Food, language and morality

13th March 2019

Food, language and morality

In our final meeting of the academic year, in this session we explored how people use language to imply the morality of eating habits and food choices. Examples of this language usage include clean eating, guilty sins and comfort food. There has been some suggestion in the media that this sort of language can influence the development of eating-related disorders.

We first explored why these sorts of terms would become popular. It was thought that the use of this type of language (e.g., clean eating) helps provide simple ways of thinking about how to eat and reduce the complexity of how to eat healthily. Humans generally are cognitive misers and where possible want to reduce effort, so it is possible that the term ‘clean’ or ‘sin’ provide simple heuristics for people to understand what types of food they should eat and what others they should potentially avoid. These terms are also easy to understand and can help formulate social representations around certain types of food. By anchoring types of food into ‘clean’ or ‘sin’ it provides a simple representation for people to understand eating choices. Another example of how people have tried to reduce the effort in thinking about eating is through traffic light systems that are often observed on food in UK supermarkets. Through the use of colour (e.g., green for good, red for bad), it provides a simple way of thinking about how people can consider eating healthily without engaging effort.

We then explored why this type of thinking may be problematic, and how it could for some lead to the development of eating-based disorders. Firstly, it was noted that this reduction in effort about eating habits could mean that people do not acquire enough knowledge about healthy eating and a balanced diet. For example, traffic lights or terms such as ‘clean’ eating will not necessary provide someone with a balanced diet which could inadvertently lead to health problems. This could especially be the case amongst those who are high in need for closure (e.g., are motivated to have rigid, clear-cut thinking).

Second, it was thought that eating-based disorders may also derive from issues over the need for control or self-esteem. As humans have a need to feel in control, possibly due to existential-based concerns, it was thought that this could potentially manifest in ways that people sought to have high levels of control over their eating that could lead to the development of eating disorders. Moreover, the need for self-esteem is also a vital motive, and often people can derive self-worth from their appearance. It may be that people end of striving for self-esteem in a potentially destructive manner by trying to obtain a highly valued physical appearance. This may particularly be an issue amongst females where media exposure of the female appearance may espouse unrealistically high standards of beauty.

Nicole Dady