Saturday, December 8, 2007

The cost of foodphobia and nutritional obsessions

Most North Americans are accustomed by now to the frequent and excessive declarations by researchers that this or that food is now either deadly poison or an elixir of immortality. You know the routine: This week, coffee's good for you; last week, it was going to give you cancer of the eyelashes, and the previous week, those who didn't indulge were doomed to an agonizing, early demise. Wine, chocolate, tomatoes, broccoli, canola oil, butter, eggs, and many other foods have been the subjects of the unceasing flip-flopping of scientific opinion.

With each new "deadly" or "miraculous" pronouncement, of course, there are millions of obsessive, eating-disordered North Americans changing their diets to accomodate the fresh misinformation that fills every corner of every news outlet. I find it hard to blame them (but not impossible) when "New Study Says Drink Coffee To Live Longer" is a headline positioned higher and larger than, say, a few thousand brown people* dying of genocide and starvation in another country. Aside from the sheer self-absorbed, whiny nature of such prioritizing, it is obvious that people are being trained to fear some foods and revere others. And, after thinking about it, the reasons for this are pretty obvious.

Whenever we are fed another tidbit of food science, no matter how shaky the facts, the big food companies are on the ball, quite ready to cater to this new quirk. Low carb craze? Here's our brand new low carb bread for you to buy! Lycopene is a miracle substance? Let's make commercials reminding people to eat lots of ketchup! Wine has stuff that might be good for you, but wine itself gets you drunk, so, hey, here's some wine in pill form, with all the magic stuff to make you live forever.

Not only do they have these awesome new products to give you wine without the enjoyment of it, bread without actually being bread, and so on, but you'll pay extra for them to add a bit of something (that probably cost them a fraction of a penny per product) or leave out an ingredient. Our national eating disorder is not just big business for diet companies, it's enormously profitable for food manufacturers. Where else can you get away with paying more money to have less stuff put into a container, just so it can be conveniently marked as being a "100 calorie pack"? Give me a break.

We pay more money for special foods (fat free, sugar free, caffeine free, flavor free) that we don't even like to eat, because they taste like shit. They don't satisfy our hunger, so of course many people go and binge afterwards. I'm not going to comment on binge eating making you fat, because that isn't true for every person that binges, BUT the fact that you've spent money on the flavorless garbage, then go ahead and pay MORE money to eat something that actually assuages your hunger, well, that's certainly one hell of a way for the food companies to make a profit.

I wonder if many people have lost their ability to be guided by their palates toward satisfying meals. We get jerked back and forth by "science", suckered into buying the diet foods, and then binge on whatever is handy, which is usually NOT what we wanted in the first place. How would a person go back to a more intuitive way of eating after all that? I suppose the first step would be to ignore and dismiss each new food-related claim that is getting the news spotlight. The next would be to figure out what foods you actually DO like, and which DO satisfy your hunger properly, and then make and eat those foods.

For what it's worth, I have pretty much always rolled my eyes at these food pronouncements, and my spouse and I enjoy filling, home-cooked meals almost every day. Because my dinner is satisfying and delicious, I don't have the urge to go raiding the refrigerator later on. We are familiar with the things that we need in our meals to make them satisfying, such as a good balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, and flavor. Fat-free stuff? Worthless--it leaves you hungry!

Eat what you enjoy, and what satisfies you. Ignore the screaming press, and don't cave in to things that say, "Buy our stuff, because it has this awesome thing in it that makes you live like, forever, dude!" Don't fear chocolate, coffee, or other items unless you have a specific problem with those items--obviously we are all different, and some are allergic to things that most people have no trouble eating. Don't buy into the hype :)

* I have, for most of my life, found it incomprehensible that people in the US seem to have absolutely no value for people who are not white. A few thousand die in an earthquake in India? Hey, they're just brown people. No biggie. Genocide in Sudan? Brown people. There's too many of them anyway, right? Thirty thousand children starving to death every single day? So what--they're not white, so their parents had no business breeding in the first place. Perhaps it is easier for people to dismiss them as "other" than to wrap their brains around the horrors in the world, but I don't find that to be a sufficient excuse.


vesta44 said...

