I ran across two items last week that illustrate a peculiar mistrust of pleasure in American life.
The first is this article from the NY Times on mindful eating. I talk about mindful eating a lot because only by thinking about food can we maximize the pleasure we get from it. But “mindful eating” means something quite different to most of its proponents. Taking their cue from Buddhist meditation,
In the eyes of some experts, what seems like the simplest of acts — eating slowly and genuinely relishing each bite — could be the remedy for a fast-paced Paula Dean Nation in which an endless parade of new diets never seems to slow a stampede toward obesity…Could a discipline pioneered by Buddhist monks and nuns help teach us how to get healthy, relieve stress and shed many of the neuroses that we’ve come to associate with food?…
Mindful eating is meant to nudge us beyond what we’re craving so that we wake up to why we’re craving it and what factors might be stoking the habit of belly-stuffing.
Notice that the purpose of mindful eating is not to get more enjoyment from food (although the proponents admit that is a side benefit). It is to improve our health. The pursuit of pleasure is not sufficient reason to be thoughtful about food—it must contribute to a devotional practice or inhibit our tendency to overeat.
Healthy eating is, of course, a good thing and if mindful eating encourages it then all the better. The oddity is not the doctors and nutritionists that, for good reason, advocate it but the fact that the public seems receptive to the message only if it will improve health outcomes. Enhancing the quality of pleasure isn’t on the table.
In a similar vein, at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorms blog, evolutionary psychologist David Barash extols the virtues of the Costa Rican diet that consists mainly of rice, beans, and fruit often eaten three times a day. The Nepalese diet consisting mostly of lentils comes in for some praise as well.
Barash wonders, in light of our unhealthy fast food diet, why we don’t have a similar healthy, inexpensive but one-dimensional diet.
And I can’t help noting that it’s unfortunate—maybe even tragic—that the United States, for example, doesn’t have an equivalent of rice and beans or dal bhat: a basic, healthy, inexpensive, easy-to-prepare default meal. Instead, we have “Happy Meals” that are nutritionally miserable, or variants on Coca Cola, Doritos, and cheeseburgers: high in salt, fat, sugar and, ironically, cost as well.
This is a bizarre suggestion. Why is boring good? The problem with the American fast food/packaged food diet is not that it contains too much diversity. It is not as if the choice between Burger King and