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.”


“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.


“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.”


“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.

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