“Bad Foods” – Control, Punishment and Singling out the Fat Folk

Published May 19, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I’ve been thinking about the number of very public “health experts” that have been advocating total elimination of certain foods or food groups from the diet, either from the diets of children, or from those of fat adults.

There have been plenty over the years, but we’re seeing a rash of them here in Australia at the moment.  The most recent of which was Dr Kerryn Phelps, via her Twitter account.  Dr Samantha Thomas opened up a conversation about it on her blog, The Discourse, over the weekend.

I have also seen it from Michelle Bridges, physical trainer with The Australian Biggest Loser, who talks of guilt over eating “one or two chips”, and decries the consumption of white bread, a sentiment echoed by “non profit organisation” Obesity Prevention Australia.  Not that long ago I heard nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the radio criticising the companies who make packet cake mixes for having photographs of children on the box, because she believes it sends the message to children that it’s OK to eat cake.  Uh-huh, you read correctly.

There have been others as well.

I want to talk about this method of “healthy eating” that advocates the complete elimination of foods because they are considered “junk”.  Junk food seems to be a fairly fuzzy concept in a lot of these cases, and can mean anything from highly processed foods with lots of added artificial ingredients, to anything containing sugar or fat, anything purchased from take-away vendors (prepared, cooked and/or served for you) to any kind of “bad” foodstuffs of the moment – these days, mostly carbohydrates.

These total elimination methods of supposed healthy eating seem to always be aimed at either children or fat adults.  It is rare to seem them recommended for all of society to practice.

It deeply concerns me to see these kinds of diets advocated for children and fat people, for anyone really.

The first thing that disturbs me is how disordered a behaviour it seems.  The connotations of fear, guilt, sin, bad behaviour, evil etc are all methods I know I employed myself while deeply entrenched in an eating disorder.  The idea that certain foods should never be eaten because they are fattening really bothers me.  Of course there will always be things like allergies and intolerances that will mean someone is unable to eat certain foods, not to mention simple dislikes, but the idea that a foodstuff should never pass someone’s lips because it is bad/junk/unhealthy is worrying, and particularly in children where variety is often an issue, and growing bodies have much broader nutritional needs.

Not to mention that it is simply impractical in our lives today to be hyper vigilant and attempt to completely eliminate the foods considered junk from most people’s eating.  The people like Phelps/Bridges/Stanton et al are proposing that children/fat people never be allowed to eat any of these foods.  That is certainly what is implied at least.

I was thinking about our eating history as a culture (and I’m speaking very generally as a white western person, as that is my personal experience – and most likely that of Phelps/Bridges/Stanton etc) and the social implications of total elimination of these foods.  Are these supposed health experts suggesting that a) children and fat people should never eat and b) that they themselves never eat or feed/have fed their children, any of the following:

  • Birthday cake, wedding cake, Christmas cake, or any other celebratory cake.
  • If they are Christians – no fish and chips on Fridays.
  • No birthday parties for children.  Either home catered or those hosted by fast food restaurants.
  • No cakes, biscuits or sweets made by their Mum, Gran, or any other loving family member (none for lunch boxes, none for special occasions, none for visitors)
  • No teenage parties or hanging out.  No pizza, chips, lollies, soft drinks, burgers etc EVER.
  • No food at the cinema.  No choc tops or popcorn.
  • No chocolate, hot cross buns or marshmallows at Easter.
  • No school dances (soft drink usually, sometimes snacks like chips)
  • No pie or hot-dog at the football/cricket/other sporting event.
  • No convenience food (pre or partially-pre made, or frozen, or take-away) for busy times.

These are just a few that have popped into my mind as I write this.  So if these supposed health experts are advocating that parents of children and fat people eliminate these things from their diet, can they say they’ve practiced what they preached themselves?  Particularly those that pride themselves on being thin, or having thin children?  Did they eliminate those things from their children’s diet?  What about when they were children themselves – did their parents eliminate those things from their diet?  Or are they only proposing that other people, particularly fat people and the parents of fat children, operate under such a strict regime?

But what really bothers me about this approach to “healthy eating” is that it is so steeped in control and punishment.  Particularly when it is solely applied to children and fat adults.  There is a sense of belief that every single morsel consumed by children and fat people should be controlled, sanctioned or approved.  It’s someowhat understandable to want to apply this thinking to children, because it is perceived that left to their own devices, children don’t have the skills to make reasonable eating choices yet.  I would dispute this however, most kids, when TRULY left to their own devices, tend to balance choices out if given plenty of options.  But it is particularly insulting to fat people.  It infantilises us, reduces us to being incompetent in making our own decisions in eating and food.

