and labeling them as bad has a taxing relationship on our bodies as well. Our hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA) stress system is activated through perceived stress, which can include fear and worry around the foods we eat. Chronic stress can lead to the overactivation of our body’s stress system, and result in inflammation due to constant worrying about food.  

Unlearning old beliefs and challenging the food police is a long process. It takes a lot of hard-work, but I promise you it is so worth it. Being able to look at foods as neutral and understanding that they have no bearing on our goodness and value frees us to nourish our bodies emotionally, physically and mentally. Food morality is learned, and with time and practice challenging the thoughts of the food police, it can be unlearned. 

Challenging the food police at Vanderbilt can be difficult because of the lack of body diversity on our campus. Looking around campus, I see so much thin privilege (we’ll discuss this more later), and it can be hard to be okay in our own bodies. Being surrounded by people with smaller bodies can make people feel like their bodies need to be smaller or changed through diets. The food police can easily show up when you are constantly comparing your body to others. There is, however, hope for body acceptance and learning to eat all the foods to nourish and satisfy our bodies. Here are some ways to start challenging the food police:

  1. When you hear people talking about being “bad” for “cheating” on their diets, think about the implications of phrases like these.How do they affect people’s sense of self-worth and feelings about their morality?
  2. Create a list of your beliefs around “good” and “bad” foods and try to come up with some positive things each of these foods provide. For example, instead of viewing pizza as bad, think about how it has a great balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat, all of which help our bodies function optimally. 
  3. Don’t do it alone. There are support groups that meet in Nashville and online to learn more about how to challenge the food police in your own life. Finding support in other people who were working to heal their own relationship with food and their bodies really made a difference for me in the beginning of my journey to becoming an intuitive eater. I also recommend reading the Intuitive Eating book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

The food police can show up in many different ways: telling us not to eat certain foods, encouraging restriction and using fear-mongering to create a false sense of goodness and being “better” than others. The truth is, goodness is the kindness we show to others, the way we work with excellence and the passions we have in our lives. “Bad” is when we hurt others intentionally, refuse to recognize others’ humanity and treat them with dignity. It has nothing to do with the foods that we eat. 

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Evelyn Tribole
2 years ago

Great article on our work, Mimi! We have so much work to do on dismantling diet culture, including the need for radical inclusivity.