Why Doesn’t Anyone Talk About Food?

This video was floating around on my facebook feed this week. It talks about how people act more strongly on survival instinct and emotion rather than fact.

This video uses politics as an example of this phenomenon. We’ve all been at those gatherings where some political topic comes up and it’s the most awkward social situation because there’s that one person who doesn’t agree. This video got me thinking about how the same issue might apply to food.

Food is a really awkward topic to bring up. I don’t mean “This soup is delicious” or “Let’s make pancakes”. I’m talking about really deliberating about where the food comes from, what goes into making it, and what the economic, environmental, and personal health impacts are. Imagine if someone asked where the chips came from, or the broccoli, or the chicken. Most of us would be taken aback and probably wouldn’t know how to respond. Food is one of the topics that, similar to politics, nobody really wants to dig into in casual conversation.

When it comes to eating healthy, most nutritional advice can be summed up by Michael Pollan’s brilliant phrase “Eat [real, whole] food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” However, even among people who care deeply about food, there are little things that divide us. Vegans, paleos, gardeners, locavores, this doctor, and that doctor all have their own thing to say about food, and it’s often hard for us to listen to one another. Perhaps this is because, as the above video says, it is much safer to identify with a group and fail to empathize with anyone who believes otherwise.

This sounds a lot like politics to me. Democrats only want to talk to other democrats, republicans only want to talk to other republicans, and those who don’t follow politics just want to talk about how messed up the world is and how it’s hopeless to try to change anything. When we fail to understand the other side’s point of view, we lose sight of our common values and humanity. This has contributed to the massive political divide and lack of constructive communication between the two major parties in the United States.

It’s a similar issue with food. People who care about food often argue the minute details of diet and ignore the commone goal, and most people just like to talk about how damn good the cinnamon rolls are at that one place because it’s a pain in the ass to make sense of all the contradictory nutriton information.

“But Henry, politics is actually important and makes a difference in the world. Food is just food. Who cares if we don’t talk about it?”

First of all, food has a massive impact in the world. Everybody buys and eats food every single day. Large food companies are worth billions and billions of dollars.  What we eat and where we get it from has a massive economic, sociological, and cultural impact on the world. Unfortunately, our system of producing food is an unsustainable, unethical, and unhealthy mess.

There is an epidemic of diet-related chronic disease, climate change is out of control, and millions of animals are being abused every single day. While this is happening, vegans are saying one thing, paleo people are saying another thing, some doctors say avoid sugar, some doctors say avoid saturated fat, etc.

Here’s where it gets fun: Amidst all of these disagreements, the food companies walk away happy because our confusion as consumers leads to their profit. When we don’t know what to believe or who to listen to, we too often throw up our hands and opt for the food that we’re comfortable with. For most of us, that means food that is tasty, convenient, gives the appearance of health, and is seemingly cheap. Unfortunately, in the current food market, most of the tasty, convenient, and seemingly cheap food is rarely healthy, sustainably produced, or cheap (Read this article for a good summary of why I say said cheap twice).

The food industry’s ability to confuse us and our inability to communicate with each other is particularly worrying, because as difficult as it is for people who identify with one group to listen to another group, it’s even more difficult for people to listen to things they don’t want to hear. Nobody wants to hear that butter, steak, cupcakes, and many other delicious foods they hold dear are a major cause of the chronic disease epidemic and a large contributor to climate change. That’s why this country has jumped so eagerly on the food industry’s campaigns to demonize specific nutrients. Historically, when one nutrient is made out to be the bad one, all the other ones are percieved as perfectly fine. For example, when saturated fat is bad, nobody worries about sugar and vice versa.

The bottom line is that healthy-eating advocates, and doctors in particular, need to stop sweating this silly reductionist perspective regarding specific nutrients and start looking at things more “wholistically” (thanks Colin Campbell). Whenever I come across a confusing piece of nutritional advice, I harken back to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s a statement that pretty much everyone in the food movement can (and should!) get behind, and it’s a statement that would leave large food companies scared to death if it were ever to gain widespread traction among the various food movements. If we all followed that simple advice, the system we have around food would change drastically for the better.

Part of what inspired me to help create this blog with my sister was a desire to change the way people think and talk about food. Why do the vegan, paleo, gardener, locavore, this doctor, and that doctor have to take sides? I’m not saying fine details don’t matter (and I certainly have my own opinions), but given the state of things, it’s much more important to break the message down into something simple and effective. I also believe that we can all learn something from each other if we just open up the conversation. To me, it’s about making good information about food accessible and conversation about that information less taboo.

What are some ways we can do this?

The next time you make a meal for someone, tell them where all of the ingredients came from. The next time someone makes a meal for you, ask them where all of the ingredients came from (if you know them well enough). If you’re omnivorous and someone says they’re vegan, ask why and listen to their answer. If you’re vegan someone says they eat meat, ask why and listen to their answer. Watch documentaries, read books, listen to podcasts, and suggest the good ones to your friends. And most of all…

Eat [real, whole] food. Not too much. Mostly [if not all] plants.

Oh yeah, and share this post with your friends too.

Happy 4th of July!

– H

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