How Junk Food and Health Food Made a New National Religion

April 29, 2015

This summer, I’m going on a diet.

Wikipedia defines Superfoods as "a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits."

Wikipedia defines Superfoods as “a marketing term used to describe foods with supposed health benefits.”

I’ve tried for most of my adult life to eat reasonably well, but this is the first time I’m going to really try.

See, it’s not that I’ve become obese yet. But my famously skinny Appling genes just aren’t keeping up as well as they used to. It’s hard for genetics to keep up with my lifestyle of too much desk work, too many kids offering birthday treats and not enough opportunities for exercise.

It comes down to the fact that I just don’t like how I look. Cheri’s going to do it too because she doesn’t like how she looks after the pregnancy. So we are planning a sugar cleanse and then a month of paleo dieting.

As with everything, there are amateurs like us, people who are just dipping their toes in the water. And then there are the hard-bitten devotees. You find these kinds in the gym, but also Comic-Con, or museums or message boards or even church.

As I dip my toes in the water of trendy diets, though, what bugs me is just how obviously apparent it is that food has become a national religion.

Recreation to Righteousness

Like the church, there are many denominations of food-religion. We may seem to be polar opposites, the people who show up to pie-eating contests and the people who tag all their Instagrams #cleaneating. But when two polar opposites get far enough away from each other, the truth is that they have actually come full circle and now sit at the table next to one another.

Yes, you can have a healthy interest in pie. And you can have a healthy interest in health. And both can become unhealthy obsessions.

There is even discussion of adding a new eating disorder to the DSM-5, Orthorexia Nervosa, which literally means “an obsession with righteous eating.”

Anything good, anything that can benefit us, be it food, money, sex or even God, humans have the unmistakable ability to twist and warp into something unhealthy. And like a visitor at a new church, I can smell an obsessive a mile away, and all it makes me want to do is run for the doors, even if it means damnation or diabetes.

Church-Talk for Food Pharisees

You know you have a new religion on your hands when a specific language has been developed around your beliefs. Just like churches are full of people speaking in “church-talk,” (where the point is to let everyone know how bright your Jesus-light is shining,) there are specific words and phrases that food people feel they have to use in order to let everyone know how food-righteous they are.

Years ago, Rachel Ray first hit TV airwaves with her first cooking show. She was perky, energetic, and I immediately found her completely insufferable. Calling sandwiches “sammies,” and the like, she just made my gears grind. Her most irritating speech habit was that instead of just saying “olive oil” (which she used constantly), she felt she had to constantly remind us that she was using extra virgin olive oil. I understand that extra virgin is superior to non-virgin. But anyone who watches a cooking show probably knows that already. Saying “extra virgin olive oil” fifty times in an episode is a lot, so she would just say “E-V-O-O.” And that’s when I would change the channel.

Likewise, go to any blog or site that preaches about healthy eating and they feel they have to specify organic with everything. I’m looking at lists of paleo-approved foods and they commonly have the organic adjective next to every single item. I think we all know that organic is usually better, and I will decide if I can afford it. You don’t have to specify organic every time.

This leads me to conclude that saying “organic milk, organic eggs, organic beef” is just “church-talk” for food worshipers. It’s just a way to advertise how righteous you are and how much money you spend on food. Same with “free-range,” “grass-fed,” and even “gluten free” since a very small percent of people are actually allergic to gluten. I understand the possible advantages of all of these adjectives. But it’s as if people think if they don’t use those words constantly, then we will assume they mean “poisoned milk,” “rotten eggs,” or “nuclear beef.”

Your Paleo Ancestors Did Not Bake With Coconut Flour

Did you know there was a time when Italian cooks had to learn how to use tomatoes?

Yes, tomatoes are not native to Italy. There was a time before there was tomato sauce, spaghetti and pizza. Anyone with a little bit of history or culinary education would understand this.

So this is what gets me about food Pharisees who advertise that their lifestyle is “natural” or getting back in touch with our Paleolithic roots:

Our Paleolithic ancestors did not have coconut flour. Or coconut oil. They might not have even had coconuts.

They were not grinding almonds into flour…or milk.

They did not have supermarkets (or farmers markets) with hundreds of varieties of produce and specialty foods to select from to make their smoothies.

We live in a time when we enjoy unparalleled variety in our diets. Go back and read Little House on the Prairie. The family survives on salted meat and molasses. For most of human history, and even still today, much of humanity lives on a very limited diet.

I know that most of our food supply is slowly killing us. It angers and depresses me. I wish things were better. I wish the food corporations would stop lying and stop filling their food with sugar.

But for our part, let’s stop pretending that we don’t live in an extremely special time and place, when we can enjoy an extremely elite diet, not even enjoyed by royalty of past centuries. Let’s stop pretending that when we photograph our food, we aren’t advertising to the world how righteous we are.

For we know that people who do their fasting and righteousness, and put many filters on their food pics have received their reward in full.