The 'Mediocrevore' Dilemma

Why our eating habits are a source of guilt and guilt trips.

By Robin Abrahams
June 12, 2011

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You slip into the break room, furtively drizzle vinaigrette onto your spinach salad, and try to scuttle back to your desk unnoticed. But you and your healthy meal are spotted, and The Chorus begins: “A salad for lunch – you’re so good!”

“I wish I had the time to fix a salad, but by the time I get all the kids out the door, I’m lucky if I remember change for the vending machine.”

“You make me feel so guilty.”

The confessions are enough to make you think the police should eat salads while interrogating suspects. “I . . . I killed him, detective. And I ate a processed snack high in trans fats afterward. Oh, God, I’m scum!” You wonder what you can do to persuade your colleagues that you are not eating a salad at them.

Chances are, if you’ve ever brought a veggie wrap and V8 for lunch or declined doughnuts at a morning meeting, you’ve heard The Chorus. You’ve probably also met The Soloist – the Healthy Eater, whether of the locavore or South Beach variety, who can’t stop crowing about the superiority of her diet and insisting that with just a little effort, you, too, could exist on her rarefied nutritional plane.

Why does this happen? Why do we judge each other’s food choices or react defensively against the anticipated judgment of people who don’t eat exactly as we do?

Because eating is never merely a biological function. Members of omnivorous species (such as humans, rats, and monkeys) rely on social learning more than instinct to determine what is good to eat. Rats are more likely to try a novel food if they’ve smelled it on the breath of another rat. All a rat is trying to do is not get itself poisoned, but when humans apply social learning to eating, we also factor our penchant for Us-vs.-Them thinking into the equation.

Like language and religion, diets both unite and divide us. There is no more basic show of good will and unity than breaking bread with another person. At the same time, we use food to set ourselves apart. That’s why so many insults are based on another group’s perceived eating preferences – slurs such as “dog eater” and “mackerel snapper,” as well as ideological jabs like “latte liberal” and “Joe Six-Pack.”

The United States has long had a remarkably diverse food culture, reflecting both our immigrant heritage and the ingenuity of marketers. Over the past few decades, we have also been bombarded with information about the nutritional, economic, and environmental effects of the food we eat. A 1950s housewife worried only about her budget and what her family liked, but today’s meal planner is expected to account for everything from cholesterol content to sustainable-fishing practices.

When people have more than a few options to choose from, they are prone to buyer’s remorse and second-guessing, a phenomenon known as the “paradox of choice.” Given the range of food options and the variety of demands we try to satisfy when we shop and cook, it is no wonder that most of us feel like mediocre eaters – call us “mediocrevores.” We do the best we can, but we know every meal we eat could have been lower calorie, higher fiber, less processed, more local. The Chorus of self-hating eaters is what happens when mediocrevores see people who appear to have solved the food problem and then project their dissatisfaction with their own choices onto them. The Soloist is what happens when a mediocrevore needs to persuade you of his superiority in order to persuade himself.

The Chorus ought to give itself more credit. Even the most apparently thoughtless eating habits represent a complex series of choices and trade-offs. The quality of your parents’ marriage, your commute, the topography of your tongue, your ethnic heritage, your child’s temperament – all of these factors, and more, affect how you eat. The Soloist’s smug assurance that optimal eating is within the reach of everyone not only disregards the problem-solving work that people have already put into feeding themselves, it also suggests some of us have failed at one of our most fundamental biological and social tasks.

Food politics in the 21st century are complicated and sometimes brutal. Office politics, however, would be much improved if both The Chorus and The Soloists fell silent.

Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology, is the Globe Magazine’s Miss Conduct columnist. Send comments to