Tips for Removing Morality from Food

November 17, 2023

Whether it be through advertising, social media, or even within supermarkets, we as people seem to continuously assign moral values to food. A practice that can be pretty harmful.

What are food morality labels?

Food morality is when we intentionally or unintentionally categorize food as “good” or “bad” which in essence assigns a moral value to food. It can also extend to considering foods as “clean” or “organic” and by contrast “junk” or “fatty.”

This tells us that if we eat the foods that are “good” then we are “good” and our behaviors are also “good.” But if we eat foods that are “bad” then we are “being bad” and our behaviors are “bad.”

Generally speaking, fruit, vegetables, and unprocessed foods are assigned in the “good” and “wholesome” categories, while processed foods and desserts are described as “guilty pleasures” or “junk food.”

Why do we need to stop applying morality to food?

Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” essentially adds additional shameful barriers to eating. If someone is trying to eat, and is struggling due to mental or physical conditions, they don’t need the added shame of feeling guilty for eating something that is “bad.”

Any food is better than no food at all. The assumption that weight and eating habits directly affect moral character can lead to fears about gaining weight, food-related anxiety, and food avoidance. This can result in the development of disordered eating behaviors and contribute to the onset of eating disorders.

Restricting foods can make you feel deprived, causing you to think more often about “bad” foods. When you do eat a “forbidden” food, you reason that if you’ve “failed”, you may as well fail “big” and consume a large amount of “junk.” This is known as “all-or-nothing” thinking, which is a common cognitive distortion in those with eating disorders, particularly bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Even if you don’t struggle with an eating disorder, you can still be part of the harmful narrative that contributes to the disordered eating of others around you. The way we talk about eating, food, exercising, and our bodies is picked up by friends, children, siblings, parents, co-workers, and our community. That means if you are labeling a food or eating practice as “bad” or “good” others around you may pick up on that, and carry that shameful label, even if you are talking about it in a way that’s positive for you. For example, when you talk about a new diet you’re on to your friends, and label certain foods as “avoid foods,” you may be unintentionally shaming those around you who enjoy eating those foods. That language and shame may stick with them the next time they eat that food.

In addition, there are many barriers to always eating “clean” or “healthy” foods, such as financial barriers, a lack of time to prepare meals, or even access to food. We are not all on an equal playing field, and people should not be shamed for eating the food they have access to, that they need to fuel their body.

Orthorexia nervosa: an obsession with “healthy” eating

People with orthorexia nervosa (ON), often simply called orthorexia, are products of the way our society assigns moral value to food. Though not an officially-recognized condition, ON is an eating disorder strongly associated with attaching moral values to food. Those with the eating disorder are obsessed with “healthy” eating, only consuming foods that they perceive to be “clean” and “pure.”

A person with orthorexia may continue to restrict their food intake, avoiding “bad” or “unhealthy” foods, which puts them at an increased risk of developing nutritional deficiencies, which can lead to thyroid problems, chronic fatigue, blood disorders, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and more.

Tips for redefining how we talk and think about food

Here are some tips for reframing the way you think and speak about food:

  • Learn to live in the gray: Instead of “all or nothing” or “black and white” thinking, learn to think in shades of gray. This means accepting that all foods in moderation can be part of a balanced diet.
  • Focus on how food makes you feel: Give yourself permission to eat the foods you enjoy and make you feel good, without judgment. Eating and enjoying food can be pleasurable. Try to tap into intuitive eating practices.
  • Challenge your food morality views: Identify the foods that carry morality for you and ask yourself questions, such as: who or what is the source of this label? What happens if I eat “good” or “bad” food? How would letting go of these moral labels change my relationship with food? These might be hard to unpack, especially if you have an eating disorder, so consider bringing them up in therapy, or to a professional.
  • Challenge one food label at a time: For many of us, it’s hard to separate these labels from the food. To make the task more manageable, start by challenging one label at a time. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
  • Replace emotionally loaded words: When you find yourself passing judgment on food, replace morality terms with neutral language. For example, if you label pizza as “junk”, think of a neutral descriptive term that could be used instead, such as “cheesy” or “crispy.” Focus on food as fuel, so it might be helpful to think of food in terms of the amount of fuel it provides.

Final Thoughts

To create a positive relationship with food and with eating, we need to remove the concept of morality from food. When we challenge our judgments and look at food more neutrally, we can listen to our bodies, rather than relying on external cues to make food decisions.

The eating disorder specialists at Within Health understand that there is no such thing as “good food” or “bad food”. It’s why the treatment specialists at Within have developed a program that leads with radical self-love, and compassion, in their trauma-informed care for eating disorders. If you’re concerned about eating, or the way you think about food, the team at Within Health is here to support you through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Reach out today.


Within Health is a revolutionary way for the millions of people who suffer from eating disorders to receive clinically-superior continuous care attuned to their needs. Whoever they are, wherever they live, and whatever form their eating disorder takes. Built to work where real life happens, Within treatment is accessible wherever you are, whenever you need.