There are so many foods that society considers to be either “good” or “bad.” Potato chips, candy, and fried chicken might fall into the “bad,” category while nut milks, bone broth, and avocado might be considered “good.”
But should foods really be categorized in this way? Most experts say no. When we limit or avoid certain foods based on a belief system that holds food to a particular standard, we are assigning moral value to the food, and this in itself can become an issue.
“People should remove labels and morality from their food choices,” says Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES, an eating disorder dietitian in New York City. “Food is just food. When we challenge our food judgments and look at food more neutrally, we can begin to listen to our bodies to make food decisions, rather than rely on external cues to make them for us.”
While there’s an expectation to feel better about your food choices by believing you’re choosing good food and avoiding the bad ones, the problem is, this is not a recommended or healthy way to make food choices. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and here’s why.
What Does Moral Virtue of Food Mean?
When food marketers make claims that certain foods are superior or healthier because they are organic or have been processed a certain way, that is assigning moral virtue to food. The marketing team wants to convey that their food is better for you and you are a better or a healthier person for eating it. When in reality, these foods are not necessarily “better” than other foods on the market.
In the same way that food manufacturers can assign morality to food, social media influencers, celebrities, and even your friends and family can do the same. For instance, growing up in a household that swore off sugar—or food and beverages containing sugar—is labeling those foods as being “bad” or forbidden.
“Moral virtue of food assigns morality—good or bad, virtuous or shameful—to foods,” says Sarah Skovran, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at plantpoweredteens.org. “Typically, a virtuous food is one that is considered more healthful or is produced a certain way, whereas a shameful food may have fewer micronutrients or be something that is currently a fad to avoid…The implication is that the person eating that food is, therefore, either virtuous or shameful.”
Sarah Skovran, RDN
Moral virtue of food assigns morality—good or bad, virtuous or shameful—to foods.
— Sarah Skovran, RDN
But it doesn’t end there. A moral value assigned to food is not only applied to whether or not a food or food group is healthy or not. It also can be assigned to foods deemed better than others based on one or more qualities. When this happens, this is often referred to as a health halo.
“A health halo is what happens when a food is considered healthy (or even morally virtuous) based on something specific about the food, generally not taking the entire nutrition picture of the food into account,” says Skovran.
Food producers and manufacturers often try to acquire a health halo as a marketing technique to get people to buy their product and feel good about eating it, says Jaspan. “For example, gluten-free products often are perceived with a health halo. However, unless you have celiac disease (or gluten sensitivity) and need to avoid gluten, gluten-free products are not better or worse for you than regular products.”
From a mental health perspective, the moralization of food is in direct association with eating disorders.
“Companies make billions of dollars off of convincing society that food and bodies are inherently moral or immoral,” says Savannah Hipes, LCSW, a mental health professional in Florida. “When we consider these moral beliefs—western ideals of self-control, self-denial of physical desires, and even fasting to show dependence on a higher power—we see how food gets assigned moral virtue.”
You can also see how someone with an eating disorder might try to achieve those ideals through disordered eating, Hipes says. For some people, obtaining personal identity, meaning in life, and a sense of moral worth is attempted through the control of one’s body and eating behaviors, she adds.
Why Do People Assign a Moral Virtue to Food
Many people don’t realize they have assigned a moral virtue to food or given it a health halo. They’re simply following what they believe to be true—because of what they have been told, read on the packaging, or found online.
“In a society impacted by diet culture, [pursuing] health can make a person feel morally superior,” says Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Assigning moral virtue or a health halo to food is also a very effective promotional tool…[It] influences consumer perceptions of that food, thereby increasing its purchasing and consumption.”
Food labels often contain wording and claims about the nutritional value of a product for sales purposes. Choosing food based on these claims, or health halos, can cause the consumer to feel like they have made a superior choice, which further cements the moral virtue of the food.
According to Skovran, people are more likely to accept or assign values to food because they like having a guideline to follow. Believing “this is good” or “this is bad” is easy and straightforward. They also like what eating moral foods or foods with health halos say about them—that they are healthy, smart, or have self-control, she says.