I quit buying into the hype about certain foods are bad when I first noticed that it was being shouted that eggs were bad for you (cholesterol, I eat a LOT of eggs and my cholesterol is and always has been fine), then they recanted and said eggs weren't bad for you. After that, I'm like, why should I believe anything you have to say about any food? I'm going to eat what I like and what I think tastes good. It also makes me mad as hell that they want me to pay more for foods that have the supposedly bad stuff taken out (right, I'm going to pay more to get less....NOT). I belong to a panel that rates ideas for new snack foods (low-fat, added vitamins, etc) and they hear HAES from me all the time, and about cost, and hell no I'm not going to buy it, it tastes like shit. I don't know if I'm making a difference, but at least they are hearing my voice.

nukkingphutz said...

You might lynch me for this [;)], but I have to admit that I still buy a lot of fat free or sugar-free foods. Why? Either A) I can't tell the difference in taste; or B) I'm just used to it. Example: certain brands of fat-free mayo taste exactly the same to me as full-fat mayo, so I get the fat-free. And I have ALWAYS drank diet soda, so drinking the stuff with sugar in it makes me feel sick (TOO sweet).

And I have to say I totally agree with that last paragraph, re: "brown people". But I also wanted to add that the majority of middle - upper class americans also turn a blind eye to people suffering within their own borders. Homeless people? Abused people? Who cares? I say this as someone who has been on both sides of the issue (my life hasn't just had ups and downs, it's had valleys and mountaintops!). Granted, there are more "brown people" suffering than poor Americans, but I just wanted to add that. I'm not trying to say they're more important, just saying they get the same (non)treatment.

Jamie Boyle said...

What a very interesting post. We live in a weird world where when major issues are going on concerning obesity and health major food manufacturers are raking in a fortune advertising low calories, fat free, caffeine free etc... and most people are beleivers in what they say. The true fact is that you cannot always beleive what the label says. There are tons of false advertising being done to make a profit and increase sales. Buyers should be aware of the fact just because it says low calories, or sugar free, doesn't always mean so. You need to look at the ingredients as well.

You know what the funny thing is in this world is that it's always more expensive to eat healthy. Junk food and non nutritional food are less expensive to buy. Like you said they put less in a package and then they mark up the price and we the consumer buy it.

Food manufacturers are raking in the dough with current health related problems in the world today. Kinda sad to see business's profit off of people's problems but hey thats business really.

mumboj said...

How can a food be 'non nutritional', if it has no nutritional content it is not food.

Jamie Boyle said...

What I meant was junk food or anything that people eat that is really not healthy for us, no nutritinal value (junk food).

annaham said...

This post wins an internet, seriously.

Lindley said...

A few years ago, in my dieting phase, I read a lot about tofu and determined that I was going to both try it and like it. I went out and bought some and diced it to use in a stir fry.

I never even tasted it, because I couldn't hack the smell. It smelled like manure. Truly awful. It's possible I got a bad batch, but I smelled some later and it smelled the same way.

Ridiculously, I guilted for years over it. Obviously I was deficient. It wasn't that it just wasn't the food for me, it was that I was somehow lacking in not immediately loving it.

Diet sodas? Same thing. I'm a huge soda drinker and everyone from my parents to my doctor nagged me about it. I was assured that if I'd just switch to diet sodas I'd immediately lose 20 pounds and get used to the taste really fast as well.

Of course, years later, I still don't like the taste of a lot of them. I finally decided that life's too short to drink things I don't like, so I've switched back to regular for the most part. I'm getting the sanctimonious comments again, of course, but that's okay.

mumboj said...

"What I meant was junk food or anything that people eat that is really not healthy for us, no nutritinal value (junk food)."

If something has no nutritional value, it cannot be absorbed by the human body. If ingested, it would pass right out of the body because the body could not use it It is therefore not food.

Jamie Boyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamie Boyle said...


What is this an english lesson?

You know what I meant as well as others. Lets just leave it at that cause we can go on and on.

