In his new book, “The Gluten Lie”, philosophy professor Alan Levinovitz analyzes why fad diets and crazes concerning food are so prevalent in history. This morning over at Salon.com I found a very thought-provoking review of it. I say thought provoking because one of the questions in the review conflates religion and religious language and the language of diet:
Food rituals, food taboos, dietary demons, dietary myths, magic diets, guilt, sin: why do we apply so much religious language to food?
Virtually ever religious tradition has had food taboos and sacred diets. I think part of the reason is that food is something that we have direct control over. It crosses the boundary in a very personal way: we take something outside of our body and put it into our body. Eating is very personal, and it’s easy to invest those kinds of things with religious and ritual significance.
When talking about diet with people a great deal of the time you end up coming to a place where the conversation almost sounds like a religious argument. The dieter is operating on faith. It is especially prevalent when you talk to the vegetarian or the gluten-free dieter. As it happens there is now a great deal of science one can look to, to see what effect foods actually have on the human organism. In the case of celiac disease, it is possible to tell who is and who isn’t. Gluten based food marketing has reacted to the vanishingly small population of people who are required to medically avoid gluten by coming up with other ‘conditions’ that require a gluten-free diet. Gluten intolerance comes immediately to mind.
A person eats a food and has a bad reaction later that night or the next day. This person tries ‘gluten free’ and seems to not have that reaction. It’s all the proof that they need to then avoid gluten from now on. You can talk until you are blue in the face about all of the other chemicals that are in the same breads and crackers that they eat. You can point out that there are other known causes of dietary distress, but like all purists, the dieter avoids all contrary evidence.
Do you think there’s an incentive to setting yourself apart from the culture at-large? Uniqueness can carry its own social value.
I think a lot of people are distinguishing themselves by adopting ascetic diets. Religious people have done this since time immemorial. To show that they have some kind of strength to distance themselves from the material world, they adopt ascetic diets.
Lots of times the dieter wears the diet like a badge. You get to ask for a special meal on a plane, or at a large family gathering. You get to be different. You are like the religious ascetic denying the pleasures that surround you, and you have faith that your faith will be rewarded. It is incredibly religious in a secular society. It’s like these things are wired into the human brain. When I say, as I always do, that I am not on a diet…I guess I am saying that I am using diet practices, but not in a rigorous way, that I am not religious about it. I actually use those words.
Personally, I don’t recommend dieting. There are times where you have to eat outside of your normal food regimen. I had to for the last couple of weeks, for instance. It would have done me no good to not eat instead of eating fast food, restaurant food or processed food. It would have done me no good to feel like a dirty sinner when I did what I had to do, since there wasn’t a chance to do the right thing. Knowing, as I do, that eating processed foods and carbs is not life-threatening in the short term, and that eating sweets won’t make me instantly put on pounds, there is absolutely no scientific reason to not do as I must in the short term.
Eating as I do, trying to avoid carbohydrates in every meal, morning, noon and night, to get back on track all I have to do is eat breakfast of bacon and eggs one morning…that’s it. The second I set foot back on the path then my direction is once again set. When I go to a big family gathering I don’t need to ask for a special dietary restriction on the meal or for a special plate just for me. It’s just one meal out of many hundreds per year. I am not religious about it.