Food Fundamentalism: The Dark Side of Dietary Philosophy

I grew up with bad eating habits. Mostly because I was a very picky child who only liked cheese, pasta, white bread, sugary cereal, and meat. And partly because of canned vegetables.

These eating habits led to a host of health issues. And those health issues led to curiosity about natural medicine (drugs tend to really mess with me). And curiosity about natural medicine led me to learning a lot about food and how it affects the body. I did a lot of reading about nutrition and the food supply and agriculture.

Then I came to Oregon and realized I was a complete amateur noobie ignoramus when it came to food awareness.

Here in Oregon, we have IDEAS about food. And we like to spend a lot of time expounding upon our food philosophies. (I am very much included in that “we”).

Usually, food philosophy discussions are at the very least interesting. Sometimes they’re educational, and often they are amusing. But sometimes . . . sometimes food philosophy goes to a dark place. Sometimes it turns in to food fundamentalism . . . and dudes, we all know how much damage fundamentalist thinking can do.

A person with a food philosophy realizes that some foods are better for you than others. A Food Fundamentalist divides foods in to categories of “Virtuous” and “Sinful”.

This sort of Food Dualism has infected our culture. We’re so worried about it that we argue about which side of the force our favorite foods belong on. CHOCOLATE belongs to the dark side. Except maybe dark chocolate belongs to the light side? Because it has that thing in it? That’s good for you? Milk is either the most wholesome thing on god’s green earth, or puss-contaminated filth that will rot you slowly from the inside out . . . depending on who you ask.

If we enjoy a dessert or something with a high fat content, we feel like we need to apologize to the world at large.

I think this kind of thinking is one of the reasons the U.S. is fat.

I mean, didn’t that whole priests-molesting-little-boys scandal teach us anything about the consequences of forbidding things? Haven’t we learned that the more we repudiate our desires, the harder they are to resist?

I think setting up a virtue and vice framework for food choices is dangerous to our health. It makes us crazy. I think we need a new way to look at it. More of a “it would be good to eat a LOT of these foods” approach, and enjoy the other things now and then for the sake of the pleasure.

Because sometimes food–like all other alleged “sins”–is simply about pleasure. And you guys–there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. We’re designed to appreciate it. It’s good for the soul.

A person with a food philosophy might refrain from eating the processed meat appetizer at a party with a simple “no thanks”, and stick with the crudites or the cheese and crackers. A Food Fundamentalist will refuse to eat any of it, and will lecture the hostess on how such impurities will never defile the divine temple of her body. She will explain why one shouldn’t eat factory farmed meat, why the non-organic vegetables will KILL US ALL if we eat them, and how sugar will result in the fall of humankind. And she’ll walk away from the gathering feeling righteous, for she has informed yet another lost soul of the One True Path of eating.

Never mind that she has insulted the hostess and probably hurt her feelings as well. And the hostess isn’t going to say, “Oh wow, she was right, I’m going to change my habits from this moment on, and thank her for showing me the error of my ways!”. No. The hostess is going to say “What a BITCH,” and is going to think twice about inviting the Food Fundamentalist to future gatherings.

I think we would all do well to remember that food is about more than what it does to your body. Food is about community, about culture. If you say my food’s not good enough for you, then it sounds like I’M not good enough for you. Nobody enjoys being insulted.

It’s GREAT to have a food philosophy. I have one. But, as my writing buddy pointed out, “Kids have a food philosophy too. It’s called ‘I want to live on candy.’ But if your kid acted like that at someone’s house they’d get a time out.”

(Please note that allergies and intolerances are a different matter. If you’re going to be ill for weeks or go in to anaphylactic shock if you eat something I’m serving, then obviously I am not talking to you here. Almost everyone I know has SOME kind of food intolerance; our potlucks look like the special dietary needs section of the natural grocery store. I’ve managed to cook successfully for most of them, and I’ve been happy to do so. Totally not the same. So don’t flame me in the comments m’kay?)

We all have a right to our ideas about food. It’s even fine to TALK about those ideas–but there’s a time and place to deliver a lecture, and there’s a time and place to shut the fuck up and eat the damn birthday cake. If you want to tell the world what to do, get yourself a freakin’ blog.

It’s what I did.


13 thoughts on “Food Fundamentalism: The Dark Side of Dietary Philosophy

  1. What is your food story beyond whats presented here? I realize I should probably search Greenwoman archives before commenting so pardon me for not. I grew up with an anorexic and bulimic mother. I once ate a whole package of exlax thinking it was chocolate as a child! Even though it didn’t taste right I ate it anyway…but I do have some good memories about my mother in the kitchen. Later in life, I met my future stepmother who had taken cooking classes in Belgium while her ex husband was stationed there with the Air Force. He later turned out to be gay but that is another story. I often wonder about food in that context…but I digress. I wonder about my mother and food and religion. Alot. It would be a misnomer to suggest that it’s all fundamentalism. She was rebelling against her parents when I was a child and was a Jehovahs Witness until I was six or seven. Then she went back to the Baptists and stopped binging and purging.
    I didn’t start eating fish until I ate my stepmothers >’.'< No pun intended on her ex husband – Since then I have learned to cook it for myself and love it. But I don't call myself a culinary Epicurean, even though I took a great etiquette class that covered dining as a child of about eight. My step mother as her daughter likes to say cooks from recipes gathered from Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. My mom now likes to eat out or let my step father cook. That is how she has evolved in her eating habits. I was astounded to find out that one of her maternal grandmothers was struck by lightening while standing at her kitchen sink. I've since joked that this is why she lets my step father cook. She has overcome her issue but I still detect it as having manifested in other ways over the years.

