Food Fight

food-fight
Today I came across a bunch of interesting articles on food and food related issues, full of new findings and measured analysis, but let’s kick things off with this train wreck of an article from the Wall St. Journal instead. “Our Inalienable Right to Snarf Junk Food” by Joe Queenan is a response to a study that was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine and has since gotten a fair amount of media attention.  Basically, the study concluded that a Mediterranean diet of nuts, fish, legumes, fruits, vegetables and wine will reduce the likelihood of heart disease and stroke.

Here are a few choice quotes from Queenan’s piece:

“The Mediterranean Diet might just as well be called the Monastic Diet or the Joy of Joylessness Diet. For those of us who loathe fish and celery and lima beans and walnuts, the Mediterranean Diet is a nutritional death sentence. Sure, we might live longer, sure we might end up being less of a burden on society, but at what price? No more bacon double cheeseburgers. No more banana splits. No more dining at Hooters… Welcome to Polyunsaturated Alcatraz.”

“The settlers at Jamestown did not come here dreaming of a steady diet of walnuts and olive oil… America was built by men and women who never ate arugula. If the Mediterranean Diet is so effective, then how come none of the countries that line the Mediterranean has a functioning economy? Spain? Italy? France? Don’t make me laugh.”

I know, I know, it’s satire. The comment section, however, is painfully earnest. One poster writes:

“As a nation, [we] have come a long way in starting to wake people up to understanding the importance of choosing what they put into their mouths. We have a VERY long way to go. You, Mr. Queenan, stop the education process dead in its tracks when you write an article like this. Of course people enjoy junk foods. I know I do! But by expressing your all or nothing approach to food choices, you are not only perpetuating ignorance, but disrespecting the millions in this country and around the world that can’t even get their hands on the foods that you so despise.”

Another poster brings us on a detour through Crazy Town, describing our First Lady as:

“A shrewish MicHELLe to nag, nag, nag – nothing like having a two-bit false eyelash nitwit fashion award winner JLO wanna be as first whatever…what a disgrace for the USA – a sociopath for prez and an Evita who despises our flag and our country and spending every tax-payer dollar she can on herself and her vacations for his wife – well done, ILLITERATE BOZO VOTERS!”

Yikes.

I posted this article and these polarizing comments because I have been thinking a lot recently about what is the right tone to take when it comes to talking about food and health, and I thought that these quotes presented the problem nicely.

When talking about this stuff, it’s so easy to be preachy, stubborn, and overly serious.  Labels like health nut, arugula eater and nanny get thrown around quickly. It doesn’t take much to get someone worked up and defensive about food, whether it’s a conversation about eating meat, buying locally, eating healthy, juicing, fasting or the soda ban…Eating habits are intimate and personal and they are closely tied to individual and cultural identity.

On the other hand, the Joe Queenan’s of the world aren’t going to move us forward in the conversation about our national obesity epidemic, over-consumption of resources, and reliance on problematic industrial food systems.  Inciting conflict in that small and weird subset of Americans who comment on Wall St. Journal articles doesn’t seem like its going to get much done. (Seriously, who are these people who talk trash on WSJ.com? NPR commenters are also strange, but way more fun:

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Ok, so it’s easy to be a smartass and it’s really easy to make people angry, but what about being sincere without getting tuned out? How can we talk about these issues honestly and productively?

This question makes me think about the TV show The Biggest Loser, which, for better or for worse, should probably be included in any conversation about the American discourse around healthy eating. Full disclosure, I think about The Biggest Loser a lot. Fuller disclosure: I have an embarrassing and inexplicable fondness for this show, and I won’t tell you how many seasons of it I have under my belt or how extensively I have mapped out what I would say to Bob Harper if I ever ran into him at a farmers market buying wheat-grass, or whatever.

There are a million things wrong with The Biggest Loser (one of which was covered in today’s Weighty Matter’s post). But putting aside all problems with the show, one thing it does have is serious reach. Whatever tone they are using, people aren’t tuning out, they are tuning in, to the tune of 1.5 million viewers a week.  While those numbers aren’t surprising by network standards, the show’s longevity is impressive. You might be able to buy that kind of audience starting out, but you have to be doing something right to keep it for 14 years.

The Biggest Loser’s tone sensationalizes weight loss, exaggerates emotional growth, and pedals that loser to winner make-over narrative that reality TV watchers love so much. While I don’t believe the show is effective in getting Americans to think critically about food and health, I do think The Biggest Loser accomplishes something beyond being fun to watch. By engaging its viewers emotionally, the show has somehow opened up a space for an intimate, albeit simple, conversation about eating habits and health while sidestepping the problem of eliciting defensive responses from its contestants and viewers about their own relationships with food. Through the paradox of reality TV, The Biggest Loser can talk to Americans about this deeply personal connection to food by totally exploiting that very intimacy through carefully chronicled breakdowns, glimpses into hometowns and back-stories, and inspirational workout montages.

Once you spend enough time following the show and getting to know the contestants (again, I’m not telling you how many hours I have watched, but trust me on this), you may find yourself embracing The Biggest Loser’s optimistic message and actually believing in the idea that a fitter, more food-savvy America is possible. You forget about the drama in the house, the trainer-driven conflict, or that the contestants are the kind of people who think being on a reality TV show is a good idea, and you just see a country of people fed up with being sick and unhappy and ready to do something about it. I think it is significant that Michelle Obama has teamed up with the show. That woman has her finger on the pulse of popular culture, even if she is just a “JLO wanna be,” and at the very least, her endorsement signals that when it comes to improving health in this country, The Biggest Loser’s sphere of influence is too big to ignore.

But at the end of the day, the reality of The Biggest Loser is that it is a reality TV show and it has little to do with reality. TV, the invention that made inactivity our national pastime, and its sponsors, the food companies that helped make obesity a national epidemic, are not going to save us.  That optimistic glow we fall into when watching any makeover show remains contrived, even when it has Michelle Obama’s blessing.

So where does that leave us? Looking for a space between sensationalist story telling, rabid comment sections, and Joe Queenan, where a steady, engaging and sincere dialogue about diet and health in this country can take place. I have no clue what that might look like, but I do have some thoughts about the role of common sense in all of this, which I hope to get into in my next blog post. I hope you’ll tune in, and we can keep this conversation going!

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