Fat people are seen as so incapable of making responsible food/eating choices that someone needs to intervene.  That we require policing in our food choices.  It also has an element of punishment.  “You have let yourself get so fat, you don’t deserve treats like everyone else.”  That fat people are bad/naughty/sinful so they don’t deserve anything “good”.

This moralising of fatness and food suggests to me that fat adults do not have the right or indeed capability of making decisions as to what they eat.  It makes our bodies and our lives public – when they are indeed private.  What an adult eats or does with their body is their own business and nobody else’s.

All in all, I think it’s high time that supposed health experts like the aforementioned stopped meddling directly in people’s lives and started focusing on real health issues, like adequate and affordable fresh foods for ALL, not just those of higher incomes, as well as safe and encouraging environments for physical activity for ALL, not just those who have the money or who look thin enough to be seen being active in public without offending bigoted people’s eyes.

Perhaps if they focused on these issues, they might actually make some real difference in public health, instead of simply moralising other people’s bodies.


32 comments on ““Bad Foods” – Control, Punishment and Singling out the Fat Folk

  • I sometimes catch myself feeling guilty for eating at all because of my weight. Of course this also happened to me when I was 130 pounds and thought I was fat, and when I had starved myself to 108 pounds (having dental surgery so I couldn’t eat any solid food helped that along) and didn’t think I was fat but thought that if I gained an ounce over 110 pounds I would be on my way to fat. I didn’t hate fat people but I had been so brainwashed that I believed nothing could be worse than being fat myself. It is crazy-think and it is very hard to keep it in check.
    In some ways it sounds like Australia is even more fat-hating than the US. I used to want to visit there someday. Not so much after some of the things I’ve read recently!

    • I wouldn’t say it is more fat hating than any other western nation. I think we have a very active Fat Acceptance community for our population (only about 22 million) so you probably HEAR more about fat stigmatisation from Australians than you might from other nations.

      Put it this way – there are some FAR worse legislative and government instituted fat hatred from the US than we are seeing here in Australia.

      • All in all, we’re probably about equal. Size stigma sucks in every land!
        True, the US has some nasty Nanny State policies. The latest? Some clown thinks that it would be a smart idea to get rid of potatoes in school lunches.

    • According to Rosemary Stanton, she found it problematic that “children would think it’s ok to eat cake”. Not that they might eat too much cake, or that they might eat cake over a healthy meal, but simply that they would think it was “ok to eat cake”.

  • Oh, I can totally believe they are that strict when feeding their own kids, or even themselves. There are plenty of carbophobes out there who just never allow their kids or themselves even a single bite of anything remotely resembling starch or sugar, and warn the children of imminent descent into hell should they do so. (Presumably these kids have eaten such things on the sly and found out otherwise, but never mind.)

    What I can’t believe is that they themselves were raised exactly that way, that they were never, even once, treated to an ice cream cone or movie popcorn anywhere when they were kids. I can tell you that as a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, nobody was doing that, not with their kids, not even if they were on some no-carb diet themselves. Probably not very common in the 1980s, either, since those were the “eat all the carbs you want but don’t eat fat” years.

    • I was born in 1974 and I was brought up like that. No cake, no sugar, nothing sweet, no “junk”, no fruit juice, no soft drinks, no ice cream, all vegetables except potatoes eaten raw. Once I hit puberty, my meals were also cut in half and I was made to eat different (and lower fat, lower carb, lower everything except water) meals to the rest of the family. So it’s not just a generational thing…it’s just becoming normalised, and that’s scary.

      • Lilac – I had the same experience, not quite s harsh as your food, but I always had to eat differently from the other kids in our family. All that served to do is to teach me to sneak food and eat it in the bathroom. I always had potato chips in my pocket or a couple of oreos in the wasitband of my shorts. All the other kids could eat whatever they wanted to. I’m sorry this happened to you.

      • Oh, I can believe fat kids being singled out and not allowed any treats ever, and that sucks in its own special way. And there were definitely households where such treats were allowed only on rare occasions (mine was one).

