Let’s Not Be Paternalistic About Food

In all the debate that goes on in this country about what people eat and how we need to reform the American diet, it’s always taken as a given that people who attempt to nourish themselves and their children on fast food need to be educated, need to be reformed. There’s a sense that we who are enlightened about food, who subscribe to the philosophies of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and Alice Waters (I certainly do), are somehow in possession of a great secret and if only we could communicate this secret to the uninformed, we’ll spare them from diabetes and heart disease and cancer and all of the other blights inevitable for those who don’t buy organic produce, who gobble down Big Macs while we gobble down our brown rice bowls.

What irks me about all of this is that I don’t believe those who eat poorly are uninformed about what they’re doing. Like any vice—be that cigarettes, alcohol or sex—food is a drug, a balm, a crutch. People who eat fast food know that it’s bad for them, that’s why they’re eating it (in addition to it being cheap and easy). It offers solace after a long day’s work; it offers succor when life gets rough. What’s so hypocritical about those who preach from on high is that so many of us food people eat food that’s just as fatty, just as caloric, just as unhealthy as the food that we’re urging the unwashed masses to stay away from. True, the fried chicken that we eat in Brooklyn may be locally sourced, it may be pasture-raised and fed a steady diet of organic grasses, but guess what? It’s still rolled in white flour and it’s still submerged in a bath of bubbling oil, just like the chicken at any fast food emporium.

What’s rarely acknowledged but is universally true is that all of us—rich or poor, educated or un—make choices that are categorically unhealthy. Freud called it the death drive; it’s the desire in all of us to move more swiftly towards death. It accounts for binge drinking, reckless driving, and why, on a lonely Saturday night, you might curl up on the couch with a bag of Ruffles potato chips and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. We’re all sinners, when it comes to food, it’s just a question of degree.

Which is why, instead of preaching from the mountaintop, the best we can do to effect change in this country is to admit that we’re all human, that we all enjoy our pleasures, it’s just a question of balance. Not everyone has to shop at a farmer’s market to live into their 80s; but it would probably be wise to break up a week’s worth of Chicken McNuggets with a salad or two. And if that salad is comprised of very green greens and locally sourced tomatoes, all the better. But that’s not a necessity.

What is a necessity is that those of us who are privileged enough to know what’s good for us and who can afford to buy the food that’s good for us get off of our high horses. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that big ball of grass-fed beef sitting on that artisanal bun is still a hamburger. Let’s not kid ourselves.

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