Why You Can Eat Anything You Want

(as long as you make it yourself.)

for the record, I happen to love me some good North Fork Potato Chips--a locally produced brand. But I don't pretend they're healthy. They're just yummy, and a sometime treat.

Last week, Michael Pollan tweeted a paper on nutrition by Carlos Monteiro entitled “There is No Such Thing as a Healthy Ultra-Processed Product.” Food companies, the paper argues, promote their products as ‘healthy’ based on either of two things:

1. The absence of perceived “bad” ingredients (0g trans fats! NO High Fructose Corn Syrup!)

2. Reduced levels of (X “bad” component: fat, salt, sugar) as compared to comparable products


3. The addition of nutrients (“enriched” or “fortified”)

notice how they use 'earth' tones on the packaging to give you a greener, healthier feeling?

The paper is not very interesting reading, but overall, it makes a good point, which is this: stuff that comes out of the package “ready-to-eat” is probably not good for you. Yet it is precisely the ingredients that get processed into foods like that–cereals, granola bars, powdered flavored drinks, chips–that receive the HIGHEST government subsidies (think corn and soybeans, which get processed into literally thousands of different unpronounceable food ingredients.) And precisely those products are the ones backed by enormous advertising budgets to convince people that they are HEALTHY.

Let me put some flesh on those bones: once, I sat in one of the very nicest restaurants in Philadelphia and was served a delicious, handmade dessert–something involving chocolate and whipped cream, I don’t remember what, exactly–and one of the people at my table, instead of eating that, pulled out some kind of chocolate-flavored protein bar and ate that instead, explaining that he was on a diet and that this was ‘healthier’ because it had X number of grams of protein with only X amount of carbs. His perception was clearly that this bar (which, as very nearly all such bars are, was an ultra-processed, partially artificial THING made in some New Jersey industrial ‘park’) was “superior” to the cake.

Here’s another example: breakfast cereal. The companies that make ready-to-eat cereals have done a fabulous job of convincing people that there’s something special about cereal that makes it a right and proper (if not THE right and proper) thing to eat for breakfast. In recent years, we’ve seen them all scramble to put a bit of WHOLE GRAINS! in there and then shout about it on the package. But you know what? Most of the time, a few slices of whole grain bread with butter and jam (or some cheese) is a far superior breakfast, nutritionally speaking. Most cereals qualify as “ultra-processed” foods.

don't be fooled by the health claims! even the healthy looking ones are little better than vitamin-enhanced cookies...

Maybe these things don’t seem like such a big deal. But they kind of are a big deal. In developing countries, ultra-processed products (Monteiro uses Tang as an example) are viewed as modern and ‘healthier’ than the traditional diets. As such, even though products like these are comparably expensive, people will spring for them–with disastrous long-term effects on public and environmental health. In our own country, the lobbying pull of food producers prevents the likes of Michelle Obama from saying clearly “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat from a package” and allows pledges by Wal-Mart to reduce X number of “bad” ingredients as part of Let’s Move.

Monteiro isn’t saying never eat anything that comes from a package, and neither am I. But I think what we’re both saying is this: REAL food–and thus REAL wellness–doesn’t come from a package loaded with health claims and advertisements of “fortification,” or, indeed, of “reduced” whatever.

In a nutshell?

EAT THE CHOCOLATE CAKE! (not a flavored ‘energy’ bar)

EAT THE WHIPPED CREAM! (not the fat-free whipped ‘topping.’)

Should healthy living be a spiritual discipline?

An essay at RELEVANT yesterday made some good points: first, that “the obesity battle isn’t an individual responsibility; it’s a community effort,” and, second, that the church can (and should) play a role in shaping America’s food culture for the better. Both of these are very, very true.

this book gives a great history of American Christian diet books

But to my mind, the rest of the essay exemplified a shallowness of thinking about food and eating that has surfaced again and again in the 100+ years since Christians first began linking healthy diets with spiritual health. The typical logic goes like this:

The Bible teaches that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Fat and/or unhealthy bodies are not pleasing temples.