        I should have amended that to clarify; what I meant was that it wasn’t common for all kids to be disallowed any treats ever, no starches of any kind, not even once a year on their birthdays, for fear that they will become fat. Heck, the real hard-core carbophobes don’t even allow their kids potatoes. Brrrr.

    • I actually don’t believe they were that strict with their kids (I think both Phelps and Stanton have adult children). After all, their children were/are THIN.

  • You’re right Kath – “they” are just setting these poor kids up for eating disorders – sneaking food, thinking of certain foods as BAD, just putting too much into their heads. I don’t think I have spent a single moment of my life, until very recently, without constantly thinking about caloric value of foods, carbs, points, good, bad, ugly, whatever. My brain needs a damn break! There has absolutely got to be more to life than this.

    What these so called “experts” are doing is destroying lives. We were all put on this earth for a purpose. Those of us who were/are raised to think we have a flaw or have to be a certain size or eat a certain way to be successful, lose sight of that purpose and a lot of us never live up to our full potential. We are too damn busy trying to fit to do anything else.

    What really sucks is that after years and years of struggle, hurting ourselves by over-exercising, starving, not eating whole food groups, etc., etc., not only are we still fat, but we haven’t done anthing else.

    I will be 49 in a few months and I have finally come to a place in my life where I am looking “outside” of my physical being. I have things to do, I have unexplored talents – I want to live and love and do for as many years as I have left.

    Thanks for posting this – it’s such a blessing to know that we are not isolated in our thoughts and struggles.

  • Oh and I just heard on the news that anti-fatties (or so called nutrition experts) and trying to have Ronald McDonald’s image banned from all McDonald’s advertising. They think Ronald is causing us all to stop and buy fast food – naum naum naum naum! Idiots!!!!

  • But Kath! If they stop policing fat bodies, then they HAVE to think about things like giving poor people access to ‘good’ foods! If they continue to get everyone to join in chastising bad, bad poor and not-white people for having bigger bodies than rich white people, then it’s all the fault of the brown people with no money and the system can remain precisely as it is!

    Don’t you understand anything, you silly person?

  • They’re also not taking into consideration culture and ethnicity, where food is not only something to be enjoyed, it’s a way of bringing families and communities together, especially in Black, Italian and Hispanic/Latino families, and many white Southern families. Paula Deen’s recipes alone would send these healthist fat-shamers, whom I’m going to assume are mostly white and live upscale lifestyles, clutching for their pearls.

    Restricting and policing food is not the answer for those that don’t have food allergies and other harmful physical reactions. Leaving people alone and letting them choose for themselves is the answer. It’s not anyone’s business what we eat and if it does cause problems down the line, that’s between the person and their chosen doctor. We’ve got other issues to worry about than constantly griping about fat kids and adults eating ice cream or a slice of pizza. Get a life!

    • lifeonfats, I think food bringing people together is an absolutely basic human thing in all cultures – in fact, some anthropologists claim that sharing food may well have been a crucial factor in the development of early human tribes, and a way of signifying trust. If this is true, the frequent suggestion that people trying to lose weight should learn to ‘socialize in ways that don’t involve food’ is not only very recent, but probably missing something crucial about how our social minds work. Maybe I’m unusual, but I’ve always found the way some groups of women bond over not eating rather bizarre.

      Also, I just contributed my don’t-hate-on-fat-kids spiel to a Facebook discussion on the proposed McD’s ban. Not at all sure how that’s going to go down. I’m not a big fan of either McD’s or blatant marketing of anything (not just food) aimed at children, but I feel uneasy about the tone behind this one. Any time anyone talks about anything like this, you get people coming out of the woodwork saying ‘But I enjoy burgers/chips/chocolate/donuts once in a while and I’m thin, why should I be penalized for the fatties with no self-control who eat it at every meal?’ They then usually suggest legislation that will mean fatties can’t buy the treats thin people enjoy. (In moderation, of course, of they wouldn’t be thin. Because people like my thin husband, who’s been known to eat a packet of Jaffa cakes for breakfast, don’t exist. Do they?)

  • This post, so much. I seriously have nothing further to add to this post since I know how fuzzy the definition of “junk food” is and how it usually means “things that children and teenagers enjoy/things that are cheap”. I have yet to figure out why those definitions make me twitch.

  • Just one thing.

    Don’t tell me that I am a bad parent because of what I choose to feed my children. I am doing my bloody best!!!

    Great post.

  • I have enjoyed your blog for a while now and have such respect for you, and the smart commenters, too. Every person deserves respect, happiness, enjoyment of life, and CAKE, whether fat or not.

