In Defense of Mindless Eating

Abstract

This paper offers a defense of the practice of mindless eating. Popular accounts of the practice suggest that it is non-autonomous and to blame for many of society’s food related problems, including the so-called obesity epidemic and the prevalence of diet related illnesses like diabetes. I use Maureen Sie’s “traffic participation” account of agency to argue that some mindless eating is autonomous, or more specifically, agential. Insofar as we value autonomous eating, then, it should be valued. I also argue that mindless eating can be substantively good: it can help us achieve valuable ends, like creating and maintaining community. Acknowledging the agency and value in mindless eating has both practical and ethical benefits. I contend that it can help us preserve the value in mindless eating while suggesting more effective ways to change it, and, by offering a new narrative about mindless eaters, may be less damaging to agency than popular narratives.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Many authors have noted that this is the most, or one of the most, common ways of thinking about eating in contemporary mainstream Western culture (Saguy 2012; Kukla 2018; Coveney 2006; Crawford 1994; Brownell et al. 2010). It is deeply linked to what Susan Wendell calls the “control myth,” a stubborn belief that we can control our own health-status by controlling relevant behaviours (including eating) (Wendell 1996).

  2. 2.

    Mindful eating, which is not identical to intuitive eating but shares many of the same practices, promises to “interrupt” and “de-automatize” the processes that lead to mindless eating (Forman et al. 2016, 176–77) through the practice of “nonjudgmental awareness of internal and external cues influencing the desire to eat, food choice, quantity of consumption, and the manner in which food is consumed” (Fung et al. 2016, 1081).

  3. 3.

    See Szende’s work for discussion of some of the controversy over the phrase “food desert” (Szende 2018).

  4. 4.

    Note the ableism here.

  5. 5.

    This is a controversial account of reasons, and defending it is outside the scope of this paper. See Sie 2015 for her detailed discussion of the account.

  6. 6.

    This account of reasons allows for good or bad reasons vis-à-vis the relevant aim (Sie 2015, 230). There could be social expectations about traffic—say, that I merge in a particular way—that do not actually enable the smooth, efficient flow of traffic. Therefore, those expectations constitute bad reasons to act.

  7. 7.

    I read Sie as invoking a Strawsonian model of moral responsibility (Strawson 2008). We do, in practice, hold each other responsible for many of our unconsciously-led actions through our reactive attitudes. From a Strawsonian point of view, one of the reasons we would exempt people from responsibility for their actions and temper our reactive attitudes toward them is if their actions are out of their control or they cannot do differently in the future. In the case of the unconscious actions Sie is interested in, then, our ability to shift to conscious control, or “conduct” and redirect our unconscious actions is part of what makes it appropriate for us to be held responsible for them.

  8. 8.

    Politeness norms can also be a way of reinforcing problematic respectability politics or social hierarchies. Stohr (2018) suggests that when politeness is used in these ways, it is actually counter-productive given the moral aim of politeness, and so would count as acting for “bad reasons” on Sie’s account.

  9. 9.

    If mindless agency is as ubiquitous and valuable as Sie suggests, we may find some of the aforementioned strategies more attractive than others. For example, aiming to consciously, deliberately control all of our eating may be impossible and even undesirable on this account. Sie’s work also suggests a new strategy: we might take advantage of our ability to conduct and redirect our mindless actions in order to “mindlessly eat better”; like learning to leave more room between ourselves and other cars and check the rearview mirror more often after a fender-bender, we might retrain our mindless eating to be more in line with our goals.

  10. 10.

    For more on the relationship between narratives and agency, see Lindemann (Lindemann Nelson 2001a; 2001b) and Scully (2008), and on food narratives in particular, Beth Dixon (2018).

  11. 11.

    It is important to note that damage to agency does not necessarily take the form of diminished, undermined, or non-existent agency. It can also take the form of limits or roadblocks to particular ways of enacting one’s agency or being an agent, as work by scholars like Nabina Liebow (2016) and Alisa Bierria (2014) argues.

  12. 12.

    This is of particular concern for those who may be assumed to be frequent mindless eaters because of their appearance and presumed health status; namely, fat people. I use “fat” here in a neutral sense, in line with Fat Studies scholars.

  13. 13.

    Those already subject to narratives ascribing compromised agency may be particularly vulnerable to this sort of intervention, including fat people, adolescents, disabled people, low-income people, Black people in white supremacist contexts like the United States, and those at the intersections of these identities.

  14. 14.

    I have argued elsewhere for two further types of damage to agency that can be caused by understandings of eating and eaters: distorted action and blocked identities (Dean 2018). These two are less pertinent in the case of mindless eating and eaters than in the case of, say, “unhealthy eating” more broadly.

  15. 15.

