Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A healthy attitude

Oh, what the food movement has wrought. We're forever being told that this or that ingredient, or process, is unacceptable - unethical, no, poisonous. Shop the perimeter of the supermarket! Avoid big stores entirely! No wheat! No animal products!* Eat like a caveman! While all appear to be agreed that local, pesticide-free kale and, in season, berries are acceptable, all else is up for debate. And because man cannot live on kale-raspberry smoothies alone, debate ensues. There's no consensus on where to draw the line for "processed" - Twinkies, Doritos, yes, but white rice? pasta? Is cooking the answer, or just the lesser-evil way of ruining whole foods?

Enter Mark Bittman, voice of reason. Sort of - his "vegan before six" agenda would seem to fly in the face of a traditional-foods one, given that a cafĂ© au lait (it's OK if it's French) and soft-boiled egg in the morning would seem like exactly the sort of things not to gratuitously remove from one's diet. And his condemnation of milk - because it doesn't agree with him, none of us should have it? - hasn't helped. And yes, his videos with the little glass bowls of pre-prepped ingredients are misleading in the way all cooking shows are. And fine, his cavorting through Europe and recording all the excellent meals he gets to eat doesn't make the U.S.-based reader on a budget more enthusiastic about switching to rice and beans. But his overall point - we should cook more, and it doesn't need to be something complicated - is sound. His everyman example no doubt gets men in the kitchen. If Bittmanism were Kool-Aid, I'd have drunk most of the glass.

So Bittman suggests three recipes that are better than the garbage most Americans eat, but that might not fit whichever paleo-macrobiotic diet (Bittman's pal) Gwyneth is following this week. A seafood pasta, a fruit smoothie, and a chopped-vegetable salad. All sound reasonable enough. But! Everyone's been primed - thanks in part to Bittman's own writings, but in a still larger part to the nature of the internet - to contrarian that thing down. Bittman suggests pasta. And not even whole wheat! Doesn't he know about celiacs? And isn't white flour poison no matter your overall health? And clams! Must innocent animals die for our dinner? And the salad involves salted vegetables! We're not supposed to have salt, remember? And the smoothie allows for added sugar and soy or dairy! WHAT?!?!

While there are occasional comments that criticize most constructively, and others that are straightforwardly enthusiastic, it's really this horde of the furious. How dare Bittman, who's supposed to be promoting health, not know that each and every one of his suggestions is approximately as health-promoting as riding a motorcycle helmet-free, a cigarette in one hand and a steak fried in trans-fats in the other? We've reached the point where a healthy attitude about food and eating healthily appear to be, for many, incompatible.

*The one subset of this line of thought I find most baffling is that there's something inherently strange about consuming another species's milk. It would indeed be strange if we expected to get complete nutrition from it, as a calf would. But apart from human breast milk, which only even applies to the very young, is there any ingredient whose explicit purpose is to be food for our species?


Andrew Stevens said...

Loved that article.

After all, we're the only mammal that routinely consumes the milk of another mammal, which if you stop and think about it is a very odd thing to do.

Yes, cats look at you in horror and disgust when you give them cow's milk. Oh wait, no they don't; they lap it up as quickly as their little tongues can go.

Phoebe said...

Indeed - the number of things dogs eat that are "very odd" suggest humans have no monopoly on oddness.

Andrew Stevens said...

To be fair, because cats did not domesticate cows, most adult cats are lactose intolerant. But if they had domesticated cows, they'd likely have evolved into lactose tolerance in pretty short order and would now drink nothing else. (It took humans in northern and central Europe and in certain African and Middle Eastern populations only about 20,000 years to do so, which is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Being able to drink milk obviously was a huge survival advantage in those populations.)

Moebius Stripper said...

I'm thinking that "eat well, but don't be neurotic about it" is...while not quite the universal approach to eating, common enough that it doesn't need is own name. And considering that "flexitarians" are superficially indistinguishable from people who don't pay any attention to what they're eating (I can't tell if the person I eat with once a month always eats cheeseburgers, or was just indulging the once), the fact that the term exists at all is as strong an indication as any that the food movement has gone too far. "You can pay a medium amount of attention to health, but don't worry, you're still special enough that we have a fancy name for you too!" (I laughed at loud at "at least the word flexitarian hasn’t been perverted" - true, but only because there's nothing to pervert.)