Dieters Whistling Past the Graveyard

diet fadsEating all foods in moderation is a good idea as a general rule and there are sound environmental reasons for avoiding excessive meat consumption. But this article in The Atlantic entitled “Eating Toward Immortality” brilliantly nails the culture of dieting that can become an obsession and a moral crusade:

The heroes of contemporary diet culture are wellness gurus who claim to have cured themselves of fatness, disease, and meaninglessness through the unimpeachable purity of cold-pressed vegetable juice. Many traditional heroes earn their status by confronting and defeating death, like Hercules, who was granted immortality after a lifetime of capturing or killing a menagerie of dangerous beasts, including the three-headed dog of Hades himself. Wellness gurus are the glamorously clean eaters whose triumph over sad, dirty animality is evidenced by fresh, thoughtfully-lit photographs of green smoothies in wholesome Mason jars, and by their own bodies, beautifully rendered.

Why all this focus on “clean eating”?

At a fundamental level, people may feel a twinge of guilty for having a body, taking up space, and having appetites that devour the living things around us. They may crave expiation of this guilt, and culture provides not only the means to achieve plentiful material comfort, but also ways to sacrifice part of that comfort to achieve redemption. It is not enough for wellness gurus to simply amass the riches of health, beauty, and status—they must also deny themselves sugar, grains, and flesh. They must pay….Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety. People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, that forces them to rely on the unfamiliar, unpalatable, or inaccessible, all for the promise of relief from choice and the attendant responsibility.

But the ultimate explanation for diet fads:

This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith.

I’m sure this article will drive some people crazy; the comments are worth reading because they hilariously confirm the author’s thesis. Obviously, some people have food allergies or specific ailments that require a diet. But most dieting is carried out by relatively healthy people who simply have some vague notion that it’s good for them, despite the constant turmoil in the relatively young science of nutrition that is plagued with the uncertainties of studying an enormously complex organism.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with a little whistling past the graveyard; after all who doesn’t like music. But in the end we’re all going to die and I doubt a kale shake in the morning will delay it much. If the self-denial of dieting makes you feel better by all means go for it but we can do without the moralizing that too often comes along for the ride.

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