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The Morality of Teenage Fast Food Consumption



One of the most pervasive beliefs about obesity is that people do this to themselves.

This assumption is closely linked to judgements about morality in the sense that ‘good’ citizens look after themselves by making healthy (‘good’) choices, whereas ‘bad’ citizens make unhealthy (‘bad’) choices, thereby becoming a drain to healthcare systems and government dollars (and therefore do not deserve our compassion or care).

This ‘morality’ of eating decisions, as viewed by Canadian teens, is the topic of a fascinating paper by Deborah McPhail (Memorial University, Newfoundland) and colleagues, just published in Social Science & Medicine.

With regard to teenage attitudes, beliefs, and consumption of fast food, the authors state:

“…fast food is significant to teenagers because it is one of the few types of food that teenagers can afford to purchase outside of the home and therefore (ostensibly) beyond the influence of their families. Fast food can thus become a form of self-expression for teenagers as they struggle to assert their autonomy apart from their family’s food identity.”

However,

“Even as teenagers seem to be eating more fast food more often, qualitative research has shown that they take up moralistic discourses about healthy eating in general discussions of food habits, and judge fast food consumption particularly harshly.

In a qualitative study of UK teens, middle-class teens avoided fast food not only to be healthy but also to formulate themselves as “good” middle-class citizens who took up the “‘authentic’ health and dietary messages…sanctioned by…experts” in contrast to “those who more frequently eat in fast food restaurants (i.e., the working classes)”

In order to better understand Canadian teens’ attitudes and judgements about fast food, the researchers conducted interviews with 132 teenagers (77 girls and 55 boys, ages 13–19 years) from five urban areas and four rural areas across Canada.

Interestingly, the researchers were unable to confirm the often held notion that easy access to fast food equates with increased consumption of fast food, especially in the case of poor and working-class people.

Not only was there no spatial pattern of reported fast food consumption, there was also no class pattern, as participants of all class categories said that they did or did not eat fast food to more-or-less the same degrees.

Rather, it appeared that fast food consumption was determined by a complex interplay between social factors, individual preference, and, in particular, moral dictates.

These “health morals’ framed responses to fast food in three ways:

1) some teens regarded fast food as unhealthy and avoided it altogether;

2) even though some teens regarded fast food as unhealthy they would consume it but felt bad for doing so; (this was the majority group)

3) some teens regarded fast food as unhealthy, consumed it because they liked it, and felt no guilt or remorse.

Interestingly,

“The fact that teens regarded fast food as unhealthy and judged those who ate it as “unknowledgeable,” “out of control,” “disgusting” people that made poor and unhealthy food choices did not translate neatly into behavior; some teens who believed fast food to be unhealthy and bad avoided fast food, while other teens, even though they also judged fast food as unhealthy, ate it frequently.”

However,

“While there was no real class pattern in who considered fast food to be unhealthy, and the extent to which teens ate fast food did not differ by class, one important class difference was evident in what kinds of fast foods people were eating in order to assuage their guilt. This moral hierarchy of fast foods, whereby hamburgers and French fries from McDonald’s were generally considered the worst types of fast foods while Subway sandwiches were the best, was a process undertaken primarily by the upper-middle and lower-middle classes. This supports Wills et al.’s (2009) claim that eating so-called healthy fast food is a function of middle-class identity, whereby the middle class can have its fast food and its claims to moral superiority, too.”

Teens in general believed fast food to be unhealthy, and drew lines between “good” and “bad” eating, and “good” and “bad” people, based on fast food consumption. The moral boundary work that teens performed through talk of fast food consumption therefore helped them to articulate a sense of self and who they were as people – a good person who never ate fast food or only ate healthy fast food, a good person who made mistakes sometimes and ate fast food occasionally but knew it was “wrong” and felt bad about it, or, less frequently, a bad person who bucked social norms and did not care about health and ate fast food without concern or feeling guilty.

This type of moral boundary work was not endemic to a particular class, but was evident among teens from all class groups in our study. Nor was moral boundary work through fast food discourse specific to a particular region in our study, or connected to proximity to obesogenic, fast-food-prevalent settings.”

Finally, as the authors point out:

“The fact that all classes of teens in our study from all regions made complicated decisions about fast food consumption that were based in moralist notions of healthy eating, good eating and good eaters, is an important interruption to mainstream discourses which posit obesity to be a disease of the lower/working classes primarily who live in obesogenic urban environments.”

