Sunday, December 21, 2008

Food beliefs

I've been thinking a lot lately about our beliefs when it comes to food. I've always been quite interested in how our beliefs about food have changed over the last two hundred years. Especially now that I have to be careful about my diet, I've put even more effort in to learning about where our food beliefs come from and why they are so difficult to change.

This Fry and Laurie sketch always comes to mind when I think about this sort of thing:

I especially like the bit about cholesterol.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michale Pollan talks about how members of our society have become fascinated, often to the point of obsession, with nutrition and healthy eating. He has a fancy word for this that I really wish I could remember. Basically this book touches on the origin of many of our modern beliefs about food. Pollan discusses things like how large food lobbies have a huge influence on which information reaches the general public, especially in the US, and what health policies are implemented by governments. One of my favourite examples he uses is about different kinds of fats - saturated, poly-saturated, polyunsaturated... you know what. I don't know much about fat except that in moderation, unprocessed or minimally processed fats are very good for you. Like cholesterol, you need fat to survive and I am of the opinion that fat in and of itself is not unhealthy. When you take fats, alter them, better living through chemistry and all that jazz, or when you eat too much of any one fat (or any food) then it becomes unhealthy. I believe that about most foods. "Too much is precisely that quantity which is excessive."

In Defense of Food is a fantastic introduction to our own beliefs. The basic theme is that we put more stock in what a box tells us rather than eating healthy fresh food of our predecessors. We eat unhealthy prefab foods that have nutritional substances added to them rather than balanced nutrition of real food.

But that's not entirely what I've been thinking about. I'll give you an example:

In the last year or so I've learnt more about soy than I ever wanted to know. I've read the original research on which the modern belief that soy is good for you is based on. I've discovered by reading academic papers as well as literature from different camps (pro-soy and anti-soy), that there is a lot more propaganda then data influencing our beliefs about this plant.

What is really interesting to me is not so much whether soy is good or bad (it is good unless you have too much, then it's not so good - but isn't everything?). What really interests me is how people react when I tell them that too much soy, that quantity which is bad for you, is far less than we might think. When I tell my friends that this substance they believe to be one of the most health imbibing plants, is actually very dangerious to have in the quantities we consume it they get quite upset. I mean upset on the scale of, let's see, oh I have it: it is as if they were the Pope and I just told them that too much God is bad for you. You should limit prayer to Sundays only else something horrid will happen.

This reaction is so curious to me. When I present facts and figures to someone about a food stuff that they have been told is healthy ("You wouldn't know what a pair of lungs did if you hadn't been told, would you?") is actually quite the opposite, no matter who they are or what position they have about food, they get very, very upset and defensive. They talk about what a magazine told them or what their mothers say, they talk about modern science, but non of my good friends with whom I've had this kind of discussion have taken the time to actually look at why people say this kind of thing.

It's like the 8 glasses of water a day fact/myth. This comes from several sources in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: publications by the Woman's Institute and US military survival research. Water, as explained by the Woman's Institute and several other household manuals and publications at that time, was as a component of food. We call this moisture now. Food consisted of nutrients, minerals, and water. That's all there was to it. Whe it was written that we should have X amount of water it was stated (in some books explicitly) that we should get this water (or moisture) from the food we eat (vegetables anyone?) and not by drinking water (water purification systems were fairly inadequate at this time - I think typhoid was one of the problems back then, but my research has been in food, not health). Now, we still have the 8 glasses of water a day statement (that number comes from the US military early 20th C publications) but we take it to mean something different. We think it means that we literally have to drink 8 glasses of water a day. This might actually be true in this day and age, given that we no longer eat an adequate number of fruits and veg to maintain hydration. But it is simply not what the research we base this belief on said.

When I explain this, - what the belief is, where it comes from, what data supports it, what data contradicts it, are there any equivocations (like in the water example) inherent in it, - When I explain these things to a friend they do everything in their power to convince me of the truth of their beliefs. But, they don't know where their beliefs about food came from.

Now I love these people dearly and we get on in every other regard, but this, this they can't abide by. It could be my manner. I do tend to be very blunt when I am communicating - especially kitchen related matters, my passion - but my friends come to learn about this personality trait rather quickly. I don't think it's that.

I know that food, and our beliefs about food, is at the center of our daily lives. It's very important. How we eat and what we eat is a statement of who we are. Don't believe me? Look at religious taboos on diet. It's a statement of where we are in the world. It bothers me that we are willing to allow agricultural lobbyist and others who have a financial stake in what we eat to tell us what to eat. An attack against this kind of food belief is not an attack on who a person is, it's an attack against the susceptibility of society to manipulation. I can see this difference clearly, but I have the hardest time understanding where my friends are coming from.

Perhaps I am more open to changing food beliefs and to looking into the research myself because I've had to change my entire life to accommodate recent events. Maybe this personal disaster has left me more open to these things? I don't know. I wish I understood better.


Josiane said...

Food beliefs... that subject is very interesting to me too. I'd love to talk food with you! I don't have the answer to your question as to why people react the way they do when their beliefs about food are shown to be wrong.
I'd be interested in knowing more about the quantity of soy that is too much soy. I suspect that I may be close to it - especially if, as you say, that quantity is much less than we might think - since I stopped consuming dairy products and switched to soymilk last year. Can you tell me more or share a source where I'd find the info? Thanks!

Marigold said...

I've had similar reactions when I've tried to talk to people about why their diets aren't working. y'know, point out the physiological facts, suggest trying something simple, but they freak out. And I do it in as nice as possible! Le sigh. I think most people identify their beliefs about food as integral to their selves, due to food being a major part of their childhood, and thus trying to change the food beliefs threatens their idea of self. dangerous to do that.

dahlofwool said...

Brava! Brava!
Corrollary statement: cultures that consume soy as part of a healthy diet alter it rather dramaticly, often fermented with microbes that change how the body processes it. (qv Harold McGee and Sally Fallon)

amy said...
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趙又廷Mark said...
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