Saturday, September 02, 2006
Food is More than Chemistry
A few weeks ago I was stranded in an airport with a pal of mine on the way to a conference. We sat in a little coffee shop, having juice and tea, and talking about various interesting ways in which people relate to their bodies. She said: "Have you noticed how Americans always refer to eating and drinking in scientific terms?" She was right, of course. How many times have you heard someone say "I need my caffeine" rather than "I want to drink coffee"? How many times has someone ordered a smoothie not because they wanted one, but because they "need their vitamins"?
There are so many ways to relate to food. Some people numb their senses to health, binge on alcohol, sodas, sweets and fats, and contribute to the high rates of heart disease and obesity (both of which also have genetic componenets). Others become gourmet fanatics and impose highly-refined and expensive standards of wining and dining on themselves and on others. And some become body chemists rather than living, eating people; food loses its joys, smells, shapes and aromas, and becomes a set of particles required for maintaining the organism.
Why do people do that? Why would anyone eschew the pleasures of eating to regard it as merely good practical science? I have no idea; it could be, to some extent, related to the medicalization of diets. In a society obsessed with thinness, interest in calories, carbs, fats and proteins increases. We are bombarded daily with good and bad science about how what we eat contributes to how we function and to what we look like. I think the health obsession, maligned by the ones who are trying to label "orthorexia" an eating disorder, is a close sister to thinness obsession and often tries to mask it. We say "we're eating healthy" to mask the fact that we want to lose weight or maintain our diet achievements. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that our constant concerns with what we eat have turned into meta-science.
We are, of course, right to be concerned. Supermarkets and chains feed us sprayed, chemical-treated food devoid of nutrition. American food prices create strong incentives for purchasing boxes of mac 'n' cheese over a nice bag of tomatoes. I've seen it often at Safeway or Albertson's: a tired mother, standing in line in front of me, short on cash, and on a budget, trying to figure out how to feed her children for the week, and opting for the cheaper option - a humongous set of cardboard boxes of instant food ("just add water"). The dry and chemical-ridden food was, itself, exciting science at some point; isn't it ironic how now we regard other foods as such? It *is* upsetting that the machinations of food corporations has weakened us so much that health considerations have become a luxury. Here, in Israel, things are somewhat better, as vegetables and fruit are very affordable; and yet, whole grains and organic produce is still not easily available.
So, yes, there is cause for concern. And there's all the more reason to encourage healthy, organic, local food production, and to mind what we are putting into our bodies. But while we're at it, can we perhaps enjoy the food? Consider a nice fruit plate for breakfast. Yes, it offers sugar and vitamins and available energy. But that is not the (only) reason we eat fruit.
It begins with how they look. Their amazing array of colors, shapes and textures. It continues with their tropical intoxicating aroma. And it ends in their sweetness and tartness, and set of complex flavors. First and foremost - eating fruit is an enjoyable experience. The vitamins are important, but they are only part of the experience.
I'll be heading off now to eat a load of passion fruit and figs for breakfast; it'll likely make me smile, and give me an uplifting sensation that all is well. At the same time, yes, it'll introduce some vitamins and energy into the "system". Such is the magic of living things: we - and what we eat - are a web of complex science, and at the same time, so much more than that.