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Food: Panacea or Poison?

Food for Thought July 20, 2011: Mark R. Vogel - - Mark’s Archive

In one of my state's major newspapers there is an advice column authored by a physician who answers readers' medical queries.  Recently a woman wrote in about her middle-aged husband who has an ulcer.  She was completely dumbfounded as to how this could be possible as she always serves "nutritious and healthy" meals and they avoid “junk food and spicy food.”  She also questioned whether her husband should be drinking milk, which some presume alleviates ulcers.  The doctor's response was unequivocal:  "A person's diet has little to nothing to do with ulcer production."  He went on to explain that even spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine play no role in ulcers.  We now know that a specific bacteria is the primary culprit in the genesis of ulcers.  Moreover, the old wives tale to drink milk with an ulcer is equally erroneous as milk augments acid production, thus aggravating the ulcer.

This woman is a blatant victim of American food neurosis.  Befittingly, her diet has metaphorically engendered her thinking as she has completely drunk the Kool-Aid.  Like many other misguided food-phobes, she believes there is a significant and direct relationship between food and disease.  Such an orientation comprises two specific assumptions, each emanating from opposite sides of the same coin:  The first is that consumption of so-called "healthy" foods will prevent disease and conversely, that consumption of "unhealthy" foods will cause disease.

Allow me to make my position crystal clear.  I am not opining that there is no relationship between food and health.   What I am professing is that health fanaticism has 1) exaggerated the correlation between food and health, spurring countless food-health claims that are dubious or outright myths, and 2) that our perception of foods as healthy or unhealthy is a false dichotomy; most foods have both positive and negative potentials.  Allow me to expand on each point.


Every day in our culture we are bombarded with diet and health messages.  You can’t watch TV, read a newspaper, listen to the radio or attend a PTA meeting without some input about what we eat and obesity, staying fit, lowering cholesterol, living longer, warding off some disease, etc. etc. etc. 


You can’t walk down a supermarket aisle without encountering a low-fat, no-sugar, or low-salt product.  Billboards, advertisements, talk shows, blogs, the main stream media, and the people around us, forever spew food related warnings and directives.  It’s an almost unprecedented level of indoctrination that has become so normal, it’s taken for granted.  The power of food, to either cause or mitigate disease is drilled into us from childhood on.  This omnipresent barrage intensifies the perceived connection between food and health well beyond whatever the true correlation is.

Health is due to a plethora of elements:  diet, physical activity, environmental factors, contaminants and other dangerous substances, bad habits, stress level, personality & psychological variables, and probably most important of all: genetics.  Genetics cannot be stressed enough as it indomitability instigates food fanaticism.  Here’s my logic chain:

    We have no control over our DNA.  >  Humans have an instinctual need to be in control, particularly of their destiny.  >  Lack of control causes notable anxiety.  >  Food, which is controllable, is therefore perceived to carry more influence than it does.  >  We then obsess over controlling what is controllable, and ignore, discredit or downplay what is not controllable.  But there's an insidious danger in these mental gymnastics.

In one of the most ironic paradoxes of our time, while we think we are promoting health, and in some ways we are, we are concomitantly causing harm.  Exclusively focusing on or exaggerating the weight of one factor can lead people to a narrow, insufficient approach to health that lacks comprehensiveness.  Case in point: I knew a woman who watched the fat in her diet but drank and smoked every day.  In the worse case scenario, it can lead people to egregiously incorrect treatment regimes; such as my neighbor who thinks he’s going to cure his diabetes, not with medication, blood sugar management or exercise, but with organic food.  I hope he finds comfort in his pesticide-free spinach when they’re amputating his toes some day.  Another man I knew came down with cancer and was enjoined by a relative to abandon chemotherapy and start eating apples.  Or, returning to my introductory example, the wife is pressuring her husband to drink milk, thus aggravating his ulcer.

A monomaniacal approach to health also comes at a marked psychological cost.  Food neurotics live in a state of perpetual consternation.  They can never indulge and enjoy life.  Every meal is an opportunity to gain weight or cause some kind of disease.  They incessantly deprive themselves of pleasure, ruminate over every food choice, and chase a carrot that may be a red herring.  Moreover, returning to man’s need to control, they ineluctably impose their sentiments on others:   nagging their spouses, browbeating their kids, and in its extreme, engaging in political movements to enforce their food beliefs and values on society.  Now the rest of us have to suffer at the hands of their kooky crusade.


Food is not medicine.  Nor is it poison.  Nevertheless there exists this dichotomous conception of food as being either healthy or unhealthy.  Food is by no means that black and white.  Red meat has long been vilified for its fat content, putative relationship to heart disease, and questionable link with colon cancer.   However, it also contains high levels of protein, many vitamins and minerals, and some “good” fats, i.e. polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats.  In actuality, a number of the nutrients and fats in beef are also reputed to promote cardiovascular health and inhibit cancer.  Interestingly, a recent study by Harvard involving over one million people asserts that unprocessed red meat has no bearing on heart disease:  Anyway you slice it, red meat is unequivocally not this lopsidedly evil comestible, yet it is perceived as the devil incarnate by food neurotics, vegetarians, and others with perverse relationships with food.

