Playing with Fire: Why food and Nutrition are such Volatile subjects.

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  by  dobrych

WARNING! Discussion of Food & Nutrition Ahead! DANGER!

Food: one of the most volatile, emotionally-charged, divisive, and perilous topics in all of health. The subject of diet and nutrition parts the most friendships, fuels the most flamewars online, angers more in-laws, drives more behavior, and causes more controversy than almost all other subjects of health.

Why? Food weaves into every fabric of our life’s tapestry. Each time we make a food choice, it reveals the many competing narratives within our lives, altering our behavior around food. Each food narrative listed below includes examples of behavioral changes as well as common thoughts associated with each narrative.

The purpose of this article is to gain perspective, not push an agenda. In the 11 narratives (Health, Personal, Social, Cultural, Political, Environmental, Religious, Spiritual, Family, Time, & Financial) below, you’ll notice that multiple opinions, including opposing opinions, are shared. The intention is not to say which one is right or wrong, but to show just how varied and volatile people’s opinions are around food. If we recognize all the different food narratives, there is the possibility of less drama and volatility around food. We can then assess each narrative separately within ourselves and see how true this narrative really is for us instead of acting out of an unconscious old pattern.

Health narrative: How we choose food based on its perceived benefit or harm to our health.

Examples:

  • A family member panics when someone drinks soda ‘regular’ soda and not ‘diet’ soda.
  • Another family member panics when someone drinks ‘diet’ soda and not ‘regular’ soda.
  • Yet another family member panics when someone drinks any type of soda.
  • Some diets say to fast on water, cayenne, lemon juice, and maple syrup.
  • Other diets say that same cayenne-lemon-juice-maple-syrup fast is very dangerous and leads to muscle atrophy from lack of protein.
  • Chinese medicine includes specific meat and animal products to prevent and heal diseases.
  • Ayurvedic medicine generally discourages meat to prevent and heal diseases.
  • For a few decades, cholesterol is bad for you. The next decade, only certain types of cholesterol are bad for you. In the following decade, eating cholesterol from organic sources is good for you.
  • A college friend of mine severely allergic to pork, nuts, and uncooked vegetables. He kept an epinephrine pen on him whenever he went out just in case.

Common thoughts:

  • “Don’t they realize what they are eating is killing them?”
  • “I’m so confused about what is healthy to eat, I’ll just eat what tastes good.”
  • “I’ll give up this food because it’s for my longterm health.”
  • “I resent having to limit my diet because of my health.”
  • “Why does health food taste so terrible?”
  • “Why is the majority the health food section of the supermarket filled with cookies, carbs, bars, and snacks, just with ‘healthier’ grains?”
  • “One of these treats isn’t going to kill me.”
  • “I’m having a cheat day.”
  • “Vegans are ruining their brains.”
  • “Meat eaters are ruining their bowels.”

Personal Narrative: How we choose our foods based on personal preference.

Examples:

  • A family member doesn’t want to eat someone’s soup because there are chunks of ginger and whole peppercorns in the soup. She thinks they are spicy ‘booby traps’.
  • A small child refuses to eat anything her parents makes her except macaroni and cheese and soda.
  • A woman ‘muscle tests’ the different types of broccoli to see which one ‘resonates’ with her body the best.
  • A small argument erupts of what brand of ice cream is the best.

Common thoughts:

  • “I don’t like the taste/smell/sight of that.”
  • “My body doesn’t want that food.”
  • “Yuck.”
  • “Yum.”

Social narrative: How we act differently around food depending on the social setting.

Examples:

  • A person eats dessert in secret at a party for fear of being ‘caught’.
  • A person hides beef jerky in their pocket when visiting a vegetarian’s friend house.
  • An at-home vegetarian becomes a social omnivore when traveling or eating out with friends.
  • A college student doesn’t drink alcohol but feels awkward at a party without a drink in his hand.
  • A person declines an invitation because the host cooks food they don’t like, but will have to eat it in order to be ‘polite’.