Risks of Assigning a Moral Virtue to Food
At first glance, assigning moral virtue to food may appear harmless—especially because by doing so you are trying to make nutritious food choices. But when you are restricting yourself from foods you enjoy or limiting your diet to only certain foods, this approach could lead to any number of issues. Here are some of the risks that come from labeling your foods “good” and “bad.”
May Validate Disordered Eating Behaviors
When you restrict foods or certain food groups, you may put yourself at risk. For instance, you could lose muscle mass or experience gaps in your nutrition. Repetitive restrictive habits or limiting intake of certain foods may lead to disordered eating.
“Health is far more complex than what a person eats,” says Laing. “Placing moral virtue on food can validate disordered eating behaviors and perpetuate the harmful effects of dieting. Intentionally avoiding foods [you consider] bad, junk, or unhealthy foods can actually lead to overeating, cycles of weight loss and regain, a disruption in menstrual cycles, and unhealthy views about food and your body.”
May Promote All-Or-Nothing Thinking
Significantly restricting foods can leave you feeling deprived and lead to thinking more often about foods you have made off-limits. Then, one taste of the “bad” food and you are suddenly berating yourself for falling off the wagon.
Being restrictive with your eating patterns can actually have the opposite effect of what you want to accomplish and can lead to overeating—especially when you feel like you have failed in some way. When this happens, this is called all-or-nothing thinking.
Instead, you are far better off enjoying food and focusing on your fullness cues. Doing so, will help you build a healthy relationship with food and avoid binges that make you feel off kilter.
May Increase Feelings of Shame or Negativity
When you attach labels to food—like healthy and unhealthy—you are not honoring your own instincts, preferences, and needs when it comes to food and eating, says Skovran.
“Foods that are seen as shameful can also become forbidden and therefore can become part of the binge-restrict cycle where you try not to eat something, give up and eat a lot of it, feel shame, and then decide to restrict again,” she says.
Moralizing food—and in some aspects health—is a primary factor in the development of disordered eating, says Hipes.
How Experts Recommend Viewing Food
Changing your belief system about food is the best way to shift away from placing moral value on food. In fact, most experts recommend adopting the mindset that “all foods fit” in a balanced diet.
While some foods may be more nutritious than others, there are no good or bad foods, healthy or unhealthy—just nutritious and less nutritious. Food is for nourishment, but it is also for enjoyment. Eating food that you enjoy is important to your health, body weight, and well-being.
“Food is fuel and a pleasure,” says Skovran. “But it doesn’t always have to be both. Sometimes we eat only because we’re hungry and need something, and sometimes we eat because we want something even if we’re not hungry. Nutrients are important, but so is the enjoyment factor.”
A great place to start is by avoiding the terms good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, and junk food, when discussing foods with others or engaging in self-talk, suggests Laing. Considering foods as forbidden or unhealthy can make you feel guilty when you end up craving that food even more. But, a person’s nutritional needs are highly individualized and change based on age, activity patterns, health conditions, and medications, she says.
“Also, be wary of social media messages or any advertisements that tell you to avoid certain foods—without advice from your healthcare provider—or that a single food or product is going to provide you with the missing link to perfect health,” Laing says.
A Word From Verywell
It’s natural to gravitate toward belief systems that make you feel good about your choices. But assigning moral value to food or giving it a health halo may lead you to make choices that do not align with your nutritional or emotional needs. This approach can become restricting—especially when it impacts your social life, your enjoyment, or your relationship with food.
Instead, conisder an “all foods fit” approach. You will find much more freedom and enjoyment when it comes to eating. And if you need help changing your perceptions of certain foods, a registered dietitian or a mental health professional can help you identify an eating plan that is nourishing and enjoyable as well as guilt-free.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a health halo?
A health halo is a positive health association assigned to a food or food group that entices someone to choose that food over others. A good example would be that plant-based milks (like almond milk or oat milk) are superior and better for your body than cow’s milk.
What does a balanced diet look like?
A balanced diet includes a variety of foods, meets your nutrition needs, and satisfies you. A balanced diet ensures your body is nourished as well as your mind.
Does eating a balanced diet mean you have to eliminate certain foods?
It is not recommended to eliminate any foods or food groups on a balanced diet. Balance your day with nutrient-dense foods and sprinkle in some more indulgent things when you feel like it.