Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Food: Our New Religion

In case you've never noticed, Lent is LONG. As is my annual wont, I decided I would give up something as a little 6-week challenge for myself. It's more of a selfish "Let's see if I can kick a bad habit / use my time more productively / get healthier" thing than a religious quest, although it does make you appreciate just how long Jesus spent in the wilderness. Did I mention, Lent is long?

In the past I've given up: tea (surprisingly difficult), chocolate (surprisingly OK), Facebook (how did I cope without knowing what everyone had for dinner?) lie-ins (I actually found I missed the meditative aspect of lying around sifting through ideas, more than actual snoozing), meat, and "wasting time". (That last one was a rookie mistake in non-specificity; I limited my internet browsing time to 20 minutes per day and tried not to watch too much TV, but there's always a justification for why a particular youtube video is "educational" and worthy enough to slip under the radar.) As a rule, something useful always emerges from the rubble of each venture, whether it's new levels of willpower or the tasty vegetarian recipes I use to this day. (Nigella's halloumi bake is a particular favourite.)

This year I decided that cutting out food with added sugar was the way to go. We're always being told that sugar is basically poison (yummy, delicious poison...) and eating it on a regular basis is tantamount to a slow suicide. Which is bad news for me, because my favourite foods, roughly in order, are: takeaway Chinese food, chocolate digestives, Percy Pigs, and cupcakes with loads of icing. Oh, and any kind of chocolate, generally. It's a wonder I'm not dead already. (And if facing my own mortality wasn't enough, vanity also takes a hit: apparently sugar ages your skin horribly...)

See, kids? Fruit can be fun!

For my Lent adventure it was easy to identify the obvious sugar culprits: cake, biscuits and sweeties were out. But so were most yogurts, tinned soups, any kind of ready-meal or sauce, and any drink but tea or water. (Actually, I cheated: I knew there would be a few occasions before Easter where I'd be forced to partake in alcoholic libations, so I decided alcohol would be excepted from the list.) Foods which are naturally high in sugar are also acceptable; nobody is taking away my sweet potatoes or bananas.

The biggest difference has been that the shortage of non-sugary snacks forces me to have three square meals a day. (My usual self-employed-person chaos consists of a meandering day of grazing, then getting starving at 5pm and eating dinner then, like an old person.) On the whole, Lent hasn't been too torturous, but in moments of weakness I look through my recipes and imagine the sugar-fest I'll enjoy when it's all over. (This is looking like a pretty strong contender.) Wrinkles be damned!

I've also tried making sugar-free cookies; using mashed banana and oats as a base, you can make pretty tasty little morsels by adding the nuts, seeds and dried fruit of your choice. I also found loads of great, healthy-living cookery websites such as purely twins, which make icing made of cashew nuts and beetroot look delicious.

In my search I noticed that "healthy" recipes tend to be presented as gluten-free, grain-free and dairy-free as a matter of course. So what gives?

Because we've only been consuming grains for a relatively short time and we've been genetically modifying them as well, the thinking is that we haven't properly adapted to them and they're cheap junk. Or as the more forceful blogs put it, "grains are killing you slowly". Cardiologist William Davis hit the bestseller list with his book "Wheat Belly" explaining why the supposedly healthy foodstuff is actually toxic (although his ideology has been heavily criticised).

Apparently 30% of adults want to cut down on gluten, so the messages are coming through. But what's the truth? Were we formerly brainwashed to eat lots of wholemeal bread purely because the US department of Agriculture told us it was healthy, or are we now just being encouraged to support the growing gluten-free industry? Are there any more conspiracy theories to choose from?

