Sunday, March 31, 2013

Big Long Food Rant Part 1: "Real Food"

I'm going to talk a bit about restrictive diets, both the good and the bad that go with them.  This was going to be one big long food rant, but it's best separated into three parts.  The first is on the construction of "real food."  The second is on restrictive diets as a personal choice.  The third is on the social issues found within restrictive diets.

My dad said to me the other day something which for some reason is going to go down in my personal history as one of the most offensive things anybody ever said to me without actually meaning to be offensive.  I had a really serious food binge incident; it's probably not even over, although I'm in the process of considering changing diets so I don't know yet.  So he sees me eating a bunch of crap in the living room and says "Thank God you're eating real food again!"

I don't think I even said anything, it was so depressing.  What he calls "real food" I call "two nights of waking up with a headache so severe it requires medicine combined with stomach cramps so severe that they in the past have convinced me I needed to go to the hospital."  Restrictive diets aren't always about weight loss, and although it I would love to lose weight, being fat is significantly less of a concern to me than the "real food" my dad wants me to eat and the effect it has on my body.

It led me to think about this concept of "real food," though.  When I think of "real food," I think of relatively unprocessed animal products, vegetables, fruit, and nuts, with "not real food" being more like packaged macaroni and cheese and candy bars and soda.  But at the same time, the latter foods are things that people really do eat, and there are plenty of unprocessed foods that I don't eat (wheat berries and oats, for example), and I eat plenty of things some people do not consider to be "real food" (mostly meat and dairy related).

In other words, "real food" is a construction, and what constitutes "real food" is going to be based on things like culture, upbringing, health status, allergies, income, and personal preferences.  And although there are certainly detrimental health effects from eating certain foods, the actual lines between "real food" and "not real food" that we draw are arbitrary, some more arbitrary than others.

For example, why does the paleo community tend to draw the line between "real food" and "not real food" between pre-agricultural and agricultural societies?  It's true that grain can have detrimental effects to human health, but just how detrimental grain is depends on the type of grain, how much it's eaten, and how it's prepared... not just whether or not you eat it.  But on the flip side, what about the Weston Price people who maintain grain is just fine but that you need to prepare it properly?  Why is their line between soaking and sprouting grain and industrially processing it?  Why isn't it placed before we started eating grain?  Why isn't it placed before we started cooking?

It isn't just ancestral-variant diets that have this arbitrary nature.  Vegetarian variants also put up lines between "real food" and "not real food," some more arbitrary than others.  A vegan, for example, may place that line so that they are not intentionally eating any animal products, but eating plants that accidentally involve  killing is fine; there have been many (useless) arguments about whether industrial veganism is ethically superior to eaters of only grassfed, organic animal products (of course, both vegans and the grassfed/organic meat eaters think they're the ethical ones).  Some people place that line between meat and dairy, even though they largely come from the same place and both result in intentional killing.  Others place it between fish or poultry and mammals.  Some place it between insects and vertebrates.

Here's where it becomes a huge problem, though.  Everybody thinks they're eating "the" real food, but because this is a culturally-specific and arbitrary category it leads to people making decisions that either disenfranchise people or simply ignore other peoples' cultural heritage.  Examples include singling out shark-fin soup for bans because it's a Chinese symbol of wealth, or insisting Native American diets are unhealthy because they traditionally include corn, beans, and squash.

Perhaps the worst is when people criticize the food decisions of the poor.  The way our subsidies work makes unhealthy food cheaper, and low-income people tend to gravitate toward cheap food that tastes good and requires very little preparation (not everybody has the skills or equipment to cook a squash, which is like the only fresh food the local food pantry gives out on a regular basis).

I'm not saying there's anything "wrong" with drawing lines between what you will eat and what you won't, nor that we can't have real discussions about ethics and health regarding them.  As I'll talk about in the other parts of this series, I also draw plenty of lines between what I view as "real food" and what I view as "not real food."  But recognize that regardless of your own dietary habits, "real food" is still a construction.