This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

We Are What We Eat, In More Ways Than One

Last week’s news: Paula Deen, a popular cook and author of cookbooks with an emphasis on traditional (read: breaded and greasy) Southern cuisine, revealed that she had been suffering from diabetes for the last three years. She has come out about it now in order to shill for a pharmaceutical company. There is no denying that the there is irony in the situation, an obese adherent of riotously unhealthy cooking developing diabetes. Quelle surprise. And there is something unsavory in that, having made money for herself by selling such unhealthy recipes, she is now going to make some more by selling medication for a disease that’s caused, to a large extent, by bad diet.

Still, I wish people would stop ripping into her already. The reason for that is, I am just not sure that publishing a cookbook is tantamount to promoting a lifestyle. Were it so, vegan and low-fat cookbooks would certainly have fixed our nation’s eating habits by now. Fact is, however, people buy cookbooks that appeal to their tastes. A health-conscious person may buy a Paula Deen cookbook, but certainly will not use it with any frequency significant enough to impact his or his family’s health. By contrast, people who buy her cookbooks because they like to have that kind of food on a daily basis, would eat junk just as well without her input.

It does make one think, though: why DO people indulge in diets known to lead to serious illness?

This is not just a question of mere weakness or indifference. Food has become a topic in culture wars, what with all that pearl-clutching because Obama puts mustard (sorry, Dijon mustard) on his burgers, and his wife is recruiting goons as we speak to force crying children to eat grilled radicchio at gunpoint. (And I do acknowledge, I’m not blameless here myself. I do sometimes crack jokes about “Conservative” food.)

Distant history can put it in perspective for us. Take gout, for instance — the disease caused by the buildup of crystallized uric acid in joints and tendons. For millenia, it was the bane of the upper classes (foods that stimulate the production of uric acid include alcohol, sugary drinks, meat and seafood). I suspect that before the development of modern diagnostic techniques, doctors probably used “gout” as an umbrella term which included diabetes-related foot problems, but that too, primarily affected the rich for the same reasons as real gout. Known as “the disease of kings and king of diseases”, gout causes some of the most excruciating pain a human being can experience. Works of fictions and philosophy throughout the centuries are awash in references to gout; my favorite description of a flare-up involves the feeling of one’s big toe being slowly pulverized by an invisible hammer.

Here is the curious thing about gout: people knew throughout history that it disproportionately affected the rich. Ancient Romans already made the connection between gout and the consumption of alcohol and sweets. Medieval writers who mentioned gout clearly understood that it was strongly correlated with lifestyle. Nevertheless, the first mention in literature that I have seen of a patient trying to control his gout with diet is from the time of the First World War (which suggests that doctors probably began to advise patients to exclude certain foods sometime in the second half of the 19th century). I find it hard to believe that until then, it never occurred to anyone that one effective way to lessen the horrendous pain would be to reduce one’s consumption of meat and alcohol. Yet people who could afford to stuff their faces continued to do so, while pursuing all kinds of crazy, disgusting and utterly ineffective remedies.

Alright, if people can’t be bothered about their health, let’s take an example that is unrelated to diseases. In the late 10th century AD, groups of Norse immigrants established settlements in Greenland. For nearly five centuries, they grew crops and raised cattle, but in the 15th century, the combination of the Little Ice Age and overfarming made the settlements go extinct.

The fate of those who did not timely escape Greenland, before its inlets became completely ice-bound and impassable to Scandinavian ships, was gruesome: they slowly starved to death. The obvious question, of course, is: how come the native Inuit, who lived alongside, continued to thrive despite the cooling climate, and survived into the present day? Modern archeologists, excavating the sites of Norse settlements, found that the desperate settlers first ate all their cattle, then their dogs. But more interesting was what the digs didn’t find: not one fish bone; not one fragment belonging to a whale or a seal. I have no doubt that some Norse probably joined the Inuit when the situation became desperate. But the majority stayed put, even with no hope of rescue, and simply would not eat the things that the Inuit ate, things that would keep them alive. Surviving in that situation would mean adapting the Inuit ways, in essence, becoming Inuit — and clearly, most Norse settlers preferred death to that.