For those of us concerned about weight-based discrimination and anti-fat bias, the fact that teens (and probably even younger children) base judgements about food choices (and those who make them) in moral terms (‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ citizens), adds an alarming dimension to public health messaging about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods (or lifestyles).

Unfortunately, the simplistic line of reasoning ‘obesity = ‘bad’ food choices = ‘bad’ citizen’ is perpetuated by these beliefs and provides a significant barrier to a ‘moral-free’ and ‘non-judgmental’ discourse on finding real solutions to the obesity problem.

AMS
Edmonton, Alberta

McPhail D, Chapman GE, & Beagan BL (2011). “Too much of that stuff can’t be good”: Canadian teens, morality, and fast food consumption. Social science & medicine (1982) PMID: 21689876

10 Comments

  1. That’s a very important post, thanks.

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  2. Gotta laugh — my blue-collar, working-class family sneered at fast food. My mom was a child of immigrants who wouldn’t have eaten that stuff at gunpoint. She was sort of the last generation not to be entirely Americanized, I think, and we internalized a lot of our food attitudes from her. There was “food” and there was another category of stuff called “crap.” McDonald’s was “crap.” Coca-cola was “crap.” Rice-a-roni and Hamburger Helper were “crap.” Potato chips were “crap.” “No, we’re not eating that, that’s crap.”

    We never had boxed processed food in the house, and as a result I don’t know how to prepare it. My mom’s attitude toward that stuff was that her grandmother would throw it out rather than eat it. But then they wouldn’t even eat frozen chicken; they wouldn’t eat it if they didn’t know when it was killed.

    I’m forever grateful for her attitude. The first time I ever bit into a piece of fried chicken with the skin still on, I almost puked. Chicken skin was garbage in our house.

    And we were as working-class as they come. And now all that food that I grew up eating, the broccoli rabe, artichokes, polenta, lowfat cheese, and handmade pasta is all gourmet upper-class stuff! Crazy world …

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  3. Last year, the elementary school my children attend got on the good food / bad food moralistic bandwagon, and made up posters putting different foods in different categories. The intentions may have been good, but it resulted in many tears in my home. My child with medical conditions making it difficult to eat varying textures was being nagged at by moralistic 8 & 9 year olds that he was making ‘bad’ choices for choosing apple sauce over raw apples. My daughter was subjected to a lunchroom supervisor (parent) pulling each item out of her lunchbag to be scrutinized by the class and labelled as “good” or “bad”. My daughter was mortified, as was the principal when I brought this practice to his attention. Thanks to this, my daughter now hides away from others when eating something she fears might be ‘bad’. Nice disordered eating starting there.

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  4. Don’t you know – teens know EVERYTHiNG!!

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  5. Did that study look at BMI as well? I’m curious. I wouldn’t be surprised if BMI is as unrelated to fast food consumption as social class apparently is. I was definitely raised to think of fast food as “bad” and “crap” and rarely ate it, and yet I was a fat kid.

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  6. I was raised exactly like DeeLeigh. While all my friends were eating Fruit Loops for breakfast and pie and cake for dessert, I got porridge and fruit…and was still fatter than most of the other kids. Oh, and I rode a bike to school or walked. We didn’t own a car.

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  7. I can relate to DeeLeigh and NewMe. In junior high and high school, my group of friends would go to McDonalds or Taco Bell or KFC at lunch (whichever had the better deal that day) and I would never order anything and eat my lunch I brought from home (sandwich/apple/carrots) while they had their two cheeseburger meal. And I was the fat kid of the group.

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  8. You know, I’m thinking about this and Dee Leigh is right — I and my oldest brother are both pretty slim and have never had a weight issue, but my older brother, raised in the same family with the same attitudes, loves fast food, pizza, doritos, and all that stuff, and he’s heavy. He’s always been beefy, but is flirting more with heavy lately. So upbringing is part of it, but part of it has also got to be physical. Just how his tastes played out, and his own appetite settings. I can’t make myself eat when I’m full, and he never seems to fill up.

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  9. I also grew up with all homemade Mom-prepared foods. I never ate at McDonalds until I was in my late teens. I walked everywhere as we didn’t have a car. And I was the fattest kid in elementary school, and among the heaviest in Jr. & Sr. high school.

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  10. I find this confirms my own experience with my teenage step-daughter. She has always been slim – but over the past couple of years has started attributing her slimness to her ‘morally superior’ diet. She works at McDonalds and has mentioned on numerous occasions the disgust she feels towards the people eating the food there. We’ve talked with her at length about this – and there is no convincing her that this bigotry is offside. Teenagers can be so scary sometimes!

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