Self-control and the sustainable ethic of bio food

by | Jan 24, 2024

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Self-control and the sustainable ethic of bio food

In the previous blog, I discussed two of bio food’s three most salient features associated with bio – its naturalness and health benefits. Now it remains to analyse its third characteristic and that is its ethicality.  Indeed, bio food is deemed ethical not only because it can be good for one’s health and so the right food to eat, but also because it is good for other life forms, for the environment and the planet. In relation to people, it brings up the questions regarding needs, bodily self-control and discipline, desire and indulgence.

Need vs desire: Knowing yourself and knowing your food

Knowing what is good for oneself and one’s health requires that one knows oneself, and has control over oneself. Such control, which is incomplete without control over food, one’s appetite and desire, forms one’s embodied identity. However, the link between food and one’s self (identity) is quite overlooked and neglected. Besides admitting this connection, there was little to nothing my interlocutors had to say about it. When I started to talk about this connection, one of my interlocutors got quite uncomfortable, and said that he was not into the ‘Freudian things’. In reality, ‘control’ and food seem quite disconnected. 

It is really challenging to have control over food not only because it does not come from the outside when culture and society do not really safeguard one’s relation with food, but also because one is actually constantly encouraged to eat and desire more, mainly through food’s relatively easy availability and presence, its packaging, marketing and advertisements. The overwhelming amount and variety of foodstuffs and their presentation through different media make it clear that food goes far beyond controlling and fulfilling a basic need.

In fact, modern (processed) food is more about creating and stimulating insatiable desire than about satisfying hunger. Falk (1994) comprehends the shift from ‘need’ to ‘desire’ as the transformation of man from a ‘sensory being’ to a ‘sensual being’, or what he calls the ‘consuming body’.  In contrast to need, desire is not about the transition from an unbalanced state (hunger) to a balanced one (its satisfaction). Indeed, ‘the state of satisfaction is foreign to desire: it is a constant striving’ (1994:58). Given that desire is produced and stimulated externally, it presupposes a ‘culture-as-constituted’ (1994:58). As Falk puts it, desire’s striving to get from a ‘normal’ to a ‘non-normal’ state ‘is a vital feature of the cultural dynamics which on a collective and on a social scale takes in more than the level with the closest relationship to man’s bodily existence’ (1994:58). In other words, the ‘non-normal’ state does not emerge from one’s ‘normal’ relation with oneself, but is externally produced by culture.

Self-control vs self-indulgence

Fulfilling a need is about self-control, whereas giving in to an ‘artificial’ desire is related to self-indulgence and lack of self-discipline. According to Lupton, in consumer culture there is ‘a continual dialectic between the pleasures of consumption and the ethic of asceticism as means of constructing the self: each would have no meaning without the other’ (1996:153). Lupton follows Taylor (1989), who identifies two major ethics that make up the modern subject, and which exists in a continual tension with each other. One is the ethic of rationality (asceticism) privileging self-control and discipline, while the other is the ethic of expression and engagement with one’s emotions and inner impulses (hedonism).  

However, these two ‘ethics’ are based on the mind-body dichotomy when one prioritizes the rational mind and the other the emotionally expressive body. The latter is a response to the former. This is obvious from their spatial and temporal expressions and divisions. As Lupton writes, ‘the workplace, the working day and the working week are characterized by production and ascetic self-discipline, while the evening, the weekend, the holiday and festival day, the home and public spaces such as shopping malls, pubs, bars and restaurants are the times and spaces within which consumption and hedonistic self-indulgence tend to take place’ (1996:151). They represent two extremes that justify each other. Ultimately, it is left to oneself how they are played out or managed in one’s life. Thus, as Lupton observes, ‘where once imperatives around food may have originated from primarily the constraints of season, availability and religious rules, contemporary restrictions over diet are imposed via internal constraints’ (1996:74). This means that self-control regarding food is and should be an individual effort and responsibility.

The process in which one makes oneself is realized through an embodied relation with bio food. As Fischler emphasizes, food’s identity and consumer’s identity are intertwined, and thus ‘if one does not know what one is eating, one is liable to lose the awareness of certainty of what one is oneself’ (1988:290). Conversely, he rightly claims that ‘by controlling what one eats, one can control what one is’ (Lupton 1996:75). Being able to reflect on food, control desire and appetite, and select and eat the right food is a sign of self-control and self-discipline, as much as the inability to do so is a sign of moral weakness, which can lead to emotions of guilt, shame, self-disgust or frustration. These emotions are also a result of , on the one hand, one’s awareness that one’s choice of food is a potent sign to others, one’s degree of self-control and self-esteem, and, on the other, one’s knowledge of food’s nutrition, origins or composition (Lupton 1996).

Sustainable ethic of bio food

Besides the two opposing ethics described above, there is an ethic that is not trapped in the mind (restrictive rationality)–body (reactive and releasing pleasure) dichotomy. The ethic that bio food creates and is part of is such an ethic. It is a ‘sustainable ethic’ that is not embedded in the mind–body opposition and competition, but is rather about a balanced relation between them, that is, between self-control and self–expressiveness, release and indulgence. In this view, self-control is not about self-restriction or confining the body, but about keeping it healthy by shunning away from what is unhealthy, risky and unsafe.

This is utterly needed in our times when a lot of food is not made for health but for long-shelf life and profit. Pleasure and self-control work together, for they are based on the respect for oneself (one’s health), other human and non-human beings and the environment. Pleasure is not then opposed to and disruptive of the rational self-control but in fact its result. It is not a reactive pleasure of ‘forbidden fruit’ but a genuine one. Indeed, reactive or transgressive pleasure is dependent on boundaries which, in fact, bring it into existence. It is well-known that, as Lupton writes, ‘we would not gain so much pleasure from indulging ourselves in foods that are prohibited if they were not denied us in the first place. Our ‘rational’ knowledge that they are ‘bad’ constructs our sensual and emotional experience of them as ‘good’ ’ (1996:152). Indeed, the experience and feeling of healthiness and general well-being are the main sources of genuine pleasure.


Bio food is not part of the short-sighted and unsustainable consumer lifestyle and society. Its main purpose is not to create and stimulate insatiable desire. Indeed, such a desire is the force behind any addiction. But desire/addiction and health exclude each other and do not go together.  Bio food is seen as a real food, that is, a nutritious, healthy and natural substance one really needs. This is evident not only from my own experience and those of my interlocutors, but also from the fact that bio food is not as much promoted or advertised as non-bio food.

When bio food is deemed ethical, this is not only because it can be good for one’s health and so the right food to eat, but also because it is good for other life forms, for the environment and the planet. It goes beyond one’s diet, health and body, and hand in hand with the idea that humans should be ‘guardians’ of nature, which they should not exploit but respect, appreciate and use sustainably.

As my own and fieldwork experience and those of my interlocutors make clear, bio food’s naturalness, healthiness and ethicality do not just circulate in discourse, but are part of bio food’s production, distribution and selling and are experienced and lived in a bodily relation with it.  Bio food in Belgium, as manifested in people’s life and in the ways it is made and sold is clearly ethical. It is part of ecological, environmentally friendly and sustainable approaches and practices.

The preceding blog Classifying bio food and understanding its characteristics related to nature and health can be found here

My other food consumption ideas and research blogs can be found here

This blog is a slightly adapted part of my thesis What is your relation with food like?: Examining the embodied relation between people and bio food in Belgium (Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology); References available upon request.

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