The story of Norse settlements in Greenland is one of the strongest manifestations in history of the enormous role that food plays in our culture. Food is part of our identity — not just ethnic identity, but political and class identity as well. Thus, to the aristocracy of old days, feeling like your feet are on fire was simply the price one paid for not becoming a peasant by eating peasant food. And today, suffering from diabetes, obesity and hypertension is perceived by many, at least implicitly, as a way of not letting tree-huggers and hippies win. And that, of course, tells us that health education will never be enough to change people’s habits.

Perhaps there is a way to market healthy lifestyles in the most afflicted parts of our country as a way of being a good Christian, a good conservative and a patriotic American?


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6 thoughts on “We Are What We Eat, In More Ways Than One

  1. I guess i am a steer….and a fish….and maybe a turkey. Love this post.

  2. Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, wrote about the Norsemen in Greenland and covered that reason in depth. Why people continually insist on doing things or believing things that are just plain bad for them seems to be a common theme in human history.

    Nice post.

  3. I suffered from gout attacks regularly for years. I also drank a lot. Stopped drinking, gout went away.

    Why did it take me years to stop drinking? I couldn’t imagine myself as a non-drinker. Beer was part of my identity, my lifestyle. I thought life without it would be horrible.

    Turns out, I don’t mind it at all. But it basically took *terrific pain* to convince me to even try altering my identity.

  4. Great post… right up until the end. I might offer that the reason we have the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is that we have figured out how to feed a huge number of people for very little money. Which is also why we do not have an epidemic of starvation.

    I’ve read a number of your posts and generally like them, but as you have stated before “it is difficult to set aside your bias”. I agree, in fact I agree so much that I think we should all just admit that we can’t. But to that end, to finish what is a terrific piece by forwarding an idea that eating too much is a conservative/christian predisposition requires you to ignore that diabetes is truly epidemic in African-American segments of society. (far from conservative)
    I think you would be on a better track to look at socio-economic factors instead, which might bring you to abundant, cheap and easily accessible food. Now we can debate if keeping people fed without them having to spend every dime they have is good or bad… and the personal responsibility associated with it. (You do the personal resposibilty part extremely well by the way.)

    An aside: Your writing is brilliant and informative until you come up to the point you can’t resist… And to that I’m not sure you have explored deeply enough the political/philosophical foundations you espouse. From your writing you sound to me more like a Classic Liberal or Libertarian (I’m neither, so I’m not selling anything here.). I think you sound this way to yourself as well which is why you feel you have to remind us, and yourself, that your “Liberal”.
    The defining factor is always force. And, I don’t read that you are into force all that much, which moves you out of the Liberal/Statist camp. Maybe not…

  5. Mike: thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    I agree that the causes of the obesity epidemic are complex, but I wanted to focus specifically on one aspect of it. And the last comment was meant more in jest, although I’ll be the first to admit I’m terrible at humor.

    As for the question of political classifications … I don’t know how you would define “force”. I am against legislating what people can and cannot eat, but I believe certain regulations — regarding quality, disclosure, etc. — are necessary and beneficial. I also believe the State has a role in encouraging certain choices while discouraging others without the use of actual coercion. I also believe we live in a kind of society where the State is not the only possible source of force. So … I don’t know how all that classifies me.

    • Well… it’s food for thought.

      OK, that was stupid. In regard to the state encouraging and discouraging behavior that does not infringe on the liberty of others, I do not think it has a place. (True freedom is being able to make the wrong choice even when you know what the right one is.) We’ll probably have to agree to disagree… I have a feeling that you don’t have a problem using taxes to influence behavior… Since you have no option to refuse paying taxes and can ultimately be incarcerated then I have to include that as force. These are good debates. Thanks for the follow up.

      Love your stuff. I’ll keep reading!

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