Junk Food is not very nutritious, do you understand now?

Debra said...

Awesome post. The most interesting thing to me about the constant conflicting information is that each pronouncement is hyped as the TRUTH (with the accompanying parade and streamers). Writers rarely mention that since the new research study directly contradicts the previous study, maybe the new one might not be the TRUTH either. And an unsuspecting public just allemands right.

I guess it's just too boring for words to say eat what you like in moderation and try to get a wide variety of foods into your diet.

RioIriri said...

Okay, dude, I don't know who you are, or why you're getting preachy in my blog, but this is not the place to be talking about how some foods are evil and bad for you.

Studies show, by the way, that kids whose parents deny them "junk" food are more likely to binge on it when they have the opportunity than kids whose parents allow them to have it occasionally.

As for "not very nutritious", what this seems to mean to a lot of people is "has a lot of calories". However, the line between what is and what is not "junk food" is pretty arbitrary. It's based more on people's beliefs than on any real definition. It seems to apply to food that contains a lot of calories, and a lot of people believe that foods that are high in fat are especially bad for you.

However, low-fat diets are associated with a lot of problems, especially for women. The low-fat craze has done a great deal to harm women. Yet, we are made to feel guilty for having ice cream, drinking whole milk, or eating full-fat yogurt.

So, really, I don't care if you don't find something to be "not nutritious". If it can be digested and used as fuel for the body, it has nutritive value. Sometimes, if you're on the run during a busy day, a packet of chips can be exactly the right thing to prevent that mid-afternoon crash. There's NO need to feel guilty about this, and it's ridiculous to fret about it being a "bad" food.

RioIriri said...

Ew, it really does sound like you got a couple of very unlucky batches of tofu!

I have some tofu advice if you really want to try it again, but I totally get it if you don't. I love tofu, personally, and I have become pretty good at preparing it.

If you do want to try again, and you have an Asian grocery in your town, try getting some pressed tofu; it will have a better texture. Also, their regular tofu will be fresher.

Who knows, though; it could be that you are just sensitive to it, the way I am about cilantro (I'm one of those who's genetically programmed to have it taste like soap, yuck).

Jamie Boyle said...


Sorry if you think I am preaching here I'm not. I was just leaving my comment or opinion.

Yes I agree with you kids that aren't allowed to eat that will binge on it when they have the chance. Better to let them have it ocassionally yes.

I was just sharing my comment and my opinion. Thats it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion no matter if people agree or disagree with it.

Sorry if I offended you on your blog.

Lindley said...

@Rio: Go ahead and toss any tips my way - I might someday decide to give it another try. :) I tend to like bland foods anyhow.

mumboj said...

I hope this is not superfluous to your excellent reply, Rio, but it is I that seems to have offended you Jamie, I was merely pointing out that you said something that was incorrect. I'm sorry if I sounded like I was lecturing you.

But if you want your views to stand regardless, that's OK with me.

aebhel said...

I agree with everything you said re: food, and our priorities are certainly screwed up when the nutritional value of coffee is more important to people than genocide, but I'm not entirely sure I agree with your last comment about the 'othering' of impoverished peoples and nations.

While I do completely agree that this is something that does happen, I don't think that's precisely what is happening in this case. Most people can't get really emotionally worked up over something that doesn't affect them, anyone they know, any place they've ever been. I've heard this applied as a criticism of Americans in particular and Westerners in general, but (and maybe this is just my American/Western privilige showing) I believe that's more of a human trait. When I hear about famines and wars in other countries, I don't think 'oh, it was brown people, they don't matter anyway'--nor do I know anyone who thinks that way. I think 'oh, that's awful', but since it isn't something awful that affects me personally, I'm not going to get emotionally overwrought about it. It's much the same if I hear about a school shooting; it was the same way I felt when I heard about 9/11, in which a significant portion of the victims were white, educated Americans just like me. But they weren't people I knew, so while I could acknowledge that what had happened was awful, I couldn't get that upset about it.

Sorry for this incredibly long, very late post; I don't expect anyone to respond, but I kind of wanted to get that off my chest.