Food plays an important role in every culture. Since culture evolves in a place and that place has certain foods not known in other places, food helps ground the culture in a time and place, which helps ground the people in a time and place. A big part of the answer to the only question that matters – who are we – is the place where the answer was created by our ancestors. It is why our holidays have special foods. They help remind the people of the answer to the big question.
In the West, fear of food is also a big cultural item. For some reason, Western people remain convinced that their food is out to get them. From time to time certain foods have been banned. In pre-modern times the reasons ranged from the superstitious to the ritual, while in modern times “science” is the blame. In this age, we are told every day that something in our diet is trying to kill us. These days, people are often defined by the foods they think are plotting against them.
Fear of food seems to track with belief. The more ideological the person, the more likely they are to be paranoid about food. Vegans and vegetarians are almost always in one of the subcultures on what we call the Left. The exception will be someone who got it into his head that something is bad for his training regimen. Otherwise, when someone tells you they are a vegan, and they almost always tell you that as soon as you meet them, they are telling you their politics.
This may have been true before ideology replaced religion. When he was not busy inventing the triangle, Pythagoras was running a cult. A big part of his cult was the foods that were prohibited. Of course, religions of the book have dietary laws. Jews are not supposed to eat pork or shellfish. For a long time, Catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Friday. Since religion seeks to answer the big question or at least contribute to the answer, it makes sense that it would have food rules.
In this age of disbelief, food fads seem to fill the void for some people. Vegans and vegetarians are the obvious examples. They make a big deal out of their food, as if the consumption of the correct items is a sacrament. Keto people are not far behind in this regard, but they tend to be fascinated with the math of it. A big part of the keto subculture is tracking the macros. Every meal is a math puzzle. Get the numbers right and Andhrímnir will bless the day.
The biggest food fetish by far in this age is the fear of certain foods. Stories like this one in the New York Post are a daily occurrence. Some food gets the stink eye because “science” claims that it is plotting to kill you. In this case, white rice is part of the conspiracy known as heart disease. A billion Chinamen eat rice every day and have relatively low heart disease rates. This obvious fact will be ignored and some people will accept the claim that rice is a killer.
Interestingly, the science of food is riddled with science denialism. Heart disease, for example, is most certainly a genetic issue. This old post from Jayman on the topic is a good explainer on the genetic reality of heart disease. Our health outcomes are probably 98% genetic, but the “food science” people insist that arranging the right items on the dinner plate will magically bring good health. Food science is a good reminder that we are as superstitious as ever.
Of course, admitting that genetics, not diet, is the key driver of human health would be bad for business, so “food science” embraces the blank slate. If the reason people eating a Mediterranean diet have a low incidence of heart disease is due to them being Mediterranean, then you are not selling many cookbooks. On the other hand, if you claim that all people are exactly the same and the differences we see are due to things like food magic, then you can sell a lot of cookbooks.
There is the theological angle as well. The New Religion treats human biodiversity as a heresy, one of the deadly sins, in fact, so we cannot notice that certain people seem to have certain diseases while other people have different diseases. Just as dietary laws are part of all religions, the New Religion has embraced food magic. The rice in your cupboard that is plotting your demise has nothing to do with the rice that seems to like the people of East Asia. Peace be upon you.
The truth is, outside of the extremes and controlling for obvious poisons, food plays little role in your health. What matters is your over all calorie intake and the balance of nutrients you get from the food. If you get enough calories and the right mix of nutrients, you will be as healthy as your code indicates. Eat too much and you get fat. Eat the wrong things and maybe you get scurvy or rickets. Otherwise, your food intake is just not all that important to your health.
In this age, the issue with food is the extremes. The rising incidence of diabetes is driven, in part, by the fatness of people. Demographics play a role as certain people are more prone to both obesity and diabetes¹, so as they grow in number their diseases will grow in proportion. Even so, Americans eat too much and eat far too many calories from carbohydrate laden foods. Stand outside of a Starbucks and you will see fat women waddling out with what look like deserts every morning.
Interestingly, the one thing that is never mentioned by the fear mongers is the vast array of chemicals in prepared foods. It is just assumed they are safe, but we really do not know if long term consumption of sodium nitrate or guar gum has an impact on the human body. Big food is never going to pay anyone to study it and they will never let government look into it. The recent Covid experience should make clear who calls the shots when it comes to public health.
Putting that aside, the rise in claimed food allergies and weird diets is probably linked to the collapse of the culture and local community. It always returns to the answer to the big question – who are we? If you are not allowed to answer in the affirmative, then you are left to answer in the negative. Instead of being what your people eat, so to speak, you are what you fear on the dinner plate. A negative food identity fills the void left by a positive cultural identity.
¹Some people with reading disabilities interpret this to mean obesity is caused solely by genetics, rather than calorie intake. This is an error on your part. Genetics plays a role in everything, including obesity, but it is not the only factor.
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