HEALTHY EATING: THE NEW RELIGION
Food for Thought - January 2, 2010 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
The late Michael Crichton is renowned for his blockbuster films and TV shows such as Jurassic Park and ER. He was an educator, writer, producer and director who amassed a commendable amount of awards and successes in his life. A true genius, he was being published in the New York Times at age 14 and went on to achieve an MD from Harvard.
In 2003 Crichton gave a speech in San Francisco entitled “Environmentalism as Religion,” www.sullivan-county.com/immigration/e2.html. He likened the current environmentalism movement to a religion, replete with many of the irrationalities and issues of control that religion so often embraces. There are two primary correlates that they share. First, there is a resistance to scientific facts in favor of benighted faith. Second, and probably most grave, there is a tenacious need to convert others to one’s doctrine. Those who remain defiant to “enlightenment” are repudiated, and in the case of religion, often disposed. Millions of human beings have been ostracized, tortured, and outright killed during the history of this planet simply because of contrary religious ideologies. While modern civilization has greatly mitigated (but not eliminated) such debauchery, the need to control and indoctrinate our brethren still flourishes, albeit in less lethal means: political lobbying, prohibitive laws, economic pressures, propaganda, manipulation of the media and education system, etc., etc., etc.
There are many different “religions” in the world, both spiritual and secular. Crichton points out from his anthropological studies that man as a species evinces a need to believe in something; some kind of cause that gives meaning to his life. Traditionally this encompassed some form of spirituality. However, this fundamental proclivity can manifest itself in secular pursuits like environmentalism, thus “religionizing” them. Individuals can become just as fanatical and irrational about a social crusade as they can about God.
I profess that the so called “healthy” eating movement is yet another example of “religionism.” Consider the following books: ‘The Vitamin Bible,’ ‘The Nutrition Bible,’ and ‘The Vegetarian Bible.’ The use of the word “bible” in their titles is no coincidence. And to take it a step further, consider the book ‘Nutrition and Health in the Bible.’ These titles and topics clearly underscore the religionizing of healthy eating. There are numerous other parallels between the health food movement and religion which I’ve endeavored to categorize here.
FOOD RESTRICTIONS AND RELIGION
Food has been intertwined with religion for time immemorial. Most religions maintain strictures on eating certain foods or consuming them at certain times. Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. Fasting is a practice in sundry religions to demonstrate one’s devotion. Certain comestibles such as beef, pork, shellfish, etc., are interdicted by one religion or another. The historical entanglement of food prohibitions and religion sets the backdrop for the modern religionization of food.
I’m not a theological expert but wouldn’t common sense dictate that religion should be about treating our fellow man with decency and leading a moral life, as opposed to what you had for lunch? Case in point. I once worked with a woman who was horribly narcissistic and vindictive; a back-stabber who had no compunction about compromising others for her own selfish ends. There was even one instance where she endangered someone to avoid getting egg on her face. Her religion forbade her from consuming pork. She wouldn’t even patronize pizza parlors because other pizzas in the oven had inevitably been cooked with sausage on them. She would beam as she declared how “observant” of her faith she was. What a sanctimonious joke. I envisioned her at the Pearly Gates defending a lifetime of maltreatment toward others with: “But I didn’t eat ham!” If there is a Grand Master of the universe, somehow I think he has a more pressing agenda than the bacon we had at breakfast.
All religions have a belief system; a constellation of ways of conceiving their deity with concomitant principles for how humans should comport themselves. All religions incorporate tenets that are not based on scientific fact but faith. Faith implies that you put stock in something which may not be true. People cultivate belief systems about food and frequently those systems harbor fallacious elements. These food related credos vary in the degree of their illogical thinking. At the most extreme are blatantly bizarre and erroneous maxims about food. Examples include assertions that diabetes can be cured with organic food, that eating sushi is indicative of homosexuality, or that eating chicken will cause one to acquire the chicken’s characteristics, (all true stories). Next are verisimilitudinous conceptualizations. There might be some evidence in their favor but much more research is needed. Countless health claims fall into this category. Finally are the notions that actually contain some merit. They have a basis in reality but the person applies them rigidly or takes them to extremes. For example, washing chicken can indeed remove surface bacteria. However, I once came across a story of a woman who scrubs her chicken with Brillo.
Like religion, whether the convictions are outright lunacy or possibly valid, they’re nevertheless upheld as if they’re the eternal truth for mankind. People then live their lives in concordance with the dogma. The problem of course is that when the assumptions are spurious, they engender behavior that breaches reality. The unwitting individual thus negotiates their life based on sophistry. In many ways, some very subtle, their hypotheses can compromise their life. Consider the gentleman who thinks he can cure his diabetes with organic food. At the very least he will needlessly increase his grocery bill. At the worst, he will endanger his own life if he shuns proper medical treatment in favor of the highly dubious organic food. Organic food is a sham which capitalizes on people’s food paranoia and neuroses about cancer and mortality but that’s another discussion. Crichton equated organic food with Holy Communion opining: “that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.”
