Monday, November 30, 2009

Food Ethics - Overeating

I read a wonderfully thought-provoking book last week - The Way We Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter (review here). It really challenged a lot of the ideas I had about food, despite all the studying I've done on the topic for the last 2 years. And ever since, there have been a couple things heavy on my mind. I'll just touch on one of them today: The ethics of overeating.

The bulk of the book's contents covered ethics regarding how food is produced, it's effects on animals, humans, and the environment. But at the end, the authors touched briefly on our attitudes as we are actually consuming it - the ethics of obesity/overeating.

As an environmentalist and an advocate of voluntary simplicity, I spend a considerable amount of effort minimizing waste, consuming only what I need because I think it's unethical to waste resources just because we can. So when the book presented me with this question: is eating too much unethical?, I really took it to heart.

From an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to eat whatever we can get our hands on, for fear the next meal might be hard to come by. Even in our more recent past, gluttony was considered one of the seven deadly sins. But in modern times (particularly in the US with the food system we have set up), do we even think about it?

From a personal perspective, I often find myself overeating, then getting in some extra work-out time to burn the extra calories off. We all do it, right? But the question is, when we really start to think about it, is that attitude unethical as it relates to wastefulness?

It's a tough question, and if you were within range, you could probably smell the smoke from all the gears turning in my head. What do you think? Is obesity/overeating unethical?

P.S. Keep in mind this is regarding people who have a choice in the matter, not those for whom obesity/overeating is the result of a medical condition...

19 comments:

Donna said...

Interesting question. I'd say you're probably right -- overeating probably is unethical. The "clean your plate, there are kids starving in Africa" thing never made much sense to me. I think we prepare more food than we need to begin with and then we overeat or waste it. There's not much difference from an ethical point of view since they have the same end result (using up more food than we need).

Heather @ SGF said...

Donna - Thanks for answering. I was afraid I had scared everyone away...

It's always bothered me when people fill up their plates at buffets, eat two bites, and leave the rest for the trash. But this hit much closer to home. And yet it's so hard to change my habits of eating too much just to go "work it off with some extra exercise." This mindfulness stuff is hard... :)

Beany said...

I grew up with the clean-your-plate-cause-kids-in-Africa-are-starving philosophy as well. I think to judge something as being ethical or not is probably something one can espouse when in a position of wealth and stability (which is not wrong, just what I consider a reality). I've struggled with the overeating for a long time because of my past membership with the clean plate club. But naturally I usually find myself not overeating. I suspect that any sort of overconsumption sets a standard and on that basis alone it is unethical.

I always think about what Jim Merkel said (based on your review of Radical Simplicity), how much would I eat if I was at the front of the buffet?

I don't know if my response made any sense...I think I just contradicted myself.

Your post didn't scare me away...I just spent most of the day thinking about it.

Beany said...

Also I have a hard time saying no to food...I hear my father saying, "better eat up, you don't know if when you're next meal is going to be". Yes I grew up with a feast or famine lifestyle and it has been hard to ignore that voice.

I guess the fundamental issue is what is a need versus a want. U.S. culture as a whole clearly doesn't understand the distinction. Because if everyone did, half the problems that caused many of us bloggers to start a blog wouldn't exist today.

Heather @ SGF said...

Beany - along those same lines, I listed to an audio file yesterday that also talked about the ethics of food. Basically, that If you don't have a choice (the poor), that's one thing. But for those of us who for most of our lives, have had a choice about what we do or don't eat, it's appropriate to be more mindful about what and how we eat. I think that's what you're saying, right? We, particularly as American, have a choice and what we do with that choice says a lot about us as individuals.

Tammy said...

I had prepared an eloquent statement detailing my opinions of excess consumption and touching on my opinion about people who in fact consume too little based on my understandin of the human body and its needs...it was whipped away by an internet glitch...I apologize.

Heather @ SGF said...

Tammy - Oh no! Maybe you could just give us the gist of it...

Ben said...

I tend to think almost everybody in the western world has a touch of gluttony in them. Is it unethical that we live in houses, have clean water or basic medical services? I don't know the answer to that, but what I do know is that I feel lucky to have these things and also that I do not do enough to help those who don't. Can I do enough? Probably not, but I could certainly do more. So, I guess that there are a number of things that I might do during any given day that might be unethical, but I think that I just need to do what I can. Will it ever be enough? ...probably not, but it is what I can do.

