D ieting seems to be largely about choosing what to eat. We believe that we determine which foods are the tastiest, most nutritional, filling, best for the environment, and cheapest. It is a complicated task, and yet there is still more to it. The categories change frequently, over years and sometimes days. If salmonella is discovered on spinach in one restaurant that receives its produce from a large corporation, then it is possible that any of the other ones might have it too. This causes spinach sales to drop, a short-lasting phobia of green leafy vegetables may develop, and what was yesterday a healthy lunch choice is now a host to a potentially deadly bacterium. Also, there are discrepancies within the qualifying categories for foods. What some claim to be a healthy food, others suggest never to eat, like fish, which has healthy fat but can have high levels of mercury. However, from the inconsistency and chaos that is our understanding of food, concrete feelings and ideas about health and nutrition can emerge.
The latter decades of the twentieth century focused on the differences between tasty, inexpensive food and healthy food, as seen in popular works such as Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me. This discrepancy is stereotyped as a problem of the industrialization of food, from restaurant food like the Big Mac™ to the store bought Twinkies®, which are inexpensive and easy to obtain because they are produced in mass quantity. The effect that such industrialized fast food has had on our world is significant. It is claimed that it has drastically altered eat ing habits and is labeled as the primary cause of widespread weight gain. In addition, it is often described as part of a food-industrial conspiracy with innumerable connections to both economical and structural development. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2002) is perhaps the best representation of the Industrial Food Machine, from giant slaughterhouses that process thousands of cattle a day to the transformation of corn into high-calorie corn syrup—all of which ends up in the McDonald's menu (Schlosser 2002: 169). Fast Food Nation embodies a popular feeling that corporations lower quality standards in order to turn a profit. The health results are, according to this view, that people become obese, lead ever-unhealthier lives, and, on top of all that, damage the environment. Obesity becomes a metaphor for the overall destruction of the human and geographic environment by the industrial food conspiracy. Individuals lack any self-awareness, as such a conspiracy manipulates them into self-destructive acts, such as eating at McDonald's. These views are prefigured in the work of Kelly Brownell and Marion Nestle.
Michael Pollan, who regularly writes on such topics for the New York Times Magazine, has answered this lack of autonomy in food choice. Pollan, in his The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), assesses our "national eating disorder," pointing out that Americans (and he could have added global society) are "a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily" (2006: 1, 3). Our national eating disorder lies in the "violent ...
change(s) in our culture's eating habits" (Pollan 2006: 2). Focusing, like Schlosser, initially on corn and its importance in the American economy, Pollan sees the problem faced is not so much an industrial food conspiracy centered about fast food but the very nature of food choice. As we are intelligent and therefore autonomous individuals capable of raising nearly all types of foods, and because we are omnivorous, possessing the biological structures to metabolize them, we must learn which of those foods are healthy (and which unhealthy) for us. Even though virtually all food often comes to us in the form of fast and industrialized food, as most of us are alienated from food production, we do not know intuitively what not to eat. Our confusion over what to eat is to blame for our unhealthiness (Pollan 2006: 4, 5). And the fault in our modern world (again a new conspiracy theory) lies in the control of information by the nutritionists, who are concerned with our health as well as with selling dieting with all its proliferation of pills and potions. What Schlosser sees as a vast conspiracy of food manufacturers (and the entire system of modern capitalism) is seen by Pollan as a result of consumer ignorance. To be accurate, it is the nutritionists, concerned both with our health and with selling diet pills, who are at fault for our lack of knowledge about what is good to eat. Their desire, Pollan argues, is to perpetuate unhealthy eating so as to maintain their population of unhealthy, fat clients. They provide both bad and contradictory information, such as the Food Pyramid, which are at fault for our inability to know what is healthy to eat. Obesity, Pollan argues, is the result of the primacy of the professional and amateur nutrition culture, not the means of food production.
This argument about whether we should blame production or consumption for the problems of modern life is an old one. Yet, it continues to figure in debates about dieting as part of the explanation for the "lack of will" on the part of the dieters. If they are the subjects of "brain washing" by the food industry that explains their inability to choose; if they are ignorant of healthy eating choices because of the advocates for nutritional science, that too places their actions beyond personal choice.
For these views also depend on the claim that human beings are alienated from the "natural" world. The inherent claim that "natural man" did it better, lies at the core of a view of modernity as a degenerate deviation from the norm of health. Alienation in one form or the other, either through the self-serving industrialization of food production or the self-serving professionalization of health information lies at the core of the dilemma.
SLG/Benjamin D. Archer
See also Aboulia; Enlightenment Dietetics; Fast Food; Fat Tax; Food Pyramid; Natural Man; Professionalization of Dieting; Spurlock
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A time for giving and receiving, getting closer with the ones we love and marking the end of another year and all the eating also. We eat because the food is yummy and plentiful but we don't usually count calories at this time of year. This book will help you do just this.