As far as milk goes, yes it is quite weird that adult humans drink a liquid which comes from cow udders to feed young calves (especially when so many people are weirded out by the idea of breastmilk. It may be "unnatural", but hey, that's progress for you: a proportion of the world's population has evolved to digest lactose since humans first started keeping cattle and drinking their milk (thought to be about 10,500 years ago, in the Middle East)

Slightly off-topic, but I have to mention the fact that we're not the only animals to have farms: ants herd aphids to drink their sweet aphid juice, or "honeydew". I don't know if that's super-cute, or just weird and creepy. Speaking of which:

There's long been an internet rumour that even those who can't tolerate regular milk might be able to handle it raw, because it's pasteurisation that kills lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. Unfortunately this appears to be a myth. I actually think the most interesting part of this experiment is that out of 63 people who thought they couldn't stomach dairy, only 27 actually passed the test for clinical lactose intolerance. As study author Gardner said, “I couldn’t explain it, but I’m not going to look someone in the eye and tell them they don’t have cramps and diarrhea when they drink milk."

Could it be that genetic modifications in the food we eat are creating new kinds of intolerances? Or are lots of people jumping on the "I'm special because there's something I can't eat" bandwagon?  Apparently up to 20% of the UK population believe they have a food intolerance, while genuine sufferers make up only about 1-2%. In one study of 969 infants, 54% of the children had parents who thought they suffered from a food hypersensitivity; between 2% to 6% (depending on age) actually did.  

DISCLAIMER: I know food sensitivities are real. I say this because most of the comments on the articles I linked above are sufferers complaining that they really do have a medical problem. (Although why they assume that an article about deluded people is actually aimed at them is a whole other story.) For every bunch of people who once got a stomach ache after eating an omelette and decided they must be allergic to eggs, there'll be someone else who probably felt unwell for years before hitting on the solution of cutting out cow's milk. The hypochondriacs may make it harder for real intolerants to be taken seriously, but on the bright side they've made it much easier (and cheaper) to get hold of "free-from" foods.

In a group of 969 infants surveyed by University of Portsmouth (U.K.) researchers, only 2% to 6% (depending on age) had food hypersensitivity as confirmed in clinical tests, despite the fact that the parents of 54% of the infants felt that their children had such sensitivities. - See more at:
Living with a genuine intolerance must be a pain in the arse. It's an annoyance which means you can never just choose something from a restaurant menu without checking exactly what it contains (probably making your server assume you're just an attention-seeker, because of all those aforementioned bandwagon jumpers). You have to alert friends of your dietary requirements before they can invite you round for dinner. And you have to resist the temptation to eat the forbidden food... or suffer the consequences.

I know a couple of people who have to live on a gluten-free diet and it means they always have to bring their own food with them to places, or compromise by having something which won't bother their tummy TOO much. It's not a fun way to live. (Side note: they all confess to eating lots of bread before having to go gluten free: toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, bread rolls with dinner etc. Is it possible that we can develop intolerances for foods we've overdosed on? Hmm...) 

The  worst part is, you don't to eat these at Easter. Feeling ill isn't a "treat".

So why is there such a surge in specialised diets with no medical grounds?

In my internet digging for Lent-friendly recipes, I came across websites and blogs comparing the different healthy lifestyles and I came to a realisation: food is the new religion.

I've long thought that a raw, vegan diet is probably the best fit for most humans who want to live for as long as possible in optimum condition. (I just haven't, um, got round to starting it yet...) A case in point is Annette Larkins, a 70-year-old who infamously looks years younger due to her vegan, raw food and rainwater diet.

My "religious" epiphany came when I happened across a "Paleo" forum talking about her. Paleo and Vegan eaters are bitter rivals; like any true converts, ex-vegans will give testimonials about how they saw the light when they had their first taste of meat in years. The paleo community response to an unnaturally youthful, yet defiantly non-paleo pensioner was a rising of hackles: "Yeah she looks good but it's just because she's black / she's lying about her age / because those raw vegetables came from her garden, that really made the difference." 

Apparently, evidence of healthy goodness is not enough if it doesn't fit in with your own dogma. And isn't that just like the Christians who snidely say "Yes, the Dalai Lama might be nice, but has he been washed in the blood of the Lamb?"

