Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food as Religion

My article on veganism definitely got a few people riled up. My fiance for one, who I have decided that I am going to call Seamus for the purposes of this blog (no, he is not Irish, but I don't have a better name and I'm sick of not calling him anything.) Seamus has always said that veganism was too much of a life-style change for him and that it was a deal breaker. So there was some eye-rolling at my house over that post.

In addition, I had several friends tell me that if I became vegan they could never hang out with me.

Now before anyone rushes to condemn my friends/fiance who are all fine people for their supposed close-mindedness, I'd like to say that food has a way of getting all of us, even those of us who are most open-minded, riled up.

Food, it seems, is like politics or religion. Everyone thinks their worldview is the best one. And, I'm guilty of this too, no doubt about it. Hell, just look at the post on veganism.

Even when we don't moralize (as I try not to do, but sometimes fail) even when we try not to teach, we still secretly in our hearts of hearts think our eating style or our idealized eating style is the best. And we joyously pounce on any news or study that backs up this claim.

Which is easy because there is PLENTY of evidence to back up just about any eating claim.

We absorb pithy aphorisms and then repeat them to ourselves until they become like the laws of gravity. Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. And then when someone questions this, we react as though they are heretics. What do you mean WHY? Don't you KNOW THAT UNPROCESSED FOOD IS BETTER?!!

Several months ago, when I was learning to deal with my cholesterol, I went to the McDougall website to see what I could learn. I still remember reading a forum where someone asked stupidly why he couldn't drink non-fat milk. All the other posters ganged up on him. "Why are you asking such a stupid question?!! This is something Dr. McDougall has explained OVER AND OVER again! Ignore the troll, guys, he obviously isn't interested in Dr. McDougall's eating plan." I felt bad for the guy, and I wanted to know what was wrong with non-fat milk too, but questioning McDougall is apparently NOT OKAY.

So I googled "soy milk" versus "fat free milk" and half of the websites I went to told me that soy milk was terrible and produced by evil people and was likely to kill me and the other half told me that cow milk was terrible and produced by immoral people and also, of course, likely to kill me.

I was genuinely trying to learn everything I could about food and nutritional science so that I could lower my cholesterol, but instead I learned something else. I learned that food is political, it defines us and our values. I learned that, in fact, there is a lot of uncertainty even among doctors about what is best for us and what is not. And I learned that no matter what your food lifestyle is, you can probably find a movement, some prominent people, and/or some scientific studies to back you up.

And then once you have made your lifestyle choice, you will probably be capable of filtering out all the other noise that tells you that your choice might not be correct. Or at least not correct for everyone.

Take this recent article by Mark Bittman where he opines that eating real, unprocessed food is the best food lifestyle to live. Bittman dismisses veganism pretty quickly, or at least veganism that involves processed food. The goal for Bittman is "health and sustainability" and he casually dismisses anyone who thinks that one could have other goals for going vegan or that one could be healthy and still eat veggie burgers or fake bacon. Of baked potato chips versus regular potato chips, Bittman argues:

And whether baked, low-salt chips are “better” than fried ones, is not only arguable — the baked ones are more likely to be chemical-laden — but misses the point which, again, is that real foods are superior in every way.

Of course it is arguable whether baked low-salt chips are "better" than fried potato chips, although baked potato chips have lower saturated fat contents and saturated fat at least has some linkage to higher cholesterol whereas the links to the chemicals Bittman cites are a lot less clear. (See, here I am clearly displaying my food lifestyle values.) But I agree that that's a side point. Bittman's real point is that "real food" is superior in every way.

But what is real food?

Most people don't eat potato chips thinking that they are better for them than some baby carrots. I certainly don't. I eat chips (usually the frou frou pita chips I buy at Whole Foods which don't have many ingredients in them so obviously they are BETTER for me, rolls eyes) because I want a salty, easy snack. Is that okay? I would say, yes, it's okay to have a small snack, but it's not something I want to eat too much of. And it doesn't matter whether I eat pita chips or Lays ... I still shouldn't eat very much of it.

The problem with exhortations like "eat real food" is that we can easily manipulate it to fulfill our whims and agendas. We make chocolate chip cookies and figure we can eat three since they are made from organic dark chocolate and whole wheat. We load up on the cheese and butter in our home cooked pasta. I can't tell you how many foodie "slow food" restaurants I've been to that seemed to serve all their food drenched in butter and cheese and then call their food pure health food. Now again, I'm going to try not to push my personal foodie moralism on everyone else, but I will say, eating butter and cheese is not healthy for me personally.