Common thoughts:

  • “Will my friends think I’m weird for eating this?”
  • “Will anyone see me eat this?”
  • “I have to eat this in secret or they will get mad at me or I’ll hear a lecture about it.”
  • “I don’t want to go visit that person because I think their food is gross.”

Cultural narrative: How we eat or perceive food based on cultural taboos, dislikes, likes, regional preference, and historical precedent.

Examples:

  • Indian culture eats with their hands, Chinese culture with chopsticks, and Western culture with forks.
  • Peanut butter is loved in the U.S., but disliked in other parts of the world.
  • Insects are eaten in non-Western cultures, but are not eaten in Western cultures.
  • High consumption of alcohol in New Zealand and Australia.

Common thoughts:

  • “Yuck, how can they eat that? That’s disgusting!”
  • “That’s a strange way to eat food.”
  • “Um, I’ve never seen that food before or even known that was edible. I’m not so sure about that.”
  • “How can you drink that? That’s unpatriotic!”
  • “Bro, where’s the beer?”

Political narrative: How our food choices express our political beliefs. Food is politics.

Examples

  • During the revolutionary war period, tea was perceived as British, while coffee was perceived as American, especially after the Tea Party incident.1
  • Political leaders openly endorse a food chain that stands on one side of gay rights while other people openly boycott the same food chain.2
  • Purchasing “fair trade” products explicitly endorses better labor conditions in other countries.
  • A college student decides to go vegan for political reasons.

Common thoughts:

  • “How can that person eat that? Don’t they know it’s supporting that cause?”
  • “I’m eating this instead of that because I believe in the cause.”

Environmental narrative: How our food choices express our opinions.

Examples

  • A person chooses to eat locally to lower the carbon footprint of each food item.
  • A person chooses to go vegetarian because they believe it will help the environment.
  • A person refuses to eat GMO grain products to protect the environment.
  • A person chooses to go pasture-fed animals only because they believe it will help the environment.
  • A person gets tired of his ‘hippy’ friend talking about the environmental and buys heavily packaged food right in front of his friend, just to make a point.

Common thoughts:

  • “That [corporation] is evil for treating [animals, the earth, people] that way.”
  • “What is the big deal? The ocean is so big we can’t do much to it.”
  • “I have to get my own bags to cut down on paper and plastic.”
  • “I think the planet is just fine and all this is a big fuss over nothing.”
  • “There is no evidence that this more expensive type of food is any better for the planet.”
  • “There is overwhelming evidence that this more expensive type of food is better for the planet.”

Religious narrative: How religion directs food choices.

Examples:

  • Catholic limitations on meat during Lent.
  • Kosher laws of Judaism.
  • Vegetarianism in Jainism and Hinduism.
  • Halal laws of Islam.
  • Fasting on certain religious holidays amongst the major religions.

Common thoughts:

  • “God commanded I don’t eat this with that.”
  • “It is written in [scripture of choice] to eat this and not that.”
  • “God will be angry if I don’t obey.”
  • “I will have bad karma if I eat this.”

Spiritual narrative: How we perceive our food choices will accelerate or slow our spiritual growth.

Examples:

  • A female who was vegan since her teens is now in her early thirties and cannot, despite all efforts, get pregnant. She is torn between her personal beliefs and her Chinese medicine doctor’s advise to eat meat to help her get pregnant.
  • A father refuses to give his child meat because he is afraid it will harm his consciousness and his karma.
  • Several high-ranking teachers of a vegetarian spiritual organization confide in me that they have started to eat meat to help their failing health, but are afraid of telling anyone in the organization for fear of being ostracized.
  • A college friend nearly gets us killed by swerving to avoid a moth that flew into her car’s headlights. She was a staunch spiritual vegetarian, including harming no animals, including oncoming moths.
  • A man who took too many psychedelics in the sixties only eats fruits and meat because he can, “hear the vegetables scream, man.”

Common thoughts:

  • “If I eat this, I’ll cause suffering to this animal.”
  • “If I eat this, I’ll cause suffering in my consciousness for many lifetimes.”
  • “My spiritual family will excommunicate me if they found out I ate this.”
  • “I have to choose between my physical health and my spiritual growth.”