  • What’s interesting about all these nutrition discussions is that they don’t mention how much food has improved in the last 20 years. As a kid growing up in Australia, processed white bread was the norm, as were a whole lot of other things that would make a nutritionist faint these days. What has changed is that we don’t eat together any more in a structured way the way we used to. Eating meals together has always been one of the crucial ways that humans build social bonds and the ritual itself seems to be more important than what is actually served. It’s possible that we’d all be a lot healthier and happier eating white bread jam sandwiches together, than eating gourmet carrots alone. But that doesn’t serve the needs of the almighty economy and so it’s very difficult to achieve any more.

    • Alexie you’ve hit on a really good point there. How much of the poor eating that Australians (and other Westerners do) is because people are time poor and cannot afford to take the time to structure their lives around regular meals? I know when I look back at the foods my grandparents or parents ate, they are the very things that we are told now that are bad/junk/etc. Yet the likes of these health “experts” tell us that children are at more risk NOW and that the obesity rate is supposedly rising?

      I think we’re looking in the wrong place if that’s the case.

  • I have been slowly prying the “this food is good, that one is bad, and that one is forbidden” thinking out of my mind since I decided to stop dieting. I never had an eating disorder as such, but I’m starting to realize how disordered my eating really was.

    Our whole family is getting over a nasty cold with sore throat. Due to food sensitivities, there is exactly one brand and flavor of popsicle that we can all eat without discomfort, and we were getting sick of it. So my husband bought some middle-grade vanilla ice cream.

    Ice cream. Creamy, smooth, tasting of egg and vanilla, ice cold, melting deliciously on the tongue, etc., etc., etc. I suffered through longing daydreams about ice cream for more than a day before I remembered–doofus, you’re not dieting anymore, have some ice cream. By then I had built up the longing for ice cream so much that I had about twice as much as I actually wanted. I felt sick at my stomach and my mouth tasted sour in reaction to the sweetness. Urgh, I thought, next time I want some I will eat it right away and have half as much. So the next time I wanted ice cream, that was what I did. I didn’t feel ill, but my mouth still tasted sour. Hmmm, I thought, and had just a spoonful. And my mouth still tasted sour!

    It turns out that I don’t really like mid-range ice cream and probably never did. But it was ice cream, beautiful forbidden iiiiiice creeeeeeam, so of course I had to eat it.

    Not anymore. I would rather put some fruit juice in the freezer for a while the next time I have a sore throat. Or buy the really top-market ice cream with only five ingredients, that never makes my mouth taste sour, but is so rich I only want it once in a while. A spoonful of that on a sore throat should be nice.

    Or I could finally follow my late mother-in-law’s suggestion and just gargle with salt water to scour off the gunk. But nobody ever forbade me that.

    • A lot of people find that Jenny, the more they deny themselves food, the more they want it, and when they remove that denial… they lose all interest. I figure that’s pretty much human nature!

      • One more thing: When I thought about it, I realized that I only ate the ice cream as a foil for the Hershey’s syrup I put in the bottom of the bowl before the ice cream. I ran one more experiment–and got the same satisfaction from just having a couple of spoonfuls of chocolate syrup, without the sour aftertaste. So why hadn’t I just been eating some all by itself all along instead of eating ice cream I didn’t really like? Because only a bad fatty eats it right off the spoon. Only a bad fatty goes straight for the pleasure instead of attempting to disguise it as something more socially acceptable. If I hadn’t been listening to the inner voices that told me to be more socially acceptable by pretending that the chocolate syrup was an afterthought–then I would’ve been the good fatty who ate fewer calories!

        So I have pledged to have chocolate syrup on a spoon whenever the hell I want. And anybody who doesn’t like it can go jump in a bowl of lousy ice cream.

  • Awesome post. People who advocate for the complete ban approach are ridiculously fail, and never talk about intuitive eating (the idea of balancing out/listening to what you really want to eat) or the idea that eating food is something that can be pleasurable and enjoyable and a positive experience! The total ban approach seems so punitive and sad- the idea that in your whole life you could never ever eat a slice of birthday cake (or have a piece at your wedding) does not appeal, and as was mentioned upthread will probably only push “bad food” into the forbidden desire zone where you are more likely to eat it in a less healthy way (secretively, sneakily, bingeing on it, or beating yourself up for even having a little).

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