A current New York Times news story, What If It’s All Been A Big Fat Lie, entertainingly chronicles the discovery that low-fat diets are bad for people. More specifically, that the substitution of carbohydrates like bread and pasta and potatoes for meat that we’ve all had urged on us since the early 1980s is probably the cause of the modern epidemic of obesity and the sharp rise in diabetes incidence.
I have long believed that most of the healthy-eating advice we get is stone crazy, and the story does tend to confirm it. One of my reasons for believing this is touched on in the article; what we’re told is good for us doesn’t match what humans “in the wild” (during the 99% of our species history that predated agriculture) ate. The diet our bodies evolved to process doesn’t include things like large amounts of milled grain or other starches. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild vegetables (especially tubers) and meat whenever they could get it.
I’ve always had to suppress a tendency to laugh rudely when vegeterians touted their diet as “natural”. Vegetarianism is deeply unnatural for human beings; it’s marginally possible in warm climates only (there are no vegetarians in Tibet because the climate kills them), and only possible even there because we’re at the near end of 4,000 years of breeding for high-caloric-value staple crops.
So what’s the natural diet for human beings? Our dentition (both slashing and grinding teeth) and the structure of our digestive system (short colon, no rumen) is intermediate between that of herbivores like cows and obligate carnivores like cats; both systems resemble those of non-specialized omnivores like bears. Actually, the earlier hominids in the human ancestral line were designed for a more vegetarian diet than we; they had large flat molars and powerful jaws designed for grinding seed-cases. The increase in brain size in the hominid line correlates neatly with a shift to a more carnivorous dentitition and skull structure.
Physical anthropologists will tell you that the shift from hunter-gatherer existence to sedentary agriculture enabled human beings to live at higher population densities, but at the cost of a marked deterioration in the health of the average person. The skeletons of agricultural populations are shorter, less robust, and show much more evidence of nutritional diseases relative to their hunter-gatherer ancestors.
For twenty years I’ve consciously been trying to eat what I think of as a caveman diet — heavy on the meat and raw vegetables, very little sugar, light on the starches. I’m a bit overweight now, not seriously so for a 44-year-old man, but enough to notice; what this NYT article tells me is that I didn’t follow my own prescription strictly enough and ate too much bread and potatoes.
But the evolutionary analysis only tells us what we probably should be eating. It doesn’t explain how the modern diet has come to be as severly messed up as it is — nor why the advice we’ve been getting on healthy eating over the last twenty years has been not merely bad but perversely wrong.
The answer is, I think, implicit in the fact that “health food” has a strong tendency to be bland, fibrous, and nasty — a kind of filboid studge that we have to work at convincing ourselves we like rather than actually liking. Which is, if you think about it, nuts. Human food tropisms represent two million years of selective knowledge about what’s good for our bodies. Eating a lot of what we don’t like is far more likely to be a mistake than eating things we do like, even to excess.
Why do we tend to treat our natural cravings for red meat and fat as sins, then? Notice the similarity between the rhetoric of diet books and religious evangelism and you have your answer. Dietary mortification of the flesh has become a kind of secular asceticism, aÂ way for wealthy white people with guilt feelings about their affluence to demonstrate virtue and expiate their imagined trangressions.
Once you realize that dieting is a religion, the irrationality and mutual contradictions become easier to understand. It’s not about what’s actually good for you, it’s about suffering and self-denial and the state of your soul. People who constantly break and re-adopt diets are experiencing exactly the same cycle of secondary rewards as the sinner who repeatedly backslides and reforms.
This model explains the social fact that the modern flavor of “health”-based dietary piety is most likely to be found in people who don’t have the same psychological needs satisfied by an actual religion. Quick now: who’s more likely to be a vegetarian or profess a horror of “junk food” — a conservative Christian heartlander or a secular politically-correct leftist from the urban coasts?
The NYT article tells us that the dominant dietary religion of the last twenty years is cracking — that the weight of evidence against the fat-is-evil/carbs-are-good theory is no longer supportable. Well and good — but it won’t necessarily do us a lot of good to discard this religion only to get stuck with another one.
I say it’s time to give all bossy nutritionists, health-food evangelists and dietary busybodies the heave-ho out of our lives — tell the sorry bitches and bastards to get over themselves and go back to eating stuff that tastes good and satiates. And enjoy the outraged squawking from the dietarily correct — that, my friends, is the music of health and freedom.