by Glenys Oyston
The argument (really just a friendly debate; not an actual fight) has stuck in my head for years.
A self-proclaimed foodie friend and I were discussing the qualities of the best grilled cheese sandwiches. I declared that my favorite was still the kind made with processed cheese slices. She was horrified. “Ugh no!” she gasped. “That’s not REAL cheese!”
I burned a little with shame remembering my childhood growing up eating my mother’s classic grilled cheese sandwiches made with those processed cheese slices that came wrapped in plastic, the bread slathered on all sides with butter – one of the few foods I really enjoyed through those years. It never occurred to me back then whether my food was “real” or not – it was just the food I ate.
As a dietitian, I now know that processed cheese does in fact contain “real” cheese which has been combined with emulsifier and some other ingredients to make it melt better and last longer. This was a fun fact we learned in food science, where food additives were demystified. All food is “real” food – we don’t create it out of thin air from non-edible sources. We don’t turn, like, plastic chairs into donuts. Some food may be more “processed,” but it is still food.
Sadly, we live in a culture where all types of foods are demonized for various reasons. For a while, some time ago, I indulged in this behavior myself (I’m not proud). Once into adulthood and well out of the lower socioeconomic class I was raised in, I wanted only the “freshest,” most “organic,” “grass-fed,” “local” foods I could get my hands on. (This was, unfortunately, one of the ways in which I propped up my extreme disordered eating.) I was ashamed of some of foods I grew up on: frozen pizzas and TV dinners, packaged sweets, canned vegetables. The diet that, while perhaps not optimal, kept me alive.
Ironically, many of us have dieted on “processed” foods, encouraged by all to do so in the name of thinness; or we might even eat or drink them as a part of a regular diet. During my smug-foodie days, I wouldn’t have thought twice about eating a highly processed, low-fat, packaged dessert-food to save calories, while snubbing my nose at conventionally farmed chard as not being “healthy” enough.
In reality, there are many foods that are processed that no one complains about. Coffee, especially decaf, is highly processed and it never goes out of style. Bread is somehow supposed to better for us in Paris than here, despite the fact that it is still white bread (gasp!). That soy milk didn’t leap out of the bean on its own; it was processed out. Vegan foods made to look and taste like meat are also highly processed, yet remain virtuous. And the greatest mystery to me – people following so-called “whole foods” diets who have no problem blending up protein powder (processed!) with everything.
Despite the complete hypocrisy of it all, there is still so much judgment being tossed around about food and health. This isn’t really a new phenomenon; I remember after diving into diet culture more than 20 years ago hearing people poo-poo the diets of the “lower classes,” attributed to an ignorance that could be cured only by benevolent education (read: shame) from better-off people. Ew to all of that.
Yes, it is well documented that higher weights (I’m refusing to use the “o” word here) are prevalent among people with less education and less money. So often –really often! – I’ve heard this chalked up to a “processed food diet” issued in a “shame on them” tone. Rarely is food insecurity, food availability, stigma or stress discussed, all possible contributors to higher weights, all problems experienced in lower socioeconomic classes. “Just eat better food!” is the standard advice. Case closed, problem solved, further thought not needed.
Let’s call this what it is: classism. When some foods are okay being processed but others aren’t, it’s not about the food; it’s about who’s eating it and proclaiming one’s righteous status through the stigmatization of others’ diets.
If we want to actually help people to live better, let’s talk about making more food more available and affordable. Let’s smash a diet culture that creates food-fear in the name of profit. Let’s talk about food justice issues without stigmatizing people for what they eat or weigh, because this does not contribute to health. As a Health at Every Size® dietitian, I truly do feel that all foods can fit, but they only fit well if someone can afford them and feel good about eating them.
I still sometimes eat grilled cheese sandwiches with processed cheese slices. Sometimes I use the other kind of cheese (which is still “processed,” by the way, as most foods are to some degree). I eat “whole” foods and the supposedly “unholy” foods, too. I eat all the foods because, thankfully, I can afford it now and I’m free of food-fear. Let’s focus on creating that situation for everyone instead of food and weight shaming others as a part of yet another unfair class system.
Glenys Oyston is a registered dietitian and eating coach who helps people recover from toxic diet culture and eating anxiety. As someone who struggled with her weight and feeling out-of-control around food for years, she knows exactly what others are going through and how to get them to food freedom. She coaches people in person in her Los Angeles office and virtually through one-on-one and group coaching programs. This year she launched Dare to Eat, an online program that helps people to learn to eat as much as they want, without guilt, in total freedom. You can find her at www.daretonotdiet.com and on her podcast Dietitians Unplugged.