Heather @ SGF said...

Ben - excellent points. I would think the basics of life (rights that all humans should have) can be defined as access to food, clean water, shelter, a sense of safety, (as you said) basic medical care, and maybe even education. For those of us who whom that is a given, we have the opportunity to practice ethically - HOW big our house is, just how much water and electricity we use, how much food we eat.

No, we'll never be perfect (aka, there will always be something more we can do), but I think that's the purpose of a mindful life, learning and changing as we keep the rest of the world in mind (Beany refers to Jim Merkel's illustration of a buffet that has just enough resources for the entire planet. You're at the front of the line. How much do you take? - Very powerful image.)

Heather @ SGF said...

In related news, this hit Treehugger today:

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/12/america-wastes-40-percent-of-its-food-supply-every-year.php?campaign=th_rss_food

Beany said...

Even more about food waste here

Heather @ SGF said...

Beany - Gonna have to add that to my to-see list!

Tammy said...

The deal is... we, as Americans, are caught up in cycles of gluttony and then substandard eating(in order to make up for the abuses to our bodies). I know someone currently on a 900 calorie a day diet. I don't believe that this is helping her body. It is sending a very clear message that her body must conserve those calories in order to survive.
It takes a rather diverse diet to get the nutrients necessary for good health. I think the whole thing is more about balance than the extreme points of the scale, those being over- and under- consumption of food.
If that weren't enough, I think the bigger problem these days is the quality of the food people eat. Most of the food consumed in the US is so nutrient deficient that it sets us up for overconsumption. The body requires nutrients, so, if substandard foods are eaten, the body continues to need food. It doesn't necessarily mean that a person is intentionally overeating(an ethical sin?)--it is that the food isn't doing its job.
Added to that is the fact that some of the subtances added to foods increase hunger, sugar cravings, and feed the overall problem even more. Hormones and chemicals cause all sorts of problems, the things that are used to fatten the animals are fattening the consumers of the animals as well.
On the subject of clean plates, I think it is important to try not to waste food. I usually just save my plate for later if I overserve and I ask my family to do the same. If we eat slowly and enjoy our food, we have a better chance of digesting it properly and releasing the nutrients in the food into our bodies. It isn't always easy to take your time, but, it is so much better for you.
I think the bottom line is that it should be a goal to eat in an ethical way, neither over or undereating in order to take care of our bodies because if we don't take care of our bodies, they cannot take care of us. This is a difficult goal in a country where food production, advertisement, and attitudes are often stacked against us.

Heather @ SGF said...

Tammy - Thanks for taking the time to rewrite that. I love the way you put it. That we should be striving for a balance in quantity of whole, high-nutrient foods (and lose the crappy stuff). Absolutely!

Kate said...

I'm not sure I agree with the idea of obesity being unethical eating. Could it be linked yes. The issue is not the obesity (which carries a number of problems on it's own) but instead the way we have selected to consume most of our food in this country - from the frozen section of the supermarket or from a paper bag given to us in a drive-thru. Thus, obesity is the result not the cause. It's the result of (possibly) unethical behavior and over-consumption. I say possibly because there are a number of people who
1. can't afford "good" "natural" or "organic" food - ever check out the price of those organic chickens? Chicken nuggets are so much cheaper - for a reason.
2. over-consumption may not be the cause in all people's obesity. I think we have to be careful about blanket assumptions.

In the end, over-consumption of anything is unethical in some manner but I think we all walk our separate walks in life. My over-consumption may be second helping or a longer than necessary hot shower... for someone else it may be completely different. The goal is to lead ourselves down the path of least-consumption while still enjoying the journey.

Heather @ SGF said...

Kate - I tried to qualify for those situations in my post. No, some of us don't have a choice. But for those of us who do have a choice, it becomes a matter of ethics. Not that it's the same thing for everyone. I think our personal choices must change however as we become more aware of how we consume affects the world around us. Some can do more than others, but the important thing is that we become aware and do as much as we can.

I do agree that obesity is more a symptom and not the disease.

Leo said...

Heather:

"I listed to an audio file yesterday that also talked about the ethics of food"

What audio, is it a podcast I can listen to ?

Beany:

"Even more about food waste here"

I can't access the page. How can I ?

--

In general great post Heather, and great comments guys. I came here doing my research about this and glad to see we share simmilar ideas about over-eating as unethical, in the cases where it applies.

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