Monday, May 23, 2011

The Philosophy of Diet

JEH Smith muses on the history of our dietary obsessions:

I came up under an anti-fat regime, when foods, or packaged food products, were rated according to their degree of 'fat-freeness', and it was taken for granted that to eat fat was immediately to become fat. This regime made natural sense to me; du bist was du ißt, and all that.

Imagine my surprise then, when, a decade or so ago, the entire value system was suddenly inverted as a sort of Protestant Reformation of the diet occurred, where suddenly it was not the fats but the carbohydrates that were on the index alimentorum prohibitorum. This was difficult to grasp since, as I had always understood, carbohydrates just are the default variety of foodstuff: you get a bit of fat here, and a bit of protein there, but for the most part to eat is just to eat carbs. For these to suddenly be prohibited, and in favor, at that, of at least a certain subvariety of lipid, was all really too much for this old diet-obsessed eater to comprehend. It was more than a Reformation. It was a revaluation of all values.

The anti-carb fever seems to have waned in the most recent years, and now other dietary components are being denounced as the real evil (gluten? Who the hell ever cared about gluten before?); and having lived long enough --having not yet been killed off by the things I eat-- to see dietary rules come and go, I feel emboldened in my reading of the historical record on such matters to conclude that, in general, there must always be some element of diet or other that is prohibited, and it does not matter so much which one it is. The anti-carb revolution was a vivid illustration of a sort of social instability, of a historical period in which competing theories of the proper diet could in a matter of years or even months squeeze out their competitors.

We are, I mean to say, no more advanced than Galenic humoral medicine, or than Ayurveda, in our ascription of values to various foodstuffs. . . .

Smith then goes through the list of harmful foods that Richard Burton put in his Anatomy of Melancholy, a sort of random assemblage of foods and liquors said to increase melancholy; among these are puddings stuffed with blood, buttered meats, fritters, pancakes, and Malmsey wine. But where, he asks, is Burton's list of healthful foods? There is none:

Everything you eat is perceived as potentially harmful, and that is not because of any real, measurably physiological effect, but only because we will never be entirely at ease with the alimentary nature of our existence, with, to put it bluntly, the fact that in order to keep on going as creatures we must constantly devour other creatures. That is a charged activity, and one that is bound to give rise to endless disputations as to the right way of going about it.

And this is pretty much what think of all dietary advice beyond the most basic. Some people very much want the act of eating to be important. They attach great meaning to what they eat, and connect it to whatever else obsesses them. Concerned with your health? Try the latest regime of dietary self-denial. Worried about the environment? Go vegan, or become a locavore. Want to help migrant workers? Boycott some vegetable or another. Want adventure? Seek out foods no one you know has ever tasted, preferably made from things you have never seen alive. Seeking god's favor? Be sure not to eat the foods he frowns on.

None of which is to say that food is not important; after all, we die without it. But attempts to attach meaning to every mouthful make me queasy.

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