A rational person doesn’t have a trenchant need to endorse something questionable. Intelligent and logical people can accept the fact that some phenomena are a mystery, or yet to be determined. They don’t need to fill in the gaps with fantasy and then manage their life accordingly. They can accept the unknown and suspend certain behaviors until more facts come into evidence. In essence, they don’t NEED to believe.
In a similar vein, those more enslaved to their suppositions are more likely to be reactive to challenges to their thinking. I’ve met many individuals over the years who become agitated, visibly uncomfortable, and basically emotional when their food, (and especially religious) ideas are confronted. I recall one woman, who was not a health professional, but nevertheless an incorrigible health fanatic, who attributed all human maladies to diet, including schizophrenia. As I endeavored to explain that schizophrenia was not due to diet but genetic and neurological substrates, she became so perturbed that I had to abandon the conversation.
Here’s a quick and dirty way to assess anybody’s general emotional stability: challenge their thinking. And I don’t mean that you should be offensive, highly confrontational or judgmental. Calmly, respectfully, and diplomatically engage them in a sequacious and intellectual debate about their thinking and see how they react. It won’t be difficult to separate the religionized health freaks from those with both a balanced diet and mind.
CONTROL OF OUR DESTINY
One of the polemics about why man is so amenable to religion is that most religions offer the promise of an afterlife. It’s an extremely hard pill to swallow that we might be on this planet for a microsecond of cosmic time, only to die and never experience existence again……never to see the people we love again, for all eternity. A terrifying thought isn’t it? The realization of our mortality is one of the most morbid and hopelessly depressing prospects we face. Ergo, a belief system that eradicates this dire fate is sublimely comforting. We WANT there to be hope. We NEED there to be hope.
A corollary of our aspirations for an afterlife is the contention that we can extend our lives via our life choices, especially diet. Convictions in an afterlife or a restrictive diet emanate from the same primordial dread: that life is finite.
Conceptions that diet will alter our destiny usually fall into one of the three aforementioned categories: The bizarre, (eating liver will strengthen your liver), the possibly true but yet still unproven, (certain vitamins can ward off cancer), and the factual but overdone, (saturated fat is related to heart disease so the person NEVER eats fat). Of course there’s the rare 4th category: the judicious person who refrains from adopting any food presumptions without scientific proof, does not obsess or go overboard about the valid ones, doesn’t impose his choices on others, and basically approaches life with moderation and common sense. For those who are among the “Food encounters of the 4th kind,” healthy eating has not become religionized.
I have three issues with the whole vantage point that we can eat our way to becoming a healthy octogenarian. First, there’s no guarantee that a “healthy” diet will alter your destiny. One can meet their demise in an accident, at the hands of an incompetent surgeon, or by a non-diet related disease. One might be up against wicked genetics that don’t give a damn about your low-fat mayo. People with congenital conditions, inherited disorders, or who pass from illnesses at an unusually early age, are all examples of DNA gone awry. All the broccoli in the world cannot save these pour souls.
On the other side of the coin, we all know someone who has eaten with impunity, drank, and maybe even smoked, and lived to a ripe old age. Now I grant you, the odds are better with a pristine diet as compared to dissolute hedonism. I’m not implying that we swing the pendulum to the other direction and live life with wild abandon. However, the human condition comes with no guarantees. It’s certainly possible to live a life of gastronomic deprivation, all for naught.
Individuals who can accept the inevitable, are more likely to secure a balance of quality and quantity of life. These are the folks more likely to pursue moderation. They allow themselves some pleasure without going off the deep end or living a life of Puritanical asceticism. Those who can’t accept reality are more prone to engage in fanatic, obsessive or desperate attempts to eschew it.
Second, I have to wonder how many people are achieving a longer life via their nutritional choices but not necessarily a better life. Our senior facilities are flooded with hapless souls whose hearts are still beating but are suffering or incapacitated in some manner. If abandoning my beloved red meat is going to buy me five more years, but five years spent urinating on myself, forgetting my loved ones names, I’m abandoning the vegetables instead.
My third problem with the “eat fruit and live forever concept” brings us to the next parallel between healthy eating and religion.
HIGH AND MIGHTY VALUES
Even if dietary piousness will extend your life, that doesn’t necessarily make it the “right” thing to do. It’s a choice, not divine providence. More to the point it is a subjective value, and values are not right or wrong. I know this is preaching heresy to the Cult of Nutritional Divinity, but the individual who prefers to enjoy his food and take whatever risks may ensue, is no more right or wrong than the individual who chooses the opposite. Again, the issue is quality vs. quantity of life and for some, a possible loss of quantity is worth the added quality. It boils down to what is right or wrong for you based on your life, your personal creed, and what makes you feel comfortable.