    In a 2018 paper, Kate Nolfi suggests that we should subject mindless eating to moral evaluation. She argues that mindless eating is particularly reflective of our moral characters: “the segment of our moral characters on display in our morally unreflective and non-deliberative food- and diet-related actions and choices is a segment of our moral characters the quality of which is particularly significant with respect to evaluating an agent's moral worth qua moral agent” (Nolfi 2018, 692). While my argument is sympathetic to Nolfi’s in certain respects, I hesitate to endorse this claim. It is not clear to me that mindless eating is a good reflection of individual moral character, especially if the eaters in question have not had the opportunity to critically reflect on and effectively “redirect” that eating if desired. I worry that the potential value of mindless eating will be overlooked in these moral judgments, and that mindless eating too easily categorized as a sign of moral hypocrisy. I also worry that the criteria used to judge the morality of eating too often rely on problematic assumptions about health and weight rather than defensible ethical criteria related to the suffering of non-human animals, environmental degradation, workers rights, and so on.

References

  1. Barnhill A, King KF, Kass N, Faden R (2014) The value of unhealthy eating and the ethics of healthy eating policies. Kennedy Inst Ethics J 24(3):187–217. https://doi.org/10.1353/ken.2014.0021

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bellisle F, Dalix A-M (2001) Cognitive restraint can be offset by distraction, leading to increased meal intake in women. Am J Clin Nutr 74(2):197–200. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/74.2.197

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bellisle F, Dalix A-M, Airinei G, Hercberg S, Péneau S (2009) Influence of dietary restraint and environmental factors on meal size in normal-weight women. A laboratory study. Appetite 53(3):309–313. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2009.07.006

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bierria A (2014) Missing in action: violence, power, and discerning agency. Hypatia 29(1):129–145. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12074

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Blass EM, Anderson DR, Kirkorian HL, Pempek TA, Price I, Koleini MF (2006) On the road to obesity: television viewing increases intake of high-density foods. PhysiolBehav 88(4–5):597–604. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.05.035

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bonotti M (2015) Food policy, nutritionism, and public justification. J Soc Philos 46(4):402–417. https://doi.org/10.1111/josp.12129

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Brownell KD, Kersh R, Ludwig DS, Post RC, Puhl RM, Schwartz MB, Willett WC (2010) Personal responsibility and obesity: a constructive approach to a controversial issue. Health Aff 29(3):379–387. https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2009.0739

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Contento, Sobel R, Koch PA, Lee H, Sauberli W, Calabrese-Barton A (2007) Enhancing personal agency and competence in eating and moving: formative evaluation of a middle school curriculum—choice, control, and change. J NutrEducBehav 39(5):S179–S186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2007.02.006

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Cooksey-Stowers K, Schwartz MB, Brownell KD (2017) Food swamps predict obesity rates better than food deserts in the United States. Int J Environ Res Public Health 14(11): 1366. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14111366

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics (2014) Core Notion of Autonomy. Vol. 1. 6 vols. Kukla on Autonomy and Bioethics, Georgetown University, Washington DC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWVLS_xK7Ag

  11. Coveney J (2006) Food, morals and meaning: the pleasure and anxiety of eating. Routledge, USA

    Google Scholar 

  12. Crawford R (1994) The boundaries of the self and the unhealthy other: reflections on health, culture and AIDS. Soc Sci Med 38(10):1347–1365. https://doi.org/10.1016/0277-9536(94)90273-9

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Darley JM, Batson DC (1973) ‘From jerusalem to jericho’: a study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. J Pers Soc Psychol 27(1):100–108. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0034449

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Dean MA (2018) Eating identities, ‘unhealthy’ eaters, and damaged agency. Fem Philos Q 4(3). https://doi.org/10.5206/fpq/2018.3.5778

  15. Dennett DC (1984) Elbow room: the varieties of free will worth wanting. A Bradford Book, Cambridge, Mass

    Google Scholar 

  16. Dixon BA (2018) Food justice and narrative ethics: reading stories for ethical awareness and activism. Bloomsbury Publishing, England

    Google Scholar 

  17. Egger G, Swinburn B (1997) An ‘ecological’ approach to the obesity pandemic. BMJ 315(7106):477–480. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7106.477

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Forman EM, Shaw JA, Goldstein SP, Butryn ML, Martin LM, Meiran N, Crosby RD, Manasse SM (2016) Mindful decision making and inhibitory control training as complementary means to decrease snack consumption. Appetite 103:176–183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2016.04.014

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Fung TT, Long MW, Hung P, Cheung LWY (2016) An expanded model for mindful eating for health promotion and sustainability: issues and challenges for dietetics practice. J AcadNutr Diet 116(7):1081–1086. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2016.03.013

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hamblin J (2018) A credibility crisis in food science. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/09/what-is-food-science/571105/. Accessed 24 Sep 2018

  21. Herman CP, Roth DA, Polivy J (2003) Effects of the presence of others on food intake: a normative interpretation. Psychol Bull 129(6):873–886. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.6.873

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Hill JO, Peters JC (1998) Environmental contributions to the obesity epidemic. Science 280(5368):1371–1374. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.280.5368.1371

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Kukla QR (2018) Shame, seduction, and character in food messaging. In: Barnhill A, Budolfson M, Doggett T (eds) The Oxford handbook of food ethics. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 593–613

  24. Laino C (2011) Ways to combat mindless eating. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20110805/ways-combat-mindless-eating.Accessed 05 Sep 2011