One of my favorite examples of how food is not an “either-or” proposition is soybeans and soy products.  Soy has practically become the Eucharist of the health zealots:  a low-fat, nutrient rich source of protein alleged to reduce the risks of heart disease, cancer, bone ailments, and basically enable its benefactors to leap over hospitals in a single bound.  But soy also contains compounds called phytoestrogens which may play a role in breast cancer development.  Other ominous allegations include potential adverse effects on the thyroid, inhibition of necessary digestive enzymes, increasing the body’s need for vitamins B-12 and D, and compromising of the body’s mineral absorption.  Soy products also contain a number of chemicals purported to be carcinogens.  Who knows how many of the claims about soy, positive or negative are actually valid?  But the point is made:  food is a warehouse of different compounds that can have variegated effects on the human body.

From time immemorial mankind has ascribed all kinds of either medicinal or baleful attributes to virtually every food imaginable.  I am thunderstruck by the fact that every time I research a particular food for an article, indubitably there is historical folklore about its curative or pernicious properties.  This dynamic persists in modern life.  As stated, the media is constantly reporting how various foods promote or endanger health.

I went on the internet and searched:  “eating (blank) can prevent (blank).”  For the second blank, I repeatedly typed in various diseases.  Sure enough, every one I could think of had a food that could avert it:  Blueberries can reduce wrinkles, cherries can treat gout, broccoli can prevent lupus, salmon can prevent kidney stones, chocolate can prevent acne, mangos can prevent hair loss, butter, yes butter, can prevent diabetes, etc. etc. etc.  It’s amazing we get sick at all.  Given the amount of foods with magical properties, we should be living forever.

So then, I took the foods from the above search and did the reverse.  For example, “eating blueberries can cause (blank).”  The results?  Blueberries can cause diabetes, cherries can cause sore throat, rapid breathing, inflammation and increased heart rate, broccoli can cause indigestion, bloating, gas and diarrhea, salmon can cause irreversible impairment in brain function in children, chocolate can cause erectile dysfunction and sinus headaches, mangos can cause kidney inflammation, and butter, well of course, butter is associated with heart disease.

Again, who knows what’s actually true and what’s not?  But I think the divergent allegations drives home the aforementioned point: food, any food, can produce a range of biological effects, some auspicious and some not.  Any organic matter, be it a potato chip or a string bean, is composed of a multitude of individual substances or chemicals.  Green tea for example has about 200 bioactive compounds.  How could it be possible that every single one of them is good for you, or bad for you?  Common sense would dictate that all of these chemicals behave in disparate ways.  If you then include individuals’ unique biochemistry, genetic factors and pre-existing medical conditions to the admixture, you end up with a Gordian knot of biological permutations.  You can see how it’s immensely easier for the human mind to simply conclude:  Green tea has anti-oxidants which are good for you so drink it.  (By the way, there is research emerging that anti-oxidants aren’t all they’re cracked up to be).

If we acknowledge that foods are heterogeneous and there are no purely healthy or purely unhealthy substances, then we lose control.  Control is forsaken because no matter what we eat it can have positive or negative ramifications.  So now you might be saying:  “OK Mark, but clearly some foods are more good for you than bad, and vice versa right?”  That could be very well be true but it doesn’t change the fact that food is multifaceted and its relationship with health is often hyperbolized and convoluted.

So why do we imbibe food with so much power?  Why do we need to collapse a very complex phenomenon into a simplistic yes or no paradigm?  I partially spilled the beans earlier, namely the need to control.  But control what?

Man has always searched for panaceas because of a very harsh reality:  we are mortal.  Mankind’s ultimate struggle is dealing with his mortality and the dour prospect that we have little, if any control over it.  We are corporeal and finite and no matter what you put in your mouth you’re going to eventually face disease.  And there’s no assurance that you can eat your way into becoming a healthy octogenarian.  Sadly, life comes with no guarantees.  It comforts us to think we can parry the Grim Reaper, but he always reaps what he sows.

In what could only be described as cataclysmically ironic, how many people live a compromised existence in pursuit of a longer existence which may or may not materialize?  Eating should be a daily pleasure.  But as stated, there are those who turn it into a routine torment:  A daily mix of depriving themselves from enjoyment, coupled with anxiety over what they should eat.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, (1754-1838), was a famous French diplomat who was also a gourmet and wine connoisseur.  One his renowned quotes about eating is:
 “Can you inform me of any other pleasure that can be enjoyed three times a day, and equally in old age as youth?”  Here was a man who obviously indulged with wild abandon, during a time when modern medicine was in its infancy, and still lived to be 84.

 I have one of my own quotes, and I’m sure Talleyrand-Périgord would agree:  “Until you accept dying, you can’t start living.”


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