Family narrative: How we eat based on how our family eats or raised us to eat.

Note: I went through several diet phases, each one received with different degrees of hesitation, frustration, acceptance, and curiosity at the dinner table with my family.

Examples:

  • A health enthusiast brings a rice dish to an older relative’s house instead of his favorite quinoa dish because the health enthusiast doesn’t want to explain what quinoa is.
  • A mother cooks her now-grown-up daughter’s favorite dish of spaghetti she liked as a child.
  • The same daughter politely eats the spaghetti knowing she will have severe stomach cramps because she’s become gluten intolerant.
  • A mother spends her time and energy making sure her children have good lunches for school, but she eats candy and junk food for her own lunches.

Common thoughts:

  • “This is what we eat in this family.”
  • “Just eat what is served at the family table, stop being so fussy and weird.”
  • “I just don’t want to go to dinner with my family because their food is gross, overcooked, unhealthy, and bland.”
  • “My family just doesn’t understand or accept how I eat.”
  • “I don’t want to invite them over for dinner because I’m sick of getting judgmental glares and comments about how we eat and have always eaten.”
  • “This is comfort food to me.”

Time narrative: How or what we eat based on our perception of time or the lack of time.

Examples:

  • The rise of the fast food industry, complete with drive-thru.
  • The rise of the microwave oven.
  • The rise of the ‘slow food’ movement.3
  • I lived briefly with a raw foodist for a few weeks. She spent several hours a day washing, chopping, dehydrating, shopping, soaking, sprouting, and generally preoccupied with all things food related. I was very frustrated by the amount of time it took.
    • Seemed like someone had to be independently wealthy, retired, and have no other major obligations to pull this lifestyle off (she was all three).
  • A relative decides to limit shopping to bulk purchasing to limit the number of trips to the grocery store.
  • A college friend who wants to be healthier refuses to go to the farmer’s market because ‘it takes too much time’.
  • A college student spends an evening watching youtube videos and realizes it’s really late and they haven’t eaten. Caught between quick & unhealthy vs. slow & healthy, the college student opts for the quick option.

Common thoughts:

  • “I don’t have time to…
    • …source this ingredient or type of food.”
    • …make separate trips to multiple stores and a farmer’s market.”
    • …make this.”
    • …make different things for different people because of their dietary ‘requirements’.”
    • …eat this.”
    • …clean up after this.”

 

Financial narrative: How we our resources determine the quality and kinds of foods we choose.

Examples:

  • A friend refuses to go to the farmer’s market because ‘it’s too expensive’.
  • A parent studies the different prices organic versus inorganic vegetables. She feels caught between the health of her family and her family’s future resources.
  • A health enthusiast buys 50 pounds of organic rice to save two dollars a pound, only to give away half of it after getting sick of rice.
  • A father declares that filtered water is unnecessary and a luxury, therefore no money will be spent on filtered water.
  • Two friends smugly agree how much “better” they are because they only eat the most pure, clean, organic food. They look down on others who don’t prioritize their money on real food.

Common thoughts:

  • “I can’t believe how expensive organic broccoli is.”
  • “I’m investing in my future.”
  • “I’m investing in my children.”
  • “Organic is an expensive fad.”
  • “Organic is a priceless investment.”
  • “Buying in bulk will save money.”
  • “Buying in bulk was a waste of money.”
  • “It’s cheaper at the big stores.”
  • “The big stores rip off the farmers.”

Conclusion: Food is not simply food, it’s the center of a psychological spiderweb. Each narrative is sticky and strong on its own. When combined, they weave a wide trap for any piece of food to fall into. Once a piece food vibrates the web, our psychological spiders may crawl out and bite, potentially infusing a situation with venom, or at least irritate.

1Coffee. (2013, September 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:36, September 25, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Coffee&oldid=574327683

3Slow Food. (2013, August 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:34, September 25, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Slow_Food&oldid=569277720

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