Now, I'm not trying to argue entirely against Bittman or Michael Pollan the real-food evangelist. I think Pollan is largely right with his motto: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

The problem is ... most of us find eating piles of vegetables BOOOOORING, including one suspects Michael Pollan, whose 36-hour dinner party included an ENTIRE goat. B.R. Myers notes in his recent article in The Atlantic "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies:"

The same goes for restaurant owners like Alice Waters. A celebrated slow-food advocate and the founder of an exclusive eatery in Berkeley, she is one of the chefs profiled in Spoon Fed. “Her streamlined philosophy,” Severson tells us, is “that the most political act we can commit is to eat delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence.” A vegetarian diet, in other words? Please. The reference is to Chez Panisse’s standard fare—Severson cites “grilled rack and loin of Magruder Ranch veal” as a typical offering—which is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it.

Now, I love Chez Panisse but Myers makes a valid point about that free range veal (isn't all veal considered 'bad'?) People in the environmental movement, myself included, often say that free range meat is expensive, but that's how it should be, and people should point blank eat meat less often. But that's pretty easy to say when you can actually afford free range meat as I can. And none of this explains why eating delicious food slowly and with reverence is a political act, let alone the MOST political act. Gandhi committed political acts all the time by NOT eating. Would Waters have argued that instead Gandhi should have eaten some slow roasted lamb?

I say all of this as someone who truly loves Chez Panisse-style "foodie food." I have read book after book by Michael Pollan. And I love Bittman's "The Minimalist" and own a cookbook of his. But the truth is, the foodie religion of Pollan and Waters is simply another religion. Another lifestyle choice. And another way for people to express their own personal values. Do I think there's some value to Michael Pollan's foodie lifestyle? Yes. But I also think there's value to be found in the vegan lifestyle, the vegetarian lifestyle, the McDougall lifestyle, and I think there may even be room in my own lifestyle for the occasional bag of baked Lays.

Because chemicals or no, those things are salty goodness. And I'm not convinced that those are any worse for me than some "real food" foodie potato chip that I am absolutely SURE is being made somewhere in San Francisco and being sold for $9 a bag. And if that makes me a heretic? Well, Pollan, forgive me for I have sinned.


Anonymous said...

Very well put! I, myself, am a Pollanite (although I probably eat less meat than he does... and definitely wouldn't get caught buying Froot Loops at the grocery store like he did) and do have some issue with the vegan eating regime only because I've met amazing meat, egg and dairy farmers who treat their animals well and use their poop as fertilizer and all that jazz and would support using one of those eggs instead of some GMO soy to make a cookie moist.

ANYWAY -- more people (including myself) could stand to learn from this post; we should all be doing our best to promote healthy living, but not just OUR OWN way of healthy living, whatever that may be.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I don't much care for vegan food but it'll keep you skinny and healthy which makes it so you can buy nice clothes. The thing that irritates me is that I've friends that don't have restricted diets but we always end up going to these curry restaurants because that's all they seem to ever want to eat. I'm getting so burnt out on Indian food.

Rosa said...

Thank you for this! I don't argue with people about food, because it's so personal, though I've been in my fair share of "which is more sustainable, X or X? conversations.

Personally, I have good genetics for cholesterol. My grandma ate a lot of chicken schmaltz on white bread and never saw garlic til she was a grownup. So much as I like Pollan, I pretty much ignore the Pollanites.

E said...

I interpreted "mostly plants" to include nuts, grains & legumes - to meaning you don't have to only eat "piles of vegetables".

Another aspect of all our food choices (apart from our own health) is the environmental and social implications of these choices. But the question is whether individual choice or political activism is more worthwhile (or even if we have to choose).

ruchi said...

Thistle, to be fair to His Pollanness, I believe he was buying Froot Loops for his notoriously picky eater son- I'm not sure anything makes you compromise your food ideals like an obstinate child. ;)

Michael, there is more to Indian food than curry! Why not take them to a nice dosa next time?

Rosa, it IS personal ... you can argue about it, but I think arguing food is really tantamount to arguing politics or religion.

