Let’s get down to brass tacks. We send signals. Signals that are indicative of both our, as well as our neighbors’, worldview. Maybe you drive an electric car because you value a vehicle with a lower environmental impact; perhaps you shop local because your dad was an entrepreneur and you understand the hustle; or even yet, you buy personal care products not tested on animals because you have a couple fur babies of your own. Whatever the case, we all make choices in-line with our larger outlook on the world, showcasing to ourselves and others what we truly value.
Virtue signals – as I like to style them – such as the clothes you wear and the car you drive are pretty painless and run no risk of altering the outcome of public health as my blog title so savagely suggests.
Phrases like these – especially those uttered without an accompanying context – risks signaling that OUR choices are more virtuous, more conscious, or more better than the choices of others. This is seen played out everywhere. Social media, magazine covers, product labels – particularly food product labels – are consistently marketed in this fashion with the overt notion that “good health” is just a purchase away.
While it’s postured by retailers and manufacturers that their labels are informing the consumer, such terms and phrases lack definition, depth, and the transparency humanity deserves. Not tracking with me? Then ponder this: What does it mean when something is called “healthy”? “Healthy” for you? “Healthy” for who? How do we officially define “eating clean”? What’s a “whole” food? Where do we draw the “minimally processed” line? And, a personal favorite of mine, what in the actual F&$# does “natural” mean?
These nutrition and wellness virtue signals like “all-natural”, “low-carb”, or “healthy” do honestly mean well. But meaning well isn’t the same as serving the public. It is of my personal perspective that such expressions are in fact hurting us and devaluing our long-term health. Any time I see an Instagram post suggesting that going vegan will automatically make you more ‘woke, I can’t help but wonder when in the annals of time did we start assigning virtue to food? And the real trouble is, you – like me – probably catch yourself thinking of food as a moral agent versus it’s rather agnostic nature.
Our brains are wired to categorize, sort, and assign value to vast amounts of data inputs; this is normal, we’ve been doing it for eons. What’s abnormal is we aren’t the only ones assigning value to these products. No, were being told and sold what’s “best for us” tethered hook-line-and-sinker to some of the ambiguous phrases I dropped above. Furthermore, this virtue signaling landscape doesn’t stop with its forced hierarchy of health – it unfortunately carries on by devaluing, disenfranchising, and demoting the other products within the same sector through active campaigning or by mere suggestion. It’s one thing to state “Organic” vegetables are the best because they’re organic (which by the way isn’t an argument and does not follow basic logic), it’s another thing entirely to suggest by disassociation that non-organic vegetables are paltry, eaten by mouth-breathers, and only fed to unloved children. Vegetables are vegetables folks and the last time I checked, we need to eat them whether they’re organic or not!
And so, what can you do about this? First, remove those rose-colored glasses and join me on skeptic island – it’s beautiful over here. Kidding aside, I think we as a culture right now need to zoom out the microscope a bit. We get so fixated on becoming well that we lose the signal amongst the noise, the diamond in the rough, the bull amongst the bullshit. Idioms notwithstanding, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (I lied.. there will always be another idiom).
Second, the next time you’re in the grocery store struggling over whether the fresh broccoli is healthier than the frozen bag, remind yourself you’re needlessly debating the virtue of veggies. When your co-worker tells you the secret to losing fat is “eating clean” smile and nod remembering that you don’t succumb to ill-defined, ambiguous terms like “clean” (your secret is safe with me). Ultimately, be a person orientated on the long-term process of health and wellness, instead of fixating on the pseudoscience minutia.
Third and lastly, make an effort not to use, share, or fall for food-based virtue signals yourself. I firmly believe there is no piety in nutritional choices and no righteousness to be found through the foods we eat. What we put in our bodies and feed our families can and ought to be reflected by our values, our belief systems, and our preferences. Those foods do not however, make us morally greater than our neighbors. If a complete jerk eats whole, minimally processed foods whilst sipping alkaline water and adhering to meatless Mondays – all while balancing his chakras – he is still a jerk. As my grandma use to say, a polished turd is still a piece of crap.
Think twice about the values you are messaging to others and the virtues being signaled back to you. Are they ingenuous? Truly harmless? Or rather, are they running the risk of confusing an innocent bystander who just trying to become a little better today than they were yesterday? Think about it.