Likewise the forumite who pointed out  "After all, add some raw animal food to her diet and you've got raw Paleo," was akin to the church-goers who justify the spiritual joy emanating from someone of the "wrong" religion with: "Yes, the Dalai Lama is a lovely man, he really has Christian values." 
A few years ago, the theory was the shopping was our new religion: we faithfully worship at the mall every weekend, after all. Nice idea, but it doesn't wash. You could just as easily say that TV is our religion (an evening ritual of mind-blanking meditation), or music (hands in the air pentecostal style) or even DIY (make your financial sacrifice and get on your knees every bank holiday). But people tend to be less evangelical about these things; with a few loony exceptions, they don't make their whole life about Ikea, Phil and Kirstie, or Radiohead. But we all love talking about what food we can and can't eat! (I'm doing it right now, after all.)

So who's who in the world of food enthusiasts? 

The atheists are represented by the people who faithfully comment on every "healthy eating" article with "What's the point of juicing / eating organic / cutting out meat? You're still going to die! Just have a kebab and enjoy yourself!" They also ridicule the "Paleo" and "Primal" communities for following a regime designed by people living thousands of years ago. (Sound familiar?)

Every type of food fanatic will talk incessantly about their beliefs; as one put it, "I found that when I talked to people in person, it soon always came back around to talking about my health." She must be a fascinating person to sit next to on long bus journeys. Still, what did I expect from a blog called My Natural Family? (Excuse me while I puke.)

Just like cult members, people doggedly stick to their regimes even when it's obvious it's not working out for them. Gwyneth Paltrow might LOOK fantastic on her strict macrobiotic diet, but it also seems to have given her brittle bones, dangerously low levels of vitamin D and made her feel as if she was about to die from a stoke. Yet she's still as obsessive as ever – and while I do like the much-maligned Gwynnie, her faith seems somewhat misplaced.

But people have long been deciding on their own "theology" which has no logic, and standing firm even when everyone around them can see that they're being insane. 

I'm guessing that going up to a Paleo eater and saying  "Ha! You really believe you're eating an authentic ancient diet and you're totally not!" is much like telling a Christian "You oppose gay marriage / women's rights / mixing wool and linen, don't you!"  Lots of us have picked out an ancient blueprint for living and put our own spin on it. Modern day Christians don't go in for much stoning or gouging out eyes, and I'm pretty sure real cavemen didn't eat amazing chocolate chip cookies.

Another thing is labels: the foody faithful are very keen on them. One might argue, after all, that paleo could simply be described as "cutting out processed food and junk", but that doesn't sound as nifty. Even those of us who consider ourselves "normal" eaters (which kind of makes us a food sect of our own) get annoyed with the people who give themselves labels which are completely wrong. Like the commenter on this very interesting article about how we should pretty much be eating like chimps; s/he said "I'm a vegetarian who occasionally (a few times per month) eats a small serving of meat." Are you TRYING to troll us? At least say you're on "The Chimp Diet" or something. Because you're clearly not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "vegetarian". Just as you're not really a Christian unless you act like one.
Luckily, the born-again dieters haven't yet waged their own crusades, but just like the religions of old, the fiercest arguments take place within the groups themselves. There are endless discussions on the real truth behind B̶i̶b̶l̶e̶ ̶v̶e̶r̶s̶e̶s Stone Age eating habits, as well as sub-groups based on fairly small differences (Dukan devotees aren't allowed to marry Atkins aficionados. Probably). If someone leaves a "community" for a different, er, belief system, he will be completely ostracised from his own pals, who offer him condescending pity as they smugly stick to their regimen in the belief that it is the one true faith. 

Maybe the fact that organised religion has become deeply uncool means that we're looking elsewhere for what faith can provide: a sense that we're on the right track, a fellowship of like-minded pals, and even a sense of inner purity. (What else is a detox, if not a way of purging our sins?)

Living healthily is a fantastic goal to have, but taking it all so seriously truly does appear to have become a cult. One ex-paleo (now "Normal") says that when she questioned authority, she "experienced large amounts of harassment and then when I complained about that I was basically told to shut up and that I was attacking people who had devoted their lives to saving people (sounded pretty familiar to me from veganism)."

Good grief. All the crap that goes along with religion, but you don't even get any festivals. 

Anyway, I'm going to count the days until I can have sugar again, and in the meantime I'll get my fix of sweetness from this ridiculously cute vid of a fellow cookie addict. Does anyone else want to bite her little cheeks, or is it just me?


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