  25. Liebow N (2016) Internalized oppression and its varied moral harms: self-perceptions of reduced agency and criminality. Hypatia 31(4):713–729. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12265

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lindemann Nelson H (2001a) Damaged identities. Cornell University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  27. Lindemann Nelson H (2001b) Identity and free agency. In: DesAutels P, Waugh J (eds) Feminists doing ethics. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, MD, pp 45–62

    Google Scholar 

  28. Mackenzie C, Stoljar N (eds) (2000) Relational autonomy: feminist perspectives on autonomy, agency, and the social self. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  29. Nolfi K (2018) Food choices and moral character. In: Barnhill A, Budolfson M, Doggett T (eds) The Oxford handbook of food ethics. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 680–699

    Google Scholar 

  30. Ogden J, Coop N, Cousins C, Crump R, Field L, Hughes S, Woodger N (2013) Distraction, the desire to eat and food intake. Towards an expanded model of mindless eating. Appetite 62(March):119–126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2012.11.023

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Ogden J, Oikonomou E, Alemany G (2017) Distraction, restrained eating and disinhibition: an experimental study of food intake and the impact of ‘eating on the go’. J Health Psychol 22(1):39–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105315595119

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Resch T (2017) The intuitive eating workbook: ten principles for nourishing a healthy relationship with food. New Harbinger Publications, Inc, Oakland, California

    Google Scholar 

  33. Resnick B (2018) A top Cornell food researcher has had 15 studies retracted. That’s a lot. Vox. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/9/19/17879102/brian-wansink-cornell-food-brand-lab-retractions-jama. Accessed 19 Sep 2018

  34. Rosenberg E, Wong H (2018) This Ivy League food scientist was a media darling. He just submitted his resignation, the school says. Washington Post, sec. Health. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2018/09/20/this-ivy-league-food-scientist-was-media-darling-now-his-studies-are-being-retracted/. Accessed 20 Sep 2018

  35. Saguy AC (2012) What’s wrong with fat?. Oxford University Press, USA

    Google Scholar 

  36. Scully JL (2008) Disability bioethics: moral bodies, moral difference. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham

    Google Scholar 

  37. Sie M (2009) Moral agency, conscious control, and deliberative awareness. Inquiry 52(5):516–531. https://doi.org/10.1080/00201740903302642

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Sie M (2014) Self-knowledge and the minimal conditions of responsibility: a traffic-participation view on human (moral) agency. J Value Inq 48(2):271–291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-014-9424-2

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Sie M (2015) Moral hypocrisy and acting for reasons: how moralizing can invite self-deception. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 18(2):223–235. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-015-9574-8

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Stohr K (2018) The etiquette of eating. In: Barnhill A, Doggett T, Budolfson M (eds) The Oxford handbook of food ethics. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 700–721

    Google Scholar 

  41. Strawson PF (2008) Freedom and resentment. In: Brock WH (ed) Freedom and resentment and other essays. Taylor and Francis, Dublin, USA, pp 1–28

    Google Scholar 

  42. Szende J (2018) Thriving in the desert: theorizing food, justice, and climate change. In: Gilson E, Kenehan S (eds) Food, environment, and climate change: justice at the intersections. Rowman and Littlefield, New York, pp 77–88

    Google Scholar 

  43. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics (2014) Agency. Vol. 6. 6 vols, Kukla on Autonomy and Bioethics, Georgetown University, Washington DC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHyGX-GGjLE.

  44. Tribole E, Resch E (2012) Intuitive eating, 3rd edn. Macmillan, New York USA

    Google Scholar 

  45. Vogel E, Mol A (2014) Enjoy your food: on losing weight and taking pleasure. Sociol Health Illn 36(2):305–317. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.12116

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Walker RE, Keane CR, Burke JG (2010) Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: a review of food deserts literature. Health Place 16(5):876–884. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2010.04.013

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Wansink B (2004) Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annu Rev Nutr 24(1):455–479. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.012003.132140

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Wansink B, Painter JE, North J (2005) Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size may influence intake**. Obes Res 13(1):93–100. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2005.12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Wansink B, Sobal J (2007) Mindless eating: the 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environ Behav 39(1):106–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916506295573

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Wendell S (1996) The rejected body: feminist philosophical reflections on disability. Psychology Press, East Sussex, UK

    Google Scholar 

  51. Zafar, M (2018) Cornell launches 3rd investigation into Brian Wansink’s research misconduct. The Cornell Daily Sun. https://cornellsun.com/2018/11/06/cornell-launches-investigation-into-brian-wansinks-research-misconduct-again/. Accessed 06 Nov 2018

Download references

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Nabina Liebow, Trip Glazer, Keith Underkoffler, the 2016 Learning, Planning, Agency seminar at Georgetown University, as well as participants at meetings of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies, and the 2019 Food Justice and Morality workshop for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks as well to two anonymous reviewers and the editors of this special issue for their helpful suggestions.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Megan A. Dean.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Dean, M.A. In Defense of Mindless Eating. Topoi (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-020-09721-2

Download citation

Keywords

  • Food ethics
  • Mindless eating
  • Agency
  • Dieting
  • Eating