Myth and Food

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

There are times when I find myself looking for something to eat, a snack, or a late lunch, and I can't find anything. As hunger increases, so decision-making ability decreases, and the more I want something healthy, nourishing, fulfilling, but everything gets ruled out for being somehow "unhealthy," until all that's left are some sad-looking carrots and maybe a stalk of celery. I need a word for this circular, despair-inducing movement from fridge to pantry to cupboards and back again. A word or phrase that shows just how close to the edge of madness this hunger-induced health-food obsession feels. Often I end up eating nothing. I drink a glass of water instead or just wander out of the kitchen, dazed.

Often a glass of water is all that I needed. But I have a body to sustain--a body with a high metabolism, a body that takes up a hefty amount of space in the world (even if it's mostly vertical space).

The problem is this: the hungrier I am, the harder it is to choose something to eat without a bombardment of everything I've read/heard about regarding what food is good/bad. In the thick of it, a glass of milk can be ruled out because it's dairy, even though I am a dairy farmer's granddaughter and will likely be clutching a plastic gallon jug of whole cow's milk on my deathbed, and a piece of toast with butter becomes evil because it's refined, processed, fatty, and thus unhealthy. Never mind that I am not by nature a picky eater, and the only dietary restriction I follow is the one preventing me from eating food off of my neighbor's plate (I only do this by invitation).

A few months ago I started stocking the fridge with hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. For those moments when I need to eat something, right now. Something with protein. A hot dog, a bun, a touch of homemade ketchup. It's something and it stops the mad spiral around the kitchen in search of increasingly mythical healthy foods.

Last week I read this fascinating article/interview with Alan Levinovitz, who examines our current health-food obsession within the context of religion. It might not exactly affirm my new one package of hot dogs a week habit, but it brings perspective to the mad spiral around the kitchen in search of something good.

James Hamblin: You write about the role for storytelling and myth in the world. What's the role of myth in understanding health?

Alan Levinovitz: Myth is great for talking about where everything came from. Or what happens after you die. Or whether there was something before nothing. What is free will? We don't have great scientific accounts for these things. I think there are religious narratives that help people deal with really important but as-yet unanswerable questions. But myth is terrible for dietary rules.

Ideas about religion can be so powerful that people can't endorse them without giving up a part of their identity. It's the same thing with diets. If you've adopted a diet and it's become part of your identity, asking someone to reconsider something as simple as eating sugar or gluten is kind of like asking someone to give up their faith. To admit that the core of their identity is fundamentally mistaken. The pointy-head scientists and the people affiliated with Big Agriculture couldn't possibly be right because they are demons.

And later:

I just don't want people to get caught in this endless cycle of nonsensical dietary practices, in the same way that I wouldn't want people to still be doing exorcisms. But the exorcists are way more exciting than the people who are telling the public that exorcism doesn't work.

Photo: my little herb garden, pre-mulch, pre-weeding, pre-cilantro going crazy. 

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