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?