Good food, bad food, and subversive food combining.

The idea that there are universally “good” foods and “bad” foods is an old one, ancient even. There are traces of it in Leviticus, though the way the concept was used then is perhaps different from how we use it now.*

Given what we know about clinical nutrition, that sometimes a startling mix of foods can be used to help people in certain disease states — more ice cream and gravy for someone undergoing cancer treatment, less protein and fewer vegetables for someone with kidney disease — and since dividing your risk among a wide variety of different foods can help hedge your health bets, the idea that there are universally good or bad foods doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.

I take it more as evidence of black-or-white thinking — a hallmark of diet culture — which is almost always false.

The words themselves, good and bad, imply a moral dynamic to food that I just don’t think belongs there. Sure, food can be literally bad if it’s spoiled or contaminated with botulism. But even if you eat this kind of bad food and get sick from it, we don’t generally assume that you now have become a bad and contaminated person.

We just think you’re sick, send soup, and wait for you to get better.

Getting food poisoning doesn’t stain your character or reputation, even if you are literally contaminated by a bacteria that a food has transmitted to you. There’s an implicit understanding that the body is self-cleansing and will get the pollution, the infection, out of its system over time. And though you might be averse to eating a food that made you sick in the future, due to stomach-churning associations, you probably won’t assume it is a universally bad food eaten only by bad people.

We do, however, make this assumption about moral contamination, that (morally) bad foods (which are coincidentally usually high-calorie, presumably “fattening” foods) are eaten by bad, gluttonous, ignorant, irresponsible, and usually low-class (and coincidentally fat) people. And we try to avoid those foods, we claim, out of concern for our health. But, in practice, it appears to be much more about avoiding that moral stain.

Even if there are foods that, in isolation, don’t produce ideal health outcomes for most people, does the idea that these foods are uniquely bad while other foods are uniquely good actually help us to be well-fed? I’ve asked dozens of people this question, “Does believing in ‘bad food’ help you to eat better?” It’s an honest question.

After looking at the ceiling for a second, then looking down and letting out a bitter little laugh, they always tell me no.

No, thinking of the foods they want to avoid as morally bad does not help them to eat a more nourishing diet in the long run. It doesn’t even help them to avoid those foods, most of the time. For a lot of us, it only succeeds in producing guilt for eating a perfectly human mix of foods.

If a belief in good foods and bad foods helped people, on balance, to eat better, I could grudgingly get behind the idea, though being a fat hedonist, I would always advocate for pleasure. But it fails even in its stated objective, to say nothing of the side-effects that come with it.

I do believe there are foods that are generally more nutritious than others (in certain ways, keeping in mind that macronutrients and the calories that represent them are still technically nutrients, after all), and which usually leave a person generally feeling better, and generally in better health, than others. But there’s also something to be said for eating and including foods that are designed primarily for pleasure, not for the cessation of physical hunger or the promotion of long-term health.

Learning to break down the categories of “good” food and “bad” food is a little tricky, but it can be done.

One of my favourite techniques for doing this, aside from giving yourself explicit permission and acknowledging that all food is food, is to do what I called “subversive food combining.” This means, simply, putting together foods that you would usually classify as good and bad, and that you would usually keep apart (that “healthy” meal of fish, rice, and vegetables you eat when you’re being “good,” vs. the pint of ice cream you eat when you’re being “bad”) by including them in the same meal, or even on the same plate.

Maybe I’m a jerk, but it gives me a cheap thrill. Some combinations I’ve tried:

  • Potato chips and salad
  • Sauteed kale and pizza
  • Peanut m&ms and an apple
  • Boxed macaroni and cheese with pork tenderloin and greens (this is traditional in many places, but where I grew up, boxed mac and cheese was strictly kid food, and strictly eaten in isolation)
  • Carrots with bean and cheese burritos
  • Cookies and almonds

Telling yourself that there are no good foods and bad foods is one thing. It is necessary, but not sufficient to produce an actual change in how you view food. Backing it up with action is crucial.

