Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Food Taboos, or, Enforced Healthy Eating

Yesterday I was reading Scott Adams’ latest posting to the Dilbert blog. Recently he has been discussing a theoretical capitalistic communal society called “Cheaptopia”, where people could choose to live to save expenses, as well as having other benefits. Among the other economic and social policies of the community, he mentioned and quickly discarded the idea of mandatory vegetarianism. He stated that he is personally in favor of that, but that it was too controversial for inclusion.

The remark was more of an aside, but it got me thinking about vegetarianism. I am most certainly not a vegetarian, and would die if someone tried to mandate that. But it goes beyond vegetarianism for me—I eat hardly any vegetables at all, and the ones I do eat belong more to the starch family.

This revelation always comes as a shock to people, especially if they know that I have Hindu beliefs and that I am a strong advocate for animals and animal rights. It can make going out to eat at certain places somewhat awkward, as most places that serve sandwiches and salads are “right out” for me. I wouldn’t touch anything like that with a ten foot pole.

The inevitable follow-up question is always “why?” The assumption is that adults who don’t eat their veggies are somehow overgrown children, not mature enough to eat “proper” food. It’s amazing how much of a social stigma that can be at times. My friend Liz, who is very similar to me in this respect, once noted that the people who criticized her for not eating vegetables were the same ones going out to bars getting wasted every weekend, something neither of us does. Her question was, “How is that any healthier?” In short, don’t be critical of someone else’s health lifestyle when yours is also in question.

We’ve also pondered the relationship between food and sex. People seem to react with the same Puritanical vehemence against aberrant food choices as they would against licentious sex practices. What is so taboo about food?

In any case, it may surprise you to know that in my family, my grandmother and both of my sisters also maintain the same distaste for vegetables. (My grandmother lived to be 89 years old). We were certainly made to eat vegetables growing up, but none of us eat them as adults. My sisters both have children, and have made some compromises in the interest of balanced nutrition, but they still don’t eat veggies themselves.

Over time, what I’ve realized is that it’s not particularly the taste, but the texture of vegetables that is repulsive to me. Consider: I would eat tomato sauce on pasta, or on pizza, but I’m sickened by the thought of eating a raw (or cooked) tomato slice. Why? Because tomato sauce doesn’t have the same texture as a whole or sliced tomato. The crunchy texture of most veggies is a turn-off to me—I could never contemplate eating a salad. And you can forget about beans—lentils, peas, lima beans—the very thought makes me wretch. It’s like eating sandpaper, only more disgusting. The only way I can eat lentils is—you guessed it—if they are ground up into a bread.

The second inevitable follow-up question is, “well, what about fruit?” I can eat a piece of raw fruit, but I don’t like most fruit in desserts and such. Fruit pies are disgusting, though I can eat raisin scones and blueberry muffins. What does that get back to? Texture.

Given that all the women in my family (except my Mom) have the same trait, one wonders if there’s anything genetic about it, but it’s difficult to know for sure. One thing I am fairly certain about is that one’s nutrition and health situation is unique. My own observations about health, food and longevity among my relatives suggests that one’s food choices have little to do with your health and mortality in the end. Sure, you should eat moderately and stay away from too much of anything—but it’s not necessarily going to prolong your life. Some health problems, like diabetes, do require a lifestyle change, but it’s often a genetic illness and isn’t fully curable. What I have observed is that some people strive to eat “healthy” their entire life, exercise, stay away from fats, sweets, etc.—and end up dying in their mid-fifties. Others drink Scotch straight from the bottle, eat nothing but fatty foods, and live to be one hundred years old with no serious health problems.

It’s exactly this sort of thing that annoys me when governments try to legislate what people should be allowed to eat. Banning trans-fats in cooking oils, trying to ban “runny eggs” (that didn’t last long), and other idiotic measures that Congress is wasting its time bringing to the table—leave my frigging food alone, please. Anyone with half a brain knows that food is going to be higher in calories and richer when eating out—that’s what you’re paying for, isn’t it? If I want to eat low-fat, no-sugar, no-taste whatever, I can stay home and do that. I don’t need to pay money for it. But those who do want to eat out and eat healthier—many restaurants offer those options now. And the ones that don’t—well, then don’t choose to eat there if that’s not what you want. What if the tables were turned and vegetarian restaurants were required to serve meat because people don’t get enough protein? It’s all silly, really—we have so many choices in this country. There is no need to make all restaurants conform to some “preventative health” standard.

Another trend I’m seeing is trying to legislate what school children can eat because they’re all becoming obese. Let me tell you something. When I was a child, I ate rich foods, baked goods, fast food and did not become obese. Why? There are at least a couple of obvious reasons. One is that children today do not spend as much time outside playing. We always rode our bikes, played kickball, hide and seek—we would go out after school and not reappear until suppertime. We went a lot of places, and Mom did not care where we went, as long as we were home at the appointed time. Today’s children are kept on a tight leash—parents seem to be more afraid of, I don’t know what. I do not believe that “things are worse now” than they were before. But kids have their playtime measured very carefully, and parents are often too busy to do anything but leave their kids in front of video games, or something non-exercise related. The other change is that parents are too busy to be at home to cook, so families order out or eat out very regularly, often for more than one meal. Less exercise plus more high-calorie food means fatter children. I don’t need to be a doctor to tell you that. But making restaurants change is not the answer. Simple moderation is good enough, and paying attention to your body. If you are craving something, or repulsed by something, your body probably needs the former and not the latter.

So, please stop picking on those of us who are not veggie eaters. Vegetables are not the panacea for good health; that’s like saying one medicine can cure all ills. Balance and moderation are the key to good health. And dietary needs are different from person to person.

I leave you with Lewis Black’s hilarious and very true commentary on the issue. (Fast forward to about 7 minutes and 40 seconds into the clip):

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was almost going to put this quote on my Facebook page the other day - "White Bread is the new heroin"- since people are on such a whole grain kick...and white bread has become the food of Satan

Great posting, I agree with you 100 per cent! I'm the type of person who could care less what people eat, as long as they don't force me to eat what they're eating..And I resent their comments on what I eat-