Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Hipster Halal" or the millenia-old quest to identify the foods of good and evil

I was reading a popular website -- doesn't matter which -- with yet another article about how wheat-based foods are toxic and how everyone should stop eating them. It had a lot of links, of course, but when I clicked through each link it went to a page about people with celiac disease in particular. Celiac disease is real, and some people have very good reasons for not eating wheat at all. Furthermore, most of us eat too much carbs in general and maybe too much wheat specifically, and would benefit from a more diverse diet.

The other link I see is to the book Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, which is full of claims that wheat causes heart attacks, ADHD, Alzheimers, and probably spontaneous human combustion as well. Perlmutter's book has lots of citations from peer-reviewed papers, but as was noted in an article in The Atlantic, the studies in these papers are very small with the most tenuous of correlations.

I do find it a bit odd that a food that has been a central staple of hundreds of cultures over the last several thousands of years has suddenly been classified as a poison. If wheat is as bad as people are saying it is, it's amazing that Renaissance Europe was even able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone conquer half the world. Now if someone wanted to argue that wheat turns you into a genocidal imperialist psychopath, that would be supported by history at least.

Nevertheless, I'm in no way qualified to evaluate these claims. Maybe Perlmutter has finally stumbled across the one nutritional golden bullet after so many others have only claimed to. So why am I doubtful? I'm not equipped with anything but a healthy sense of skepticism and several thousand years of evidence of superseded attempts to divide the entire dietary world into Good Foods and Bad Foods.

The first recorded attempt to do this, as far as I know, is in the Jewish holy book of the Torah. In addition to all the other impacts this book has had on the world, it was also one of the first diet books. The Torah was very specific about what food should and should not be eaten, and how it should be eaten. (Muslim Halal dietary rules are very similar, less restrictive in some areas and more in others.)

From what I've read there's a lot of dispute about how much of Kosher rules are for health reasons and how many of them are cultural. For example, the story of Noah specifically lists the rule "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk," apparently the origin of the meat/dairy separation in Kosher, and I've read that this was a delicacy of an enemy tribe. But there is no doubt that many of the foods forbidden in Kosher, such as shellfish and pork, would have been common origins of food poisoning in those days. Probably Isrealite tribesmen weren't so concerned about keeping their abs tight as we are, and more concerned about inexplicable death from tainted meat.

Kosher might be the first written instance of what I'd call a "binary diet," or a "Good Food/Bad Food" diet. The nice thing about a binary diet is that you don't have to think about what you're eating overall. You just look at a particular food and say, "Is this good or bad? If it's good, I'll eat it, if not I won't."

The new wheat taboo is really a subset of the Paleo Diet, which began as the idea that we'd eat what our paleolithic ancestors ate. If you don't think Paleo is a binary diet, consider this popular flowchart about what aspiring culinary cavemen should and shouldn't eat:

Paleo people will leap to the diet's defense, and say it's not that simple. When people point out that no one really has any idea what Paleolithic people ate, that they didn't probably all eat the same thing anyway, that only a small subset of them were hunting mammoths, and that people have evolved since paleo times anyway, they will say that it's not really about what people ate in paleolithic time, just that some foods are bad for you and some are good.

But if you look at the list it's pretty arbitrary. Why are peanuts terrible but cashews are fine? Sweet potatoes are great but potatoes will make you fat? "Corn is a grain, knucklehead," the chart tells us, but neolithic people have been eating maize in Central America for 10,000 years; meanwhile the Etruscans only engineered broccoli from cabbage a couple thousand years ago. What do all these forbidden foods have in common? At least the Atkins people or the vegans have a common basis to describe foods you shouldn't eat.

So again, what do grains, potatoes, peanuts and vegetable oil all have in common? Here's a suggestion: they are all really cheap and available to any schmuck that goes to a regular grocery store that doesn't sell buckwheat out of bins or have a large selection of hemp oils. What a coincidence that so many of the foods that regular people happen to eat happen to be terrible poisons.

This isn't even meant to be an attack on the Paleo Diet in particular. A lot of Paleo's suggestions, like a higher protein content, are probably a good idea ,and people who eat Paleo eat better than people who don't really think about their diet at all. In truth, most people that eat any diet probably eat better than people that don't think about their diet at all.

But the arbitrariness of the Paleo binary and its inclination away from common and popular foods makes me feel that Paleo is the new "Hipster Halal," or Kosher for Cool Kids, a shibboleth for those in the know to set themselves apart from ordinary schmoes. It's not just hippy-dippy people either; Paleo is super popular with tech types, as can be seen by the number of Boing Boing posts about Paleo. This goes with a certain set of libertarians, as a perfect complement to their beloved Crossfit workouts.

Because a diet, to feel exciting, has to be dramatic. If you release a diet book that just says, "keep your calories down, don't eat so much sugar, and exercise more," it's going to have an Amazon rank of 10,000. But if you say "Everything you eat is totally wrong! Eat completely different stuff instead!" then people will buy your book and follow it for three weeks before they give up.

I'm not telling you what to eat. It doesn't hurt anyone if you stop eating wheat, certainly not me. And if you can afford it, Paleo is at least as good a way to eat as any other. But I'd suggest that before you turn your diet upside down based on a book you just read, do a little more research. Are there extensive studies showing that people who eat this way live longer and are healthier? Also, can you realistically maintain this diet for the rest of your life? Could a smaller change make just as much difference? It's not as sexy, but it might actually work.

1 comment:

Heather Pagano said...

Really interesting, Jim. The link between food, culture, and morality is deeply emotional. As you pointed out, it always has been, and still is.