Therefore to be a pleasing temple for the Holy Spirit you should not be fat or unhealthy.


Therefore doing what you need to do to not be fat or unhealthy is something that you do for the Holy Spirit’s benefit.

A few things irk me about this kind of thinking (to be clear, I am not singling out the RELEVANT piece; I just see it as representative of many Christian writings and utterances on diet and health). In no particular order:

1. Fat is inevitably made to = SIN!

And it just isn’t necessarily so. Further, even APART from Christian ethics, American culture already demonizes fat and worships thinness. Claiming that people who are overweight are therefore sinful isn’t only unhelpful, it’s also unfair. Body types vary greatly: some people are just plain bigger than others. Some people can’t exercise due to disabilities. Some people have hormonal imbalances that keep them overweight despite their efforts to the contrary.

[Besides, lots of things that Americans love are ‘sins’ that no one seems to get too enraged over. Like loving money! And gossiping. But getting upset over fatness? That’s for people of every faith and no faith.]

2. Eating + Health are not necessarily connected in the ways you might think.

French people eat triple creme cheese, drink loads of coffee with cream and lots of wine, eat tons of white bread baguettes and wouldn’t dream of leaving off the butter–and they are healthier, on the whole, than Americans. We’re tempted to call this the “French Paradox,” but as Michael Pollan points out, it’s probably more accurate to speak of an “American Paradox“–a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthfully. All our fretting and our reduced-calorie products and skim milk and butter substitutes and egg substitutes and sugar free candies and cleansing diets and nutrition supplements and fitness regimens and food weighing and fad diets and ‘sensible eating plans’ and calorie free sodas have done us no measurable good–in fact, levels of obesity have RISEN along with the availability of diet foods and fitness obsession.

Further, as any good nutritionist will tell you, nutrition is a young science. We can’t even know for sure what an ideally healthful diet looks like–people live and thrive on diets that are as wildly different from one another as can be. Inuit people have traditionally lived on mostly seal meat and fat; indigenous peoples in Guatemala on corn, squash, and beans. Some people live on blood and meat; others on milk and cheese.

Inuit people eating a traditional food--Maktaaq (frozen whale skin and blubber)

We can know this: the typical American diet isn’t it doing anyone much good. But that may be connected to things we don’t usually consider, like WHEN to eat, WITH WHOM, and WHERE. (We’d do better to eat at the table, with others, and at reasonably regular intervals–3x each day.) Plus, “healthy” eating has as much to do with ATTITUDE as anything else–see this post about dietician and therapist Ellyn Satter. I don’t know if she is a person of faith or not, but her way of eating aligns beautifully with the heart of a Biblical theology of food: that we should eat with gratitude and JOY. (It makes you healthier, for real!) which leads me to…

3. The Bible has so much more to say about food BEYOND “eating for health.”

Actually, the Bible says almost nothing about eating for health. (Yes, that includes Daniel’s vegetarian experiment, but that’s a post for another day.)

Food, in the Bible–and in our lives–represents God’s gracious gift. In the beginning, in Eden, God delights to feed the people he has made. A Biblical understanding of food recognizes that food doesn’t come from the store, or from money–it comes from the soil, the sun, and the sustaining, gracious hand of God. Eating it together binds people together in unity and love (see yesterday’s post) and making sure that everyone has enough–feeding the hungry, in other words–is a crucial aspect of “love thy neighbor” and an aspect of what James’ epistle calls “true religion.”

In today’s complicated, globalized world, eating with love for God and love for neighbor means seeking food that is raised in ways that build up and enrich rather than destroy and break down the soil, animals, and people involved in its production, remembering–and seeking to help–those who do not have enough to eat. And it means eating mindfully, with awareness that food is NOT fuel but a gift from God.

James Tissot, French (1836-1902) The Gathering of the Manna

We DON’T need “spiritual” reasons to pursue a “healthy” diet.

We DO need a new food culture, and there’s plenty of wisdom–in the Bible and elsewhere–that’s ready to help us shape one.

Of course, it has to begin where all change begins–with us.