Monday, February 19, 2007

A Name for It

I try not to be bothered by the people who look askance at what I eat (i.e., good food), but sometimes it's frustrating. They've been educated to believe fundamental things about food and health that don't align with what I eat. And as I don't have a method of re-education, I can't help them. Until today, I didn't even have a name. And then when I, finally (the article was published over 3 weeks ago), sat down to read Michael Pollan's Unhappy Meals, from January 28's New York Times Magazine, I had a part of the answer. I now can name their belief system: Nutritionism.

Followers of this movement look at me as I am intent on enjoyment of a delightful creme brulee (or something else delicious) and say things like, "Aren't you worried about your cholesterol?" To which I respond, with a smile (hoping to make the discussion end right there), "Nope, mine's fine." But these people are true believers of Nutritionism, and so they say, "Ah, you're lucky to have genetics on your side." To which (and I know I shouldn't take the bait, but I do) I say, "My dad's was stratospheric (he now takes niacin which seems to have brought it down) and my mother's is still a number higher than I can easily count. The genetics reasoning doesn't work with me." The only good thing is that at this point, they stop - feeling on shaky ground. They don't want to press too hard on how I can eat butter, eggs, red meat, etc. on a (very) regular basis and not have sky-high cholesterol levels. But by this point I've become energized with the idea that I may be able to free this poor soul from his blindness and so I refuse to let it die. And so, after a long pause, I continue, "Yes, I eat everything that conventional wisdom says is bad for you and yet I'm healthier than most folks. Makes you think seriously about conventional wisdom, doesn't it." At this point, the other person is running scared and starts talking about his latest vacation, gossip about a common friend or the weather - really anything to change the subject. And so, with a (deep) sigh, I let it go.

I had my own epiphany almost 5 years ago. The epiphany, for all the implied suddenness, had the groundwork laid before that point. (This is the somewhat embarrassing part of the story) There's a Star Trek Next Generation episode with Charles Emerson Winchester III (yes, I know he's really David Ogden Stiers, but it's hard to separate the two) as a scientist who needs to save his planet, but he's also days away from turning the age at which all people on his planet commit euthenasia (it's also a version of an old Chinese fable). I don't know why this episode struck me as hard as it did - but it did. I couldn't get away from the question: What is it like to have a belief that's wrong, but that's so fundamental that you can't even question it as a belief? How would you even know you had one. So I started trying to figure out if I had a belief that was false (think about it some time, it's really hard). Everything I tried to think of seemed so obvious that it couldn't just be a belief - it had to be truth. And then, one day, reading the NY Times (yes, a bit of a pattern there), I found it. I was reading What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? by Gary Taubes, July 7, 2002 and while the article was great, it was actually the online commentary that was my own blinding flash of white light.

There were a lot of comments, but they seemed to fall clearly into 2 categores: 1. I've tried the Atkins diet (or something like it) and it worked for me - and here are all my personal proof points, 2. We all know that fat is bad/It's common sense that carbs are the best for us/etc. I suddenly realized how much the whole sun revolving around the Earth thing had been 'common sense' or 'we all know'. AndI had it, my incorrect belief - the whole idea of what I should/shouldn't be eating, what was good for me and what wasn't (not the specific detail of the Atkins diet, but the idea that the only argument against it was the 'everybody knows it's not true'). And that was the day that I stopped listening to (or believing, anyway) everything that I was hearing about nutrition.

And I just started eating. I started eating 'food' (Michael Pollan makes a point in differentiating between food and other things we eat). I consciously choose butter over margarine, ignored 'Lite' food (not that I'd ever been a huge fan of the snackwells kind of thing), ate whatever (i.e., eggs, red meat, cream, etc.) sounded good. And I didn't gain weight or see my health degenerate - nothing; and I have a lot better meals than most people.

I think I'm pretty much in total agreement with Michael Pollan in this article (don't tell, but I still haven't read Omnivore's Dilemma). I'm not sure why eating Food is better (i.e., I can't tell you from a biological or chemical perspective), all I know is that it seems to work. (And worst case, if I'm wrong, at least I'm enjoying it).


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