However, much like religious zealots, fanatics in the healthy eating camp perceive themselves as scrupulously “right.” They consider themselves morally superior, enlightened, and on the path to salubrious rectitude. One need only observe the language. Consider the phrases “eating right,” the “right” foods, getting kids to eat “right,” and organizations like the “Right Eating Association.” There are “live right” cooking classes, and the “Smart Choice Program,” geared for guiding people to putatively healthier and smarter foods. One website I came across even had the audacity to suggest that people with a higher emotional intelligence will make the right food choices. The use of the term “right” in conjunction with food has become so clichĆ© that it obscures the inherent sanctimony, not to mention the arrogance.
Rational, reasonable and modest people know that many issues aren’t black and white. They’re cognizant that there are decent arguments on both sides and that inevitably, personal values may be the deciding factor. Moreover, and most importantly, they can maintain their position without hubris or condescension. They know that just because something is right for them, that it doesn’t make it righteous.
But when food is religionized, it takes on the same narcissism inherent to so many religions. Let’s face it…..to some degree, every religion thinks that they are right and everyone else is wrong. This supreme arrogance is the chief justification for the persecution of others. After all, God is on their side. This is a dangerous, ubiquitous, and deep-rooted human dynamic, which has caused untold suffering. And it plays out in the produce aisle as much as the pew. Granted, people aren’t going to war over carrots. But there have been several incidents of vandalism, economic sabotage, death threats, and the like, by “morally superior” animal rights activists and other deranged food protestors toward individuals and businesses viewed as heathens.
VIRTUOUSNESS, SIN & REDEMPTION
Being “right” and doing the “right” things naturally makes us feel good about ourselves. Be it religion or food, moral superiority bolsters and/or preserves the ego. Religionized health fanatics need to eat “right” to preserve self-esteem. For them, diet is a yardstick by which to assess their virtuousness. Conversely, like religion, a dietary fall from grace induces remorse, self-condemnation and repentance. The person who has religionized food feels guilt when consuming something forbidden. They can’t insouciantly or impenitently indulge now and then. Oh no. A gastronomic sin ignites self-vexation and the requisite contrition. The transgressor must prostate himself on the altar of dietary reclamation by curtailing their consumption even more and/or augmenting their exercise. Their penance is ten more laps, the “living right” equivalent of ten Hail Mary’s.
Sensible individuals may compensate for indulgence with some dietary abridgement and additional exercise. But they don’t get into a twist about it. They allow themselves to enjoy without flagellating themselves. The religionized foodie cannot. When they allow themselves some pleasure, it is mired by their internal consternation. In its most extreme form, their self-chastisement and gastronomic redemption results in anorexic or bulimic tendencies.
ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL AND CONVERT OTHERS
Probably the most reprehensible correlation between religion and anything that becomes religionized, is the control and/or persecution of others who don’t conform. In all fairness, this is not religion’s fault. The onus lies squarely on one of the most disheartening aspects of human nature, namely man’s incessant need to force his will onto others. As stated in my introductory remarks, millions of human beings have perished over the ages at the hands of individuals, cultures and countries seeking to convert or punish the iconoclasts. Religious differences have at least been a factor, if not the primary motivation for most of the wars and pogroms in the history of our world.
The Romans slaughtered innumerable Christians. Then when Rome turned to Christianity they slaughtered pagans. In one day in 782 Charlemagne killed 4,500 Saxons in his ongoing struggle to convert them to Christianity. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics and Protestants murdered each other in the centuries succeeding the Reformation in Europe. The Christians launched the Crusades, a series of religiously sanctioned wars against the Moslem world in the 11th through 13th centuries. Today Moslem Jihadists are engaged in a global campaign to eradicate basically anyone, Moslems included, who do not prescribe to their world view. The struggles in Northern Ireland, the Holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars, the decimation of the Aztec and Inca empires, the genocide in Sudan, the millions massacred by various communist regimes, the list goes on and on and on, are all attributable, in whole or in part, to religious differences, or more to the point, the intolerance of those differences.
Allow me to offer an additional, albeit microcosmic example, but one that so richly illustrates the point. Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), is credited with being the first to circumnavigate the globe. In reality he never completed the task himself. The remainder of his fleet finished the journey. Magellan was killed on the island of Mactan in the Philippines. When Magellan reached the Philippines one of his primary tasks, (after his men took on provisions and violated many of the native women), was to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. One group of islanders resisted. Like any good Christian of the time, the only choice was to kill them. How dare they resist! Magellan and a small party initiated an armed engagement during which Magellan was overwhelmed by a band of natives and hacked and bludgeoned to death.
