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The ethics of binge eating

BingeatingBinge eating is a result of western society's culture of permissiveness and excess, writes Kelly Blainey.

Recently I went to a talk on ethics and sustainability featuring renowned ethicist, Professor Peter Singer. Singer’s book, The Ethics of What We Eat , profoundly changed how I viewed food and was my introduction to food politics. I was excited to hear his thoughts about sustainability. It was no surprise that a large portion of Singer’s talk was about how food contributes to climate change. According to Singer, there are three main ways it does this:

  • through the methane gas produced by the cows and sheep raised for our consumption – this gas is more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide
  • through the carbon that is emitted by transporting food around the globe so we as consumers can have strawberries in winter and other off-season produce
  • through the amount of fresh and packaged food that ends up as landfill.

I had read elsewhere the astonishing figures of how much food we throw away, but I’d never thought of it in terms of climate change. Here they are, for your astonishment: in Australia in 2004 we threw away more than $5.2 billion worth of food and drink. In America that figure is $43 billion per year. That is a hell of a lot of food we throw away.

I don’t think people deliberately throw stuff away. It’s more likely that we buy fresh food with good intentions of cooking up healthy meals, but at the end of the day we’re too tired so we order take away while all those veggies rot in our fridge. Or, it could simply be that we have more food in the first world than we know what to do with, and so our attitude towards it becomes relaxed.

Another food statistic that always shocks me is that in Europe and North America, 80% of all corn, grain and soy beans produced is used to feed animals. Imagine what would happen if we let animals eat what they’re naturally inclined to – such as grass – and used that excess production to feed the 963 million people in the world who do not have enough to eat? But instead, we feed it to animals to make them grow faster and bigger than they would naturally, in order to satisfy our supermarket shelves and plates.

What does any of this have to do with binge eating?

Binge eating is of course an individual thing. We can’t deny our personal responsibility for what and how much we eat. But binge eating disorder exists within a context – that of our modern Western society. We have this relaxed attitude towards consumption that has allowed food to become just another vice to be abused. We don’t think twice about throwing away food, feeding it to our animals and gorging ourselves stupid on it while millions around the world starve.

How did we get here? Fifty years ago, binge eating disorder did not exist because attitudes towards food were so different that no-one could conceive of wasting and abusing it the way we do today. And bingeing is most certainly both a waste and an abuse of food. I know I am the only one responsible for my own disordered eating.

But if I did not live in a society of such permissiveness and excess then binging on food simply would not be possible. (That’s not to say I wouldn’t have some other vice as my emotional crutch – like drugs or alcohol – only that it wouldn’t be food.) It’s heartbreaking to know that food, which is so problematic for me, is a matter of life and death for so many others.

It used to be that food was for sustenance, for the coming together of family or community, for tradition and for celebration. Now food can be eaten at your desk, in front of the TV or in your car, mindlessly consumed without even tasting it going down.

Food has lost its place in our lives and has instead become just another throw-away commodity. I wonder what it will take for society to regain control; to return food to its original place and purpose, move away from fast food and excess consumption as a way of life.

Surely our first steps have to be to reduce our own waste, start eating locally and make deliberate and ethical decisions about what we eat. Perhaps once we have our own dining rooms in order, we will have the knowledge and courage to ensure everyone in the world has enough food to eat.

Learning about things like how our food is produced was a big factor in me wanting to stop binge eating. When I became aware of food politically, I examined its role in my life, which helped change my attitude to my health, consumption and self-destructive binging behaviour.

But it’s not just about me. Hearing those statistics on food waste at Singer's talk reminded me that all food excess – both individual and societal – hurts others. We waste food while others starve. There is simply no justification for that.

How can I continue to binge and waste food knowing what that food might mean to someone who doesn’t have enough to eat? How can you?

Kelly Blainey is a freelance writer who specialises in health and spirituality. She blogs about binge eating disorder and the politics of fat on her website Bite by Bite.

Photo courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt (Pink Sherbert Photography) issued under Creative Commons Licence 



0 #1 M 2010-04-18 19:30
Binge eating is a psychological disorder so this is pretty insulting.

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