OPINION: For the love of God, can we please stop moralizing food?

A drawing of two hands holding cupcakes, touching the treats together in a “toast.”
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

CW: Mentions of eating disorders

Last week, TSL published an opinion piece entitled “5C administration and student leaders should cut back on the sweets.” In addition to harmful, moralizing rhetoric, this article includes misleading claims about sugar as an addictive substance. I want to debunk the claim that sugar is addictive and break down the ways in which moralizing food can lead to restriction and disordered eating.

The study most commonly used as evidence by people wishing to posit sugar as an addictive substance, which was published in 2005, was conducted on rats, not humans. A 2016 meta-analysis entitled “Sugar addiction: the state of the science” found “little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans.”

I get it, we all want to write an article that people will read, and sometimes that means adding some dramatic flair. But hacking down a nuanced scientific study to its most outrageous possible claim is simply bad journalism. In addition, when taking it into your hands to endorse a restrictive diet, it’s especially important to really do your research, not just find a scary-sounding phrase and call it a day.

However, more than being wrong, this article is actually harmful. By comparing sugar to hard drugs, the author ethicizes inherently innocuous food and the people who consume it. This moralization of foods is dangerous because eating disorders start with a narrative and oftentimes that narrative labels certain foods or ingredients as harmful and to be avoided. Therefore, articles like these, among other factors, serve to contribute to eating disorders in our community.

The author posits his concern for sugar as a concern for public health at large. The so-called “doom and gloom” section of his article contains 1980s-American-political-ad levels of fear-mongering. By cherry-picking the most alarming statistics, Gray leads his reader to fear sugar, providing a nice slippery slope for you to slide down, from eating a free doughnut to dying of heart disease.

The author of the original piece misattributes binge eating to “sugar addiction.” The source for this claim is a web page with no listed author, that cites absolutely zero scientific studies and also lists “love addiction” and “relationship addiction” as possible addictions a person can have on other pages on the website. Perhaps — and I’m going out on a limb here — this website may not be the most reliable source of factual information.

As someone who has actually experienced Binge Eating Disorder, I know that avoiding a food and labeling it as ‘bad’ will likely lead only to wanting that food more and binging on it when it becomes available. This view is shared by the vast majority of nutritionists and supported by the 2019 review in the Journal of Eating Disorders, which found that dieting and restrictive eating have been, among other factors, repeatedly shown to contribute to binge eating.

I don’t see any benefit to attempting to preach to students the need to “cut back on the sweets” like some kind of judgemental grandmother. Perhaps clubs and organizations should include sugar-free options in their spreads in order to help increase accessibility to students with diabetes and other dietary restrictions. However, that doesn’t mean we need to moralize sugar and avoid it like the plague.

We’ve all been influenced by the culture in which we’ve been raised and for many of us, that means being surrounded by a lot of rhetoric that assigns moral values to certain foods (how many times have you seen a product labeled “guilt-free” because it was sugar-free or low-fat?). The good news is that we can challenge these influences. We can recognize rhetoric in our minds (and in our student newspapers) that tells us certain foods are dangerous or to be avoided. Similarly, we can interrupt the spread of this rhetoric in our community. If a friend says “I’ve been so bad, I’ve had three brownies today,” you can say, “There’s nothing wrong with eating brownies!” Food is just food, and when it comes to what you eat, you should listen to your body’s unique wants and needs and let others do the same.

In a school filled with high-achieving people in an area of the world where beauty is at a premium, we are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. In order to tackle this public health issue, we must be willing to engage in dialogue and challenge harmful rhetoric and misinformation where it emerges. We must support ourselves and one another, rather than policing each other’s food intake.

I’ll leave you with this: There is nothing wrong with eating sugar and you are not morally superior because you ate an apple instead of a cupcake.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, Project Heal (www.theprojectheal.org) can help you find and afford professional treatment. 

Cecelia Blum SC ’24 is an English major from Denver. She likes platform shoes and arguing.

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