We've Lost Our Traditions - Is Why We Are So Vulnerable
Our current mainstream nutritional advice is insane. So why does anyone take notice ? Nina Teicholz provides a clue when she says, "so many of us have lost our connections to the original cuisines of our homelands" in her now classic, 'The Big Fat Surprise' (p.224)
It is because of this loss of connection, she continues, that, "we are more susceptible to the guidance of nutrition experts." By 'we', Nina Teicholz is referring to America, "a nation of immigrants", but the same applies to Australia and elsewhere. This is an important point, and in part I addressed it in my discussion of Crisco (see here), where housewives were persuaded to replace the butter, lard and tallow they had always used in cooking and baking with the 'new and improved' transfat launched onto the market in 1911. My argument is that this persuasion was only possible among a population newly urbanised and recently arrived in the United States, uprooted and isolated from their cultural traditions.
Crisco contained the 'promise of Modernity', it was 'better than nature', and as such exemplified the Modern world. Through the application of Reason, Science and Technology, we could overcome the limitations of past tradition and the constraints of nature to enter a new era, one of Progress and Freedom. People believed the marketing hype from the makers of Crisco because they were already deeply invested in this dream, having left their former lives behind and moved to the teeming industrial centres of the US. The 'radiant future' would justify their gamble and all the sacrifices it entailed.
Today we live in a 'post-Modern' time, one in which Modernity has exhausted its promise and instead there prevails an overwhelming mood of cynicism. It is also one in which people are even more lost than ever, now that Crisco and everything it stood for is gone. We know transfats are bad, but have no idea that vegetable oils are probably worse, or if we have heard that, we have no idea who to believe.
We live in a time of disorientation, no one knows up from down, left from right any more.
The nutrition mainstream offer a bulwark against the chaos this threatens. They represent an echo of the Modern vision, the superiority of 'evidence based' science. People WANT to believe in their dietary advice, because after all, in our post-Christian, secular, Enlightened epoch, WHAT ELSE IS THERE to believe in ? And yet, in spite of this desire, they fail to follow the Guidelines prescribed (see here), for the most part because the food they recommend is disgusting, the eating pattern totally impractical, and the results unimpressive.
This disillusionment also makes them vulnerable to current, more sophisticated marketing techniques, carefully researched and crafted to know what buttons to push in consumers. Here we see a fascinating interplay between the nutrition establishment and the producers of processed junk, the one promoting an unrealistic and unattractive version of a 'healthy diet', the other capitalising on the opportunity this creates to market items that appeal either to taste (fast food) or 'health' (low fat, sugar free). I discuss this further (here).
Part of our disorientation stems from a loss of meaning. The mainstream diet is NOT healthy, neither are the processed foods marketed as such, but part of the problem is the lack of any meaningful concept of HEALTH. Instead, we have a purely NEGATIVE definition, namely the absence of disease. This also reflects our time, which is dominated by another purely negative concept FREEDOM, which has no positive content either and means only 'freedom from' (Isaiah Berlin is the Modern philosopher who articulates this best). This was the slogan under which the break with tradition was carried out, the dismantling of any and all social constraints, such as religion and custom, including the original cuisines Nina Teicholz refers to. This is the road that has brought us the present day consumer, who is free to buy whatever they can be persuaded to buy, for who there is no guidance other than their whim, which they believe is an expression of their self-generated 'identity'. 'You are what you consume'.
Alexandr Dugin is the present day thinker who analyses this 'post-liberal' development most clearly, and where it is leading. Slavoj Zizek also illustrates how cynicism and disillusionment, far from undermining the current order, serve to prop it up, as in this case with the interplay between the nutrition establishment and corporate marketers.
Nina Teicholz goes on to criticise the nutrition 'experts' for their lack of "a historical perspective about our food traditions" and argues this is, "perhaps the overriding reason our nutrition policy has gone so far astray." Her point is that there is no need to restrict ourselves to the data that the latest science is able to produce in regards to diet and nutrition, especially when these contain known gaps in our knowledge.
"But there are four millennia of human history these experts could have consulted. Cookbooks, histories, diaries, memoirs, novels, food logs or accounts by missionaries, doctors, explorers and anthropologists - altogether virtually a limitless number of books, from the Bible to the plays of Shakespeare..." (p.336)
This criticism is correct, but a little misplaced from the viewpoint of the argument I am putting forward. The nutrition establishment is a product of Modernity, whose essential feature is precisely the REJECTION of a historical perspective in favour of the idea that 'we can do better', it is a BREAK from tradition. Without this rupture, there would BE no nutrition experts, there would be no NEED for them, nothing for them to do, everyone would know exactly what to eat and how to prepare it, just as their ancestors had done in pre-Modern times.
The end result is the tale of woe Nina Teicholz relates in her outstanding book, which sits alongside Gary Taube's 'Good Calories, Bad Calories' as the key texts for newcomers to the debate.
This same establishment is tottering at present. It is not enough, however, for it to fall. We are not merchants of chaos. If the 'evidence based science' of the official Dietary Guidelines are shown to be the utter sham and failure that they are, there needs to be some alternative on hand to offer a population who will otherwise be completely at the mercy of the corporate marketers. My position is that the way towards a viable alternative lies first in recognising the problem - Modernity and its break from tradition - and from there to seek ways to reestablish 'connections to the original cuisines of our homeland'. This is not a simple task, especially in the cases of the United States and Australia, it is hard to unscramble an egg, and perhaps needs to be combined with the founding of NEW traditions, in harmony with our New World surroundings, their climate and topography, but still consistent with our cultural heritage. Exactly what that looks like I am not sure, and in any case it will not come into being through a blog, but through real initiatives by real people. Many of these exist already, regenerative farms, buy local networks, boutique producers, and by the adoption of low carb, keto, paleo and carnivore ways of eating by a wide mass of people. All of these provide a foundation for something larger, a different and better conception of how we should live, one that does not reject our traditions, our heritages, our cultures, our lands, our biology, or view them as 'constraints' to be overcome.
This is the vision I am trying to articulate here. It is a work in progress. I invite you to take part in the journey, in any way you like.