Food Shame: The Morality of Eating

Last week in my Paleo f(x) post, I shared that my favorite presentation I did at the event, “Tweaking the Recipe to Create an Awesome Life,” discussed my evolving philosophy on moderation for the sake of the bigger life picture. Mark’s Daily Apple reader His Dudeness commented that it’s becoming more common to conflate morality and food choice. Already being in the mode of the f(x) talk, this topic piqued my interest. Far beyond those quaint (and deluded) labels about fat content, today we see phrases like guilt-free, low carbon, humane, and fair trade. The grocery aisle has become a dizzying ethical landscape.

No matter how well we think we’re doing in terms of responsible eating choices (e.g. grass-fed beef), somebody turns around and brags that they’re eating a pastured heritage beef breed. If we’re of a particularly sensitive or maybe just competitive nature, suddenly we’re sucked into a Portlandia version of social shame and ethical hell. How did we exchange sanity for perfectionism, and how do we find our way back? When it comes to making simple food decisions, where do we draw the line between putting helpful knowledge into practice and putting ourselves through a moral gauntlet?

The fact is, eating isn’t a simple enterprise anymore. As with many things in life these days, we can feel like we know too much. This kind of food destroys the forests. That type of food is harvested by people who live in these unjust conditions. If you buy X product, you’re supporting this destructive agricultural or trade practice. And that doesn’t even touch the less political, more personal shaming inherent in those heinous and blistering assumptions like “Well, if you had any respect for your body you wouldn’t touch that,” or “You really must not care what you look like.” I’d say to avoid hanging out with these people at all costs, but the fact is, our worst critics are often ourselves.

Unfortunately, if you scrutinize long and deep enough, just about any food choice can put you on the shame train. Seriously, at some point, we have to refuse to ride anymore.

These days if you spend too much time reading, researching and listening to hype media, you’ll feel the weight of the world on your shoulders with every bite or drink you take. It’s easy to wish for ignorance some days. If only food – not to mention the whole agribusiness complex – weren’t so complicated. If only a meal could be a freaking meal again…

Grok didn’t have to deal with all this mental and moral flack. Can’t I enjoy a steak without justifying my apparently selfish existence over it? Can I have a salad without feeling guilty over the dead and displaced animals who lost their homes (or lives) because of agricultural expansion? And, damn it all, can I have one cookie without the paleo police, other dietary authority or random pain-in-the-butt stranger adding his/her two cents?

I get that any dietary approach, Primal included, naturally moves us toward favoring some foods over others. We learn what certain foods do to our bodies (good and bad) because of their nutrient content, their processing, their added ingredients, etc. An approach may, as Primal does, note the conditions under which food – whether plant or animal source – is raised and even the impact certain choices have on the larger environment. To me, this is all knowledge, all information we can use the way we wish to make decisions that fit our overall needs and perhaps to shape our personal values.

Values… It can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people. For some people, they revolve more around political principles. For others, “no/minimal harm” priorities come to mind with animal welfare or environmental concerns taking precedence. Maybe it’s a serious investment in health integrity, an interest in worker rights or even a strict adherence to religious directives.

No matter what the subject, we try to live our lives in alignment with our personal values. They’re priorities, but that’s not the same as dogma. I personally see alignment as gravitation. We naturally gravitate toward those choices that are in alignment with our values because we experience homeostasis when we do. Our lives are generally or increasingly congruent with our priorities, and there’s a certain peace in that.

For example, my values support optimizing health for the greatest number and promoting sustainability whenever reasonable. Since I have the resources to buy all my food from ethically and sustainably raised sources, I do that. I also choose to financially back companies like Thrive Market that seek to make these healthier options available to more people. For me, that’s living (and investing) close to my center as I’ve personally defined it.

Yet, I’m sure countless critics could find a thousand things “wrong” with me as defined by their perception of my food choices – eating certain favorite things that have to be shipped across the country if not the world, eating too much meat, having a dessert at a party two weeks ago, etc.

For the absolutist thinking of some critics (external or internal), progress is the enemy of perfection. Instead of living in gravitation to values, they would impose a guilt-ridden tyranny of shoulds, musts and failings.

We are only as good as the righteousness of our last food choice according to this approach. Our choices become our endorsements, and our identities get wrapped up in those endorsements. The “cleaner” our diet, the cleaner and more godly we are as people.

This is where the wheels come off the bus for me. I’m not joining that guilt trip, thank you very much. And, by the way, am I the only one who finds this path exhausting?

Unfortunately, many people can sometimes reject legitimate issues around food choice as a result of overwrought moralism. Crap food companies even capitalize on the aggressive pushback by promoting hedonistic, devil-may-care attitudes. The whole push and pull becomes it’s own perpetual circus of crazy-making.

We can choose to live in this interminable conflict, or we can choose to live outside of it. Rather than try to compete or race to keep up or disown our desires, we can center ourselves in our values, our needs, our understanding and our circumstances. In the confluence of these, we find our center – the sanest place to live and choose from.

I highly suggest learning about your food – for your own welfare and even that of others. Yet, I also highly suggest leaving any kind of shame, comparison and justification out of the equation. Trust yourself to make decisions based on solid information and not emotional bait. It’s a saner and more sustainable perspective – thoughtfully choosing your food rather than morally identifying yourself with it.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are you thoughts on the morality of food as it’s preached today? Share your thoughts in the comment board, and have a good end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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