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The health craze that began sweeping America decades ago is clearly not a passing fad. It has woven its way into the fabric of our society and a principal part of that cultural upholstery is our dietary regime. Individuals swept up in its fervor are betting that gastronomic sacrifice will pay off with better health and more specifically, longer life. But you should always know the rules, the odds, and especially your limits before rolling the dice.
People frequently ask me if certain foods are healthy. What does "healthy” exactly mean? Are they referring to reducing their cholesterol or blood pressure? Are they asking if the food will inhibit cancer or other dreadful diseases? Do they think it might boost their energy level or revitalize their sex life? Are they talking about their vitamin and mineral requirements? Losing weight? Living longer? Building muscle? And for that matter, what exactly does “unhealthy” mean? Depending on your definition of healthy, the answers to those questions can be yes, no, maybe, or who knows.
The idea of healthy and unhealthy foods assumes that such a clean dichotomy exists. This vantage point ignores the fact that many foods may contain substances that are both healthy and unhealthy. The vilifiers of red meat are quick to point out its potential dangers but they omit the benefits of its ample protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc, and substances (like conjugated linoleic acid), that have shown to reduce cancer in laboratory animals. Conversely, the glorifiers of fish don’t mention the alarming mercury levels found in many species due to pollution. Intellectually it's easier to wrap one's head around a black and white concept than a complicated matrix of positive and negative attributes. Another good example is fat, probably the most condemned substance in America. Amongst the nutritional knee-jerkers, fat is bad. Yet this fails to consider that there are "good" fats, (e.g., monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids), that actually reduce cholesterol and might also have anti-hypertensive and anticancer properties, and in the case of Omega-3, enhance brain functioning. But omega-3 fatty acids can be harmful to individuals with congestive heart failure. So are they good or bad? The answer of course is it depends, and my point of course, is that none of this is that simple, or black and white.
But let’s continue to make things more complicated. A huge problem with discerning what is healthy and what isn’t is wading through the incomprehensible mass of misleading information. For starters, many health claims are in the infancy of their research. A few studies does not a conclusion make. Solid research must be repeatedly duplicated with consistent results, involve large numbers of subjects, and rule out innumerable confounding variables. To make matters worse, many health claims have conflicting findings. It seems that just about every month there’s a new study touting coffee as either good or bad for you. How do you know what is true? How do you know what to believe? Do you know for a fact that the wheat germ you sprinkle on your cereal every day is going to make any actual difference in your life?
Moreover, there’s a wealth of outright misinformation out there. There’s no shortage of pundits or scaremongers, especially when there’s money to be made. Spurious health fads, alternative medicine charlatans, vitamin hucksters, the media, and the billions-a-year weight loss industry are all quick to jump on the latest health-scare bandwagon and capitalize on individuals’ fears. Sales of organic foods are surging thanks to scaremongering tactics and American food neurosis and paranoia. The facts are these: the residue of pesticides on produce is negligible, there has never been conclusive evidence of a link between pesticide use and cancer, and the incidence rate of most cancers has not increased in the US. Doesn’t matter. People will shell out big bucks for “organic” produce and delude themselves that they’re a future octogenarian. Oh and by the way, you’ve heard that shady producers and supermarkets have been known to sell non-organic produce at organic prices right?
Moving on, even if all the health claims are true, how can anyone be certain that “healthy” eating will result in a difference in their future? How do you know you won’t get hit by a bus and could have had more chocolate cake in your life? How do you know you won’t die from a non-diet related disease or an inept surgeon? How do you know whether pushing the longevity envelope will only result in your final years being spent in a diaper forgetting your children’s names? More time doesn’t automatically mean quality time.
And how do we know that diet, in and of itself, is that efficacious? There are a plethora of factors that influence our health, some of which are uncontrollable, namely genes. Most physicians would argue that your genetics is the best predictor of your medical future. This is not to say that diet has zero influence. But those little strands of DNA have much more say-so than your steamed broccoli. We can’t control genetics but we can control our diet. Dread of our own immortality coupled with our immanent need for control, intensifies the impression that what is controllable has more impact than it actually does. In other words, if the dice are loaded, all bets are off.
At this point you may think I’m arguing that all of our health information is nonsense. I’m not. My point is to highlight the multiple layers of assumptions that must all come true for the healthy-food-equals-better-life premise to bare fruit.
But I’m going to simplify all of this right here and now. Let’s assume that all of the assumptions are true: That there are indeed “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, that all of our information about which foods are good and which ones are bad are correct, that diet can make an appreciable difference, that you won’t die of a non diet-related disease or accident, and your unbuttered bran muffins will prevent you from, shall we say, crapping out. Doesn’t matter. That’s still not the ultimate issue. The ultimate issue is the subjective conflict between quantity vs. quality of life
Food is one of our most basic pleasures. In countries devoid of issues with food, it’s an integral part of their culture, a bond that brings people together, and a celebration of life. Food is not grappled over. People don’t feel guilty about eating it. It nourishes their soul as well as their body. In America, depending on the extent to which you’ve “drank the Kool Aid*,” healthy eating means following a course of routine deprivation. That’s three times a day, every day, one must struggle between satisfaction on one hand and frustration and temptation on the other. Quantity people are willing to make this sacrifice. They hedge their bets. Quality people do not. They want to suck the marrow out of the bone of life and enjoy it as much as possible. They’re willing to risk losing their stake sooner for more action in the short run.
The bottom line is there’s no correct answer to this dilemma. This is not a math problem, it’s a value judgment. Each person has to decide for themselves what is right or wrong for their life. Interestingly though, our culture has imbibed health with an air of morality. There is a palpable sentiment that healthy eating is the “right” choice with a concomitant disdain for those who choose indulgence or nutritional indifference. And of course, like countless groups in the history of mankind, many who feel they are “right,” also believe they are entitled to force their values on others. Laws banning foie gras, outlawing trans-fats, enforcing certain school lunch parameters, eliminating vending machines, attacks on meat producers and fast food restaurants, attempts to convert others to vegetarianism, and indoctrination of health-craze dogma are all testaments to the “morally correct” imposing their will on others. It’s this moral subjectivism that I find even more distasteful than the unbuttered bran muffins.
Years ago I quit smoking. When I tell people they congratulate me like I’ve joined the faith; like I’ve just emerged from the baptismal waters onto the path of righteousness. I’m not totally convinced of my rebirth. Relinquishing smoking was a terrible conflict for me. I’m obviously hedonistic by nature but there’s no debate that smoking is a huge risk; a greater risk than potato chips. Nevertheless, if I ever do get hit by that proverbial bus, in the split second before I perish I’ll regret all of the cigarettes I could have smoked. We’ll see if the gamble pays off.
*”Drinking the Kool-aid” refers to the mass suicide of the members of the Jim Jones cult in Guyana in 1978. Over 900 people drank cyanide in a Kool-aid type drink at the behest of Jones. Today the phrase refers to any group of people who mindlessly follow the dogma or policy, of a government, corporation, institution, etc. without question.