Try it. Break a few rules. Crush the false dichotomy.

So, if thinking of foods as either good or bad doesn’t actually help people to eat better, what does? In my experience, it’s eating observantly, but non-judgmentally, and taking note of your pleasure both during and after eating. Noticing how food both tastes during eating, and how it makes you feel, physically, after.

Over a series of hundreds of personal experiments, you can start to shape your eating in a way that makes the most sense to you, that leaves you both happy and feeling healthy, and that improves measurable indices of health, like cholesterol or blood sugar. But in order to conduct these experiments, you have to give yourself permission to eat anything. You have to acknowledge that food is neither universally good or bad, real or not-real, pure or polluted.

And you have to believe that it cannot, by association, make you good or bad either.


*I like what Mary Douglas had to say in the preface to the 2002 edition of Purity and Danger: “[My] most serious mistake was to have accepted that the rational, just, compassionate God of the Bible would ever have been so inconsistent as to make abominable creatures…I now question that they are abominable at all, and suggest rather that it is abominable to harm them.” It is quite possible that such ancient food rules weren’t based on pollution theory at all, but it seems possible that many contemporary food rules are. Foods that are not seen as “whole” or “natural,” foods that skirt neat categorization into a single food group (pizza), or defy entry into any staple food group at all (gummy bears), are usually seen as impure and having the power to pollute anyone who consumes them.







14 responses to “Good food, bad food, and subversive food combining.”

  1. chias_are_not_pets Avatar

    Subversive combining is a lovely idea, and I guess I do it already — a lot, assuming PB&J rice cakes and salad with seitan sausage count.

    “I’ve asked dozens of people this question, “Does believing in ‘bad food’ help you to eat better?” It’s an honest question.”

    Well, the answer to that isn’t a straightforward “no”: it depends on what is defined as ‘bad food’. People who avoid foods which they deem bad according to their moral principles (kashrut-keeping Jews, Jain vegetarians, regular ethics-based vegetarians…) generally find it easier to stick to their guns than people who just avoid foods condemned by the latest diet fad. I count myself among them: no weight-loss diet I was ever on could overcome the appeal of cheese, but going vegan did.
    Not coincidentally, one of my biggest issues with diet culture-imposed faux moral food hierarchies is that they steal cultural bandwidth from actual pressing food-relating ethical problems :(

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I feel differently about these kinds of decisions around food, though I don’t often write about them. When I write about food moralizing, I’m referring to the popular culture/diet culture ideas of “good” and “bad” foods. I feel like people making instrumental decisions around food, including kashrut and vegetarianism — if these decisions don’t lead to a disordered place, which they can for certain people who aren’t doing well with eating — are not making them in a shame-based manner. It’s more of a decision to do something in alignment with one’s values, which is very different from just deciding that m&ms are bad because they represent gluttony/fatness/pleasure/etc and then feeling self-loathing when one eats them, or other-loathing when other people eat them.

  2. Mary Afuso Avatar
    Mary Afuso

    I wish I had written this.

    I have been judged for what I eat all my life. Even as a 50 year old woman, I get annoyed when someone tells me “You’re so good” for eating a salad. Yeah — I’m Mother-frickien-Teresa because I ate a salad instead of a hamburger.

    And I guess I’m Lizzie Borden for eating M&Ms….

  3. Muse142 Avatar

    I have been practicing this – in part thanks to your older posts! – for years, and it is wonderful. “Add, don’t take away” is such a wonderful principle, and it really helped me eat better. “Better” meaning “more variety, more micronutrients, in a way that makes me feel better” and all that – not meaning “fewer calories”.

