The “right” diet is a highly personal combination of taste, health concerns, and self-expression. Even the choice to embrace eating patterns that appear altruistic, like those that prioritize the needs of other humans, animals, and the environment, is an expression of one’s personal values. There is nothing wrong (nor unselfish) about trying to eat in a socially or environmentally responsible manner if that matters to you more than other aspects of food. It is pernicious, though, for the government to make such value judgments on your behalf. Yet this is exactly what those designing dietary recommendations for all Americans intend to do.
Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While politics has always influenced these guidelines, all factions shared the goal of providing the public with comprehensible guidance to promote health. In recent years, however, concerns about how diet impacts disease have taken a backseat to a growing interest in the way America's eating patterns affect the global community and environment.
In the 2015 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee Report” the proposed nutritional recommendations were largely informed by the ways in which American diets affected the environment and world population. While it did address the importance of dietary considerations on individual health, the report’s recommendations were heavily coded with virtue signals for sustainability and environmentalism. Even though these considerations did not make it into the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, calls to ground future recommendations in these concerns never went away.
When we are told to regulate our food intake for the sake of, say, minimizing our carbon footprint, it is a demand that we set aside our own interests in pursuit of someone else’s activism. Rather than fueling our bodies or making us feel good, both mentally and physically, food choice becomes a proxy for holding the ostensibly correct political views.
Food shame is pervasive in our society and certain foods have acquired negative connotations unrelated to their actual impact on human health. We are told that calorically dense foods are “junk” (but only when they are affordable) and that we should strive to eat “clean” (foods that are healthy and pure). We have turned ethical eating into something of a religion. Like most religions, it promises that sacrifices in the here and now will position us to reap otherworldly benefits. Unfortunately, devotees of “Foodaism” often come to find that this sacrifice includes health and the pleasure of eating foods that are enjoyable and satiating.
This is not to say that individuals who adhere to “ethical” eating plans are necessarily irrational or shirking responsibilities to their health. For them, adhering to a diet that is sensitive to the needs of other people, animals, or the planet is more important than what they are giving up. This is not really a sacrifice, but an affirmation of their own personal values. It is also perfectly plausible for an individual to make dietary changes consistent with broader ethical claims while still respecting their nutritional needs and cravings. For many people, though, adhering to trendy but restrictive “ethical” diets may involve considerable sacrifice. Beyond the nutritional quality of food, individuals may have affinities for foods that are psychologically satisfying. It may be that two cups of lentils provide the same amount of protein as a 4-ounce sirloin steak, but the latter may better satiate an individual and prevent them from overeating.
Sustainability in food production is indeed an issue that many Americans are concerned about, and with good reason. But such concerns should have no place in government recommendations about how we eat to promote our personal, physical health. We may be well justified in making “ethical” choices about our diets, but only when we acknowledge that those choices are entirely separate from health concerns. Allowing the political implications of food choice to spill into the science of nutrition undermines its most basic goal: health and human flourishing. When we treat food as necessary sustenance that ought to be mindfully eaten, we can use it as a tool to pursue a life well lived, as each of us defines it for ourselves.