E, I think you can interpret it that way, but I think that eating vegetables, pure vegetables is probably the only part of that is uncontroversial among all different food lifestyles. I know of no food diet or lifestyle or movement that wouldn't acknowledge the value of eating carrots. But there are plenty that try to cut down on carbs, even whole grain ones (Atkins) or that frown on nuts (McDougall). So I would say "eat vegetables" is probably something that every food religion can get behind (kind of like: Do good.) But once you get past that, it gets more complex and the "good" or "bad"ness of whole grains and nuts starts getting opened for debate. Does that make sense?

EcoCatLady said...

Ha! I'm starting to think that EVERYTHING is a religion in this country. Or perhaps it's just that our national pass time is self righteous indignation, and we'll use any excuse to go there.

The truth is that there are no black and whites here. Everything you eat has an environmental impact, and human nutrition is so varied and complex that there really is no "right" way to eat. Then you have to factor in people like myself who are allergic to half the foods on the planet...

Personally, I think that all the sound and fury gets in the way of what we really neeed which is good solid scientific information.

Rosa said...

Broccoli might be untouchable, but I have had a mom suggest that maybe my son shouldn't have so many carrots - you know they're high in sugar, right?

ruchi said...

Ecocatlady, I think one of the big problems unfortunately is that most of the scientific information is really unclear and uncertain. This was really surprising to me when I started looking at scientific studies for help with lowering my cholesterol, but a doctor friend of mine told me that the truth is that doctors and scientists still don't know a lot about how our bodies work. The problem is that we can find lots of correlations, but determining causation is really, really, really hard.

Rosa, OMG, are you SERIOUS?!! Too much sugar from CARROTS?!!

EcoCatLady said...

True Dat! For every study you read saying that XYZ is wonderful, you can find an equal number saying that it causes cancer.

I also think that perhaps not all humans are the same in terms of what sort of nutritional programs are going to work for them.

Yet more reasons that we all need to chill and stop proselytizing about our dietary choices!

Eco Yogini said...

this is an awesome post. I agree with you that food is political- and people in the Yoga world aren't all "lets hold hands and bond" about it either (which I expected naively them to be- but getting called "unyogic" for the way you eat smacks of a high level of snobbery and closed minded if you ask me).

A great reminder of how life is never just black and white. :)

ruchi said...

EcoYogini, unfortunately I think that snobbery exists everywhere. It's natural I guess ... we all have our moral values and we believe that our values are the right ones or we wouldn't have them. But I think it's important to realize that other people can be good people and still have different values than you.

EcoCatLady said...

Thought you might find this article of interest:

Now that's taking Veganism a bit too far!

Alex said...

It is so confusing! I never really know what to eat, particularly if you are pressed for time, have picky eaters and a low budget! But we keep trying...

The judgment and emotion so many people bring in to these eating well ideas are awful - basically they make it sound like you are killing yourself (and your family) if you don#t eat their recommended way.

But if you think that's bad - wait until you have kids!! Firstly you have to worry about what they're eating and secondly, there is almost a war on between the two extreme camps of parenting philosophies, each claiming the others are doing their babies long-term psychological harm. Most of us sit in the middle, mouths gaping but taking a middle ground is also not acceptable to most 'true believers' and you are seen as just as bad. Grrr.

Anyway, good eating to you! Maybe you can write your own diet book? 'Eating Right with Ruchi'!

ruchi said...

EcoCat- Yeah, that guy is pretty much a food zealot. No real difference from a religious zealot really.

Alex, yes I am SURE it gets much worse when you become a parent. Witness Rosa's comment about the carrots being too high in sugar.

Sonja said...

Hi there!

I stumbled upon your blog some time ago and have been reading through your older posts whenever I really needed to study but simply couldn't anymore - I'm sure you'll understand ;-).

I liked this post about food because a) it made me laugh and b), yes you're right, food is tantamount to politics in terms of discussing/ doing small talk - bound to get heated. (religion not so much in my culture)

It made me laugh because of the Grandmother thing: my grandmother grew up in Pomerania before the second world war. They ate many things! that are considered to be unhealthy today and had no such things as basil or curry or spaghetti or even rice. At that time, she would not have recocknized those things as food, so we're not supposed to eat that? ;-) *giggles*

ruchi said...

Sonja, I never thought about that, but that's funny. My grandmothers are fairly young I guess, but my great grandmothers probably would recognize very little as food that wasn't in Indian cuisine.

Sonja said...


I totally agree with the thought and idea behind "Don't eat what your grandmother does not recognize", but, what's that english expression again, one has to take it with a grain of salt?

And yes, I'm procrastinating again...

but your latest post and the answers to it gave me food for thought.