    I most often get pushback when I get my favorite sandwich – it’s a tofu pesto flatbread sandwich (SO GOOD) and I prefer it with bacon. Even though I’m almost always served by the same person (who you’d think would figure it out after one or two orders), I still ALWAYS get “you mean Vacon- our vegan bacon? no? wait, you still want that with tofu right, not chicken?” YES. I want tofu AND bacon! These things aren’t mutually incompatible, dangit!

    1. Ani Avatar

      CHEERS! I love to get tofu scramble with bacon at a local place. I get such shocked looks when I order it. I just like tofu scramble, y’all.

  4. mara Avatar

    Hawkins Cheezies with hummous. Or sometimes dipped in plain yogurt. I would honestly rather be eating that combination than almost anything else on the planet.

  5. Cath79 Avatar

    I’ve been following your blog for some time Michelle but I’ve never actually posted before…I’m a Psychologist working in an Eating Disorder service in the UK and your blogs make such interesting reading. Thank you for writing them!

    The point that really stood out for me here was the one about people generally being more concerned about avoiding the moral stain of eating certain foods, than the ‘actual’ health risks of those foods. This is something that I’ve encountered time and time again in my therapeutic work- when you break clients’ fears down around gaining weight/being fatter than others, those fears always (literally always), come down to being rejected and alone. It turns out that for us humans being rejected and alone is actually more terrifying than dying- funny that. (Of course it’s no laughing matter really- and we spend a lot of time talking with clients about how we’re actually hardwired to fear rejection- being alone IS to die in many senses (think of a human baby and how much care and attention it needs to survive).

    So where this leads me is: The scaremongering that our society does about the health risks of being overweight is a red herring in itself in many ways- not only is it based on flimsy and in many cases downright fabricated ‘evidence’- it also misses the point completely. Sure, people are concerned about getting diabetes and having heart attacks but they’re much more concerned about having no-one to laugh, joke, cry and share their days with. And the really frightening thing is- in our fattist society that fear may be more likely to come to pass than the former.

    No answers I’m afraid, just the lunchtime musings of a kindred spirit!

    Ps- have you tried marmite on toast, with cheese and salad cream (or do these things not even exist ‘across the pond’?!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thank you, Cath.

      And I love both marmite and salad cream, but have never eaten them together with cheese on toast!

  6. […] “thinking of the foods [people] want to avoid as morally bad does not help them to eat a more nourish…” (Michelle, The Fat Nutritionist). […]

  7. Christine Lehman Avatar

    I have a health-food-fanatic friend who’s always pushing me to put fruits & veggies into a blender and make “healthy smoothies”. She’s also very anti-sugar, and especially Demon Soda Pop. So sometimes, just to tick her off, I’ll make a healthy smoothie, only I’ll put full-sugar Pepsi or Coke in it, instead of water. And you know what ? It tastes goooooddd!!!

    1. Ani Avatar

      …I want a coke’n’greens smoothie now. I assume you have to flatten it first? Or is watching the blender foam up part of the fun? :D

  8. Emily Avatar

    This articulates something I already do, but I haven’t really thought about it in these terms. Participating in a produce co-op has almost forced this (but in a good way) because we have approximately 18 pounds of fruits and veg to contend with on a near-weekly basis. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve been enjoying fruit–and because of the staggering amount I bring home on Saturdays I eat it with breakfast, be it an egg sandwich or avocado toast or a fast-food burrito, and often as dessert with nuts or chocolate or ice cream.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I love fruit and ice cream!

  9. Emily Avatar

    In the college dining room, after people were finishing up their meals and lingering, talking and laughing, I grabbed an apple and a chocolate chip cookie for my dessert.

    A friend of mine said “You know, those two don’t cancel each other out, right?” He’d made fat phobic comments before, so I knew what he was getting at. I felt soooo embarrassed. I still feel it to this day, 13 years later. I still try to come up with the right response to him.

    I have worked very hard to free myself from externally-enforced food judgements, but this idea of subversive food pairings BLOWS ME AWAY WITH ITS GENIUS.