What always struck me was here was a man on the brink of something magnificent: A monumental feat of exploration that would have fetched him unparalleled glory, reverence, power, and wealth. He could have returned to Spain a hero and literally wrote his own ticket. But he couldn’t just stop at the Philippines, explore the islands, learn about the indigenous people, maybe make some allies, take on provisions and be on his merry way, fame and fortune awaiting. Oh no. Here was a small and insignificant tribe of locals halfway around the world that he just HAD to convert to his religion, even at the risk of his and his men’s lives.
But again, it’s not religion per se. It’s the simple fact that we as human beings cannot tolerate others who think differently. And we are determined to make others see it our way, or at the very least, be forced to do it our way. This is the very nature of politics. Everybody wants what they want, and they’re determined to impel everyone else to do likewise. God forbid if people just ran their own lives, minded their own business, and allowed others to do the same.
Religionized food fanatics are by no means exempt from this distasteful human propensity. They proselytize to others about what they should and shouldn’t eat. They scold, they nag, they harp, and they endeavor to control. The aforementioned woman who attributed schizophrenia to nutrition went to church one day. After the mass the local school teacher was handing out lollypops to the children. Ms. Food Freak actually ran through the parking lot snatching the candy from the children’s hands, saving them from the evils of sugar.
I read a recent Dear Abby letter. A woman was hosting Thanksgiving dinner at her home and invited a dozen of her relatives. One of her relatives had two daughters who were vegetarian. They insisted that no meat be served at the meal. I was thunderstruck by the astonishing level of arrogance. These loons actually thought that they had the right to dictate to the host what she could serve at HER dinner. With blatant disregard for the other guests, they actually felt justified in their demand that all of the other people conform to their idiosyncrasies. What a sense of entitlement! A humble vegetarian would have declined the invitation, come to the dinner but only eaten the vegetables, or possibly brought their own food. In other words, they would have had the decency to honor their own values without intruding upon others.
Throngs of religionized foodies don’t stop at merely controlling their immediate friends and family. They have the loftier goal of reforming society. This is the ultimate narcissism; when you think an entire culture should bow to your wishes. Animal rights activists and other assorted health kooks have succeeded in instituting a variety of food bans and/or laws in various jurisdictions. In recent years foie gras, trans fats, the opening of fast food restaurants, vending machine snacks, the sale of live lobsters and crabs, salt, peanut butter, and others have all been banned/restricted or attempted to be banned/restricted in certain jurisdictions. The very day I pen these words a nutrition bill has been passed by Congress seeking to regulate the foods served in schools, even to the point of controlling bake sales and pizza events.
Individuals seeking to legislate food basically consider themselves so right, that it gives them the right to impose their will on others. Your freedom of choice, your parental control, and your basic right as an American to choose your destiny is being constrained. The “eating right” crowd is going to do everything they can to make you “live right,” regardless of your personal values about food and nutrition.
Oh they’ll argue it’s because of health reasons, reducing obesity, warding off heart disease and the like. Even IF that’s true, it still doesn’t give them the right to tell you how you should lead your life. But I don’t buy their sanctimonious, holier than thou, nanny-state, justifications. The underlying motivation is once again, the primordial human need to control others. That motivation becomes packaged in a veil of virtuosity: They’re looking out for your health. Enshrining selfish motivations in a virtuous faĆ§ade is as old as our need to subjugate others. Johnny Depp delivered this profound quote in the movie ‘Sleepy Hollow’: “Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue.” The bottom line is that people who have religionized food, often share the same need to control and convert others that proponents of traditional religions do.
Every human being has the right to eat or not eat what they want. But you don’t have the moral right to impose your values and beliefs on others. The moment you start lobbying to inject your standards into the public domain, you have crossed the line into the realm of supreme arrogance. Be it a sword, a pen or a political rally, the underlying dynamic is the same: man’s innate hubris coupled with the need to control. Until humans can transcend this fundamental flaw in their makeup, this world will never be at peace.
Food and all it represents is one of life’s greatest pleasures, or at the very least should be. Food’s enrichment extends well beyond the immediate sensorial and physical gratification. Food is a vehicle by which we bond socially, express our love of family, woo our romantic partners, celebrate life’s greatest moments, and comfort those who are suffering. Food is about embracing, enjoying and facilitating life.
Food should not be a platform for our politics, a venue for playing out our psychological aberrations, or a vehicle for oppressing our fellow man. Even if health concerns are in the mix, it’s incumbent upon the individual to determine what is best for him or for parents to decide for their children. It should not be under the auspices of our schools, the government, the church, or the fruit loops at PETA.
When food becomes religionized, it morphs into a crusade, an obsession, a source of guilt, and a justification to indoctrinate. In all walks of life, fanaticism always says more about the person than the cause.