I originally wrote this post in 2013 on my geognosis.org site after a particularly heated disagreement with a devout food-fad fanatic. It still reflects my attitude on food -isms five years on.––GastroHistory
Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.—Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1825)
I’ve long had an interest in food, agricultural history, and cultural practices. This interest began with a simple question (well, more of an observation really): Who figured out how to prepare and eat an artichoke? Raw hunger and the survival instinct had to have been the compelling reasons for eating such a spiky, sticky, fibrous thistle. I’m fairly certain drawn butter and aioli were not part of that original culinary experiment. Even today, artichokes have to be one of the most counter-intuitive, user-hostile foods to eat to the uninitiated. But I’m digressing already.
For over 20 years, my artichoke question still makes me ponder the realities of early human history, our humble hunter-gatherer origins, and the development of agriculture that allowed so many human groups to form settlements and leave the nomadic life behind. To quote one of my geography professors, much of this planet is too hot, too dry, too wet, or too cold to support sustained human civilization. Despite these environmental facts, I find it astounding how many cultures have eked out an existence in such challenging climates as deserts, rainforests, and the Arctic. It is even more interesting to consider the diets of cultures in extreme climates, and how it speaks to human adaptability and tenacity. When taken in context, it’s obvious why certain groups eat the specific things they eat. We all require fats, proteins, fibre, vitamins, and minerals to function normally. Although still a subject of great debate (I’m not going to go into food taboos in this post), availability has dictated food acceptability and cultural practice. In other words, we ate what we could find or grow. Only within the past 60 or so years have we had the technology to change what we eat and when. The developed world has never had so much choice in what we put in our mouths—and we’ve never been so sedentary. (Yes, I see the irony of currently sitting on my backside writing this blog post.)
I’m fortunate. I was born in the developed world. I spend most of my work life and some of my free time sitting in front of some sort of technological “glass tit,” to paraphrase Woody Allen. (I do indulge in regular bursts of aerobic activity, and not just because the media or some scientific study told me to.) Through technology and industry, I have regular and predictable access to fruit, grains, vegetables, and meat from all over the world. Agribusiness amends soil to create arable land and manipulates seed for practically any growing (or economic) condition. Most of us in the developed world have plenty to eat, as evidenced by the “obesity epidemic.” Food availability and choice are killing us. We’ve become unhealthily obsessed with food, while clinging to every tantalizing promise of dietary health and longevity. Nowhere is this more evident than social media.
I’m astounded by the barrage of what I’ve taken to calling food evangelism on Facebook and Twitter. Açai and goji berry juice; the Paleo Diet; no carbs–blah, blah, blah. The media distorts even the most mundane of nutritional research or theories, preying on our fear of aging and death: Wheat is the enemy; incorrectly cooked kidney beans cause cancer; soya products should be banned; eating the correct combination of foods prevents cancer. (Point of fact: Undercooked kidney beans ARE toxic.) Unfortunately, these ideas are then posted as gospel and propagated on social media, with little in the way of critical thought or basic research on the part of the person posting them. In an increasingly secularized developed world, food evangelism is the new First World religion, filling that all too human need to believe in something. It has become the new dividing line between the haves and have nots: The poor eat junk food, the wealthy can afford to eat healthy foods.* What’s worse is the judgment accompanying such evangelism, a sort of don’t-blame-me-if-you-don’t-adopt-my-diet-and-get-cancer or how-dare-you-eat-meat (except for bacon) mentality. First World neuroses such as whether or not something is organic, BPA-free, or soya-free obscures the still very real problem of poverty and starvation in the developing world. The poor and starving rarely come into the conversation at all, despite the application of many agribusiness practices abroad that are culturally damaging or environmentally inappropriate to bring us delicacies and out of season produce. Logical thought supplanted by ideological fervour bordering on zealotry. Black and white thinking. Sound familiar?
My take on food fanaticism is simple. There is no one end all, be all panacea for aging and death. Sorry. Doesn’t exist. There is no perfect food that will end poverty, obesity, and disease. And speaking of theories: I suspect much of the obesity epidemic stems from the search for the food equivalent of the fountain of youth in an age of plenty. Let’s face it, we’re gullible. And this gullibility has been used against us by the nutritional and marketing charlatanry that began in the Victorian Era. Science has revealed a lot about human nutritional needs since Lavoisier first worked out the details of metabolism in 1770. But we have so much more to learn.
Vegetarianism, vegan, omnivore, gluten-free, dairy-free, soya-free, gourmet, carnivore, or whatever your dietary -ism: Those of us living in the First World live in a technologically developed society in which we have the freedom to choose what to consume and when. Do the best you can to eat a balanced, healthy diet for you. Don’t eat foods that make you feel lousy or will kill you. Try not to eat junk food, or as I tell my son, a treat is so called because it should be a once-in-a-while joy. Take regular fresh air and exercise. What is appropriate food in one culture (e.g., the meat-dominant diet of the Mongol people and the Inuit, or the vegetarian diet of the Hindus), doesn’t apply to all. Be mindful of the origins of your food and be grateful. And when you get the urge to proselytize your latest diet discovery, remember that not everyone believes in your particular gospel of food.
I won’t hesitate to tell you what you are, if you preach what you eat.
* Historically, the wealthy ate the fatty, luxury foods causing a whole host of problems like the obesity, gout, and diabetes we attribute to the modern diet.