I’ve realized that there are two types of bad diets.
The first is the kind that I see every single week in the grocery store checkout line, where the perpetrator is either completely oblivious or just doesn’t care about the fact that what he’s eating wouldn’t have passed as food a hundred years ago. This guy buys frozen pierogies, TV dinners, cheese puffs, white bread that will stay “fresh” for weeks, and soda in such great quantities you’d think he was bathing with it.
The second type of bad eating is the well-intended kind, where a health-conscious person eats what the health magazines have told her she should eat– health food. She eats fat-free cheese, skim milk, low carb bread, Omega-3 fortified eggs, Gatorade, protein bars, and organic candy. The problem is that this isn’t food either. This is techno-food. Fit for the Terminator perhaps, but not for people.
My guess is that if you’re reading this blog, then you’re either of the second type or of neither type. If you’re of neither type, congratulations. I was of the second type as recently as six months ago, and I still find artifacts from the techno-food mindset in my diet.
Where did all this fake food (and all these fat people) come from? I believe that the answer is reductionist science and the consequential practice of making single nutrients the scapegoats for our health problems.
In the seventies and eighties, we decided that since fat is called “fat,” it must be bad. It was removed from food and replaced by carbohydrates and chemicals, giving birth to the stuff I’m referring to as health food. But somehow we kept getting fat.
In the nineties we decided that carbohydrates were the culprit. Not surprising, considering how many we ate in place of fats. So carbohydrates were banished from health food, and more chemicals were introduced to make what no longer resembled food at least taste like food. And, since food should probably fill us up, we added protein. Lots of protein, to build muscle of course. Because muscle is made of protein!
And this millenium, now that we can’t possibly be just as clueless as we were before, we’re adding Omega-3 fatty acids to our health food. Hooray, we’ve found our savior!
Here’s the problem. To our bodies, food isn’t just the sum of its parts. Foods have a wholeness to them, a wholeness which somebody or some force (god, evolution, whatever you want) doesn’t want us to mess with.
When you take things away from foods, they aren’t foods anymore. Even when you enhance foods with what we’ve decided are healthy ingredients, our bodies don’t absorb them well. Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to optimally handle the foods that occur on this earth. When we mess with that, the results cannot be anything but bad. And the growing waistlines and unprecedented obesity numbers that characterize these times certainly support this claim.
You can take this argument to extremes and claim that our bodies aren’t really designed to handle dairy products, wheat products, or even anything cooked, since from an evolutionary standpoint these are rather recent developments. I believe this, but for me such extremes are not practical at this point in my life. We probably weren’t designed to run 26.2 miles at once either, so I’m doing what I can diet-wise to support this unhealthy marathon habit of mine.
We can’t all be perfect, but we can do one simple thing. Eat real food. Eat food that doesn’t come in packages, food that doesn’t have a nutrition label (see this post), food that doesn’t make health claims. These ideas, by the way, aren’t just mine; I’ve learned most of them from books like In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this stuff.
The good news, from my perspective, is the health food eaters are reading this blog. And if this post has been your first exposure to the idea that health food might not be as healthy as Oprah makes it out to be (come to think of it, why are we taking diet advice from Oprah?), then I’ve done my job.
As for the frozen pierogi and fast food eaters, I’m at a loss. I don’t know how to reach them. If they just don’t care about what they eat, fine; that’s their decision. But if they’re oblivious because they grew up eating like that and don’t realize there’s another way, then they certainly won’t be typing “no meat athlete” into Google. Which means the horror scene in the grocery store checkout line isn’t likely to get any better, barring a cultural change.
In response to this lament of mine, a friend reminded me to heed the advice of someone who knows a thing or two about cultural change. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And I think that’s all we can do.