A Philosophical Reflection on "Healthy Eating"
Two tenets of being human are: avoid pain and seek pleasure. It is my observation that, as North Americans, we have twisted these into: ignore pain and seek diversion. We think ourselves triumphant, gliding past all that is unwanted, happily floating towards joy. What we really do is seek out prescriptions, formulas and other ready made distractions from what really stirs us and pat solutions to give us the illusion of control, of recovery, of healing.
Our approach to food and eating isn't really all that different. We adjust, of course, to a starting point in our analysis, that excludes regular consumers of cheese puffs, diet soda and Vicodin. Many of us who even have a sense of food as medicine have reduced the experience of eating to a formulaic one designed with the singular objective of optimum physical health. It should be said that all that follows pre-supposes that food choices are made for alleged health reasons and not for faith, allergy/sensitivity or preference reasons (no amount of beneficial digestive enzymes will convince me to have even one leaf of raw cilantro- blech!).
Just like pharmacy junkies, we want to avoid the pain of disease, yes. And it is true that our mission is more noble because we respect food over gel capsules. But that pesky imposter, diversion, still lurks masquerading as true pleasure. Even those of us who do not medicate ourselves into a state of illusion (ignore pain) have been duped with the new code of the wellness conscious: healthy eating. There are as many prescriptions for this as there are Morgan Freeman voice-overs. Vegan... paleo... raw... eating for your blood type. All are equations that categorically exclude some foods and demand others be eaten in specific combinations or at specific times. Is any of this truly healthy? Do these formulas not sound more like compulsions? I point out that O.C.D. is, according to most clinical definitions, characterized by excessive fixation with certain behaviours, habits or routines.1
So what appears to be 'healthy eating' is healthy - ostensibly - only for our bodies. What about our emotional, social and cultural health? In her book, The Self-Compassion Diet,2 Jean Fain discusses the first of the three. She maintains that nurturing an attitude of self-care as opposed to deprivation or militant food formulas is what will lead to true emotional health and even, only as a coincidental by-product, to an end to donut worship
With our compulsion to buy the specific products called for in many of these 'healthy eating formulas' many of which have specific origins or are grown in specific conditions, we have lost one of the most nourishing parts of the process of enjoying food - procuring it. We are still on this side of the precipice to be sure. However, online grocery sales are expected to have doubled (since 2001) by 2013.3 The apparent convenience of these packaged, plate- ready 'healthy' foods eclipses those other socially therapeutic processes of preparing and sharing food encouraging single people, for example, to seek out the online options rather than a community kitchen, an evening out or friends with whom to break (gluten-free!) bread.
I remember a discussion with a fellow Chef unfamiliar with Mediterranean (specifically Greek) cuisine. He insisted that we use fresh oregano in a recipe because 'fresh is best'. Well, yes on the surface fresh is preferable. But I wasn't advocating the use of onion powder or (food blasphemy alert) minced, jarred garlic(!) but rather an ingredient used for centuries, prolifically in this cuisine to the complete exclusion of its fresh counterpart. This kind of rote insistence on formulas is what loses the match for us and the last pillar of a truly healthy food experience that acknowledges the cultural power of food.
In his engagingly written book, In Defense of Food,4 Michael Pollan writes, '..don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food'. I would humbly add : 'if your great-grandmother ate it, maybe she was on to something - don't mess with it!' He goes on to prescribe perhaps the most blinding flash of the obvious in recent food theory with his credo 'Eat food, not too much, mostly plants'. With the greatest respect, I suggest an amendment: 'Eat food you love, not too much of it by yourself, mostly plants you get from the market, not the mailbox'.
- Fain, J.; The Self-Compassion Diet; Sounds True Inc., Boulder, CO; 2011 3.
- Pollan, M.; In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto; Penguin Press; NY; 2008