    1. When I say “food fundamentalism” I mean fundamentalist type thinking about food. “Fundamentalism” can be defined as “Strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology”. I was making a comparison.

      You could be an atheist and still be food fundamentalist.

      My food story is boring. I like sugar too much, and don’t like vegetables enough. My entire family–well, hell, our entire culture–is obsessed with a fear of being fat, and food was always the enemy but also a sinful pleasure. My lack of proper nourishment led to things like reproductive difficulties and poor immune system, all of which are improving gradually over time.

      And I’m even learning to enjoy vegetables, so hey, happy ending. 😉

      1. I have known numerous women who had reproductive issues who attributed their menstural problems and later in life, reproductive issues to many things, but never their diets.

        1. I didn’t express what I intended to say very well. I have known several women who had issues with reproduction in their early adult years, into their early twenties. For one, irregular periods were attributed to a demanding Professional dance regimen. Another believed she was incapable of having children in her early twenties. Still another used abortion like birth control in her young adulthood and was of the opinion she most likely couldn’t carry a child to term. Another had contracted a STD in her mid twenties that left her with a tubal pregnancy and a unviable fetus. Of all of them, only the one who had a demanding dance schedule as a young teen might also be able to attribute her issue to dietary health as she was also anemic. Of course I have also met people in passing who believed they were vampires and felt that they had a biological and scientific need to drink blood. I think they are wrong and deluded and covering up their problems with what ever flight of fancy suits them from one moment to the next. In such cases food fundamentalism is absent completely and they have no supportive framework to even approach food as most of society would understand it.

          1. I did see a doctor about my health problems. They are all related to nutrition. I didn’t just make that assumption all on my own.

            And I am definitely not a vampire. 😉

            1. Ah the joys of Gothic Literature are many but most people know when to give it a rest. Sadly not all do. I have been a LMT (Massage Therapist) for over ten years and unscrupulous people try and call just about anything and any ideology ‘alternative health’ if they think they have a gimmick.

  2. This article caused me to look up the definition of fundamentalism (it appears you didi, too) just to be sure I was getting the message you are sending. I think we are on the same page. Lately I have come to the conclusion that fundamentalism of every stripe is bad. It inspires the rudeness you describe, intolerance, even violence. It can ruin relationships between people, communities, and countries. ( I am pointing at myself as much as I am pointing at anybody else when I say,”Keep your views to yourself!” )

    I just finished a Sam Harris book called “The End of Faith” which contains a scathing denunciation of religious fundamentalism, and I think his critique can be extended to all kinds of cultural expressions of fundamentalism – the intolerance, the smugness, the attitude that “I am right and everybody else is going to hell.” We could say that indigestion/allergies/poor health can be considered foodie fundamentalist hell.

    Recently I have had to seriously re-evaluate my long-standing vegetarianism because I woke up from open heart surgery hungry for concentrated lean protein. One of the first things I consumed when they started giving me food again was cups of hot beef broth. It satisfied a deep thirst. I had to think through the changes my body went through what with the heart attack and the emergency quadruple bypass surgery, and my own food philosophy. Although I am still not 100% comfortable about this sea-change, I have adopted the attitude of being thankful to the animal for the life force I am deriving from it. I am also being incredibly snooty about the sources of the meat I am eating – grass fed, free range, Oregon tilth level organic, etc.

    A few weeks ago my daughter was telling me about bacon donuts that she gets at Voodoo Donuts. Personally the idea of bacon on a donut seems NOT APPETIZING, but she thinks they are delicious. We talked about how foodie Portland is, and at one point we laughed together about how Portlanders need to know the chicken they are eating, a reference to an episode of “Portlandia”. Then we looked at each other and both of us said, “And in Portland everybody knows their pig!” Just a bit of spontaneous humor between us – and very appropriate for the situation I find myself in these days.

    Food is such an emotional issue! Thanks for this thought provoking post.

    1. Chris, you’re so right about food being an emotional issue! It’s so tied up with our history and our identity and . . . it can be really intense.

      It’s SO HARD to have to rethink our ideals about food too! I was a vegetarian for a while, and it was hard to admit I wasn’t getting what I needed from that diet. Eventually I had to listen to my body; it really, really wanted meat. I guess it’s different for everyone though! I’m glad to hear that you’re listening to what your body has to tell you about what you need.

  3. Ahh, fundamentalists of all kinds. smh.

    I get a lot of crap for my diet. I eat grains, white meat, and fruit. Essentially, that’s it. I like some red meat – bacon and pepperoni – but I will not eat vegetables. They make me throw up. Even the smell of them can make me throw up. Same goes for seafood.

    And the amount of insensitivity I face for it is astounding. People are anywhere from disapproving. “/Really/? Are you /serious/?” to downright rude “What are you, five years old?” Yes, I’m aware I have dietary issues. But I’m completely comfortable with what you’re eating. Why on earth would you get up in arms about what I’M having for dinner?

    My health issues are all dietary. I need to have multivitamins. Certain… times of the month… don’t happen very often… at all. Because of the content of what I eat *cough* Anyway, I know far more people who have dietary health issues than other types of health issues, to be honest!

    Also not a vampire.


    1. I worked with a hairstylist who was allergic to styrofoam. She couldn’t drink out of styrofoam glasses or eat anything that had been held in a styrofoam container. She smoked alot of pot though.

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