Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics.
It’s common for people to discuss food as an ethical issue, whether it’s because of animal rights or because of the obesity epidemic and the cost of health care. What people don’t tend to focus on is that food can hugely influence mood, mental health, and overall life quality, meaning that what we choose to eat can create pleasure or pain. That means food has the possibility to enhance people’s lives, and it’s rare that we factor that into our moral calculus.
How Does Food Enhance Your Life?
Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life, and really bad food experiences will stick with you for a long time (my brother once got sick eating pancakes and still refuses them).
Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Think about a fantastic Christmas or Thanksgiving you had with the people you love; chances are it involved food. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, at least some of the time. Especially if you’re someone who has not had enough food in the past, it can be a source of shame, anxiety, or simply high emotion.
There are dozens of examples of the ways we use food emotionally; when someone is sad we buy them chocolate. When we want to celebrate we go out for dinner. If we want to motivate someone we may promise them a treat. We may withhold ice cream from a child who is misbehaving. All of these types of behaviors show a complex, emotional relationship with food.
The Morality of Emotions and Food
For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating.
Of course something is not moral or not based exclusively on whether it feels good, the joy that people get out of their experiences deserves a place in our ethical calculus.
Intersectionality: Mental Illness and Food
Where this really starts to chap my ass is when we’re talking about food ethics and mental health. These internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.
Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.
Other Mental Illnesses
But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. While some people use food in a negative way to hide from their problems, it is possible to use positive food experiences in a healthy therapeutic program that is also dealing with root causes and working on larger coping strategies.
I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.
For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think.
My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.
Empathy for Mental Illnesses
This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem ridiculous to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we shame people for taking joy where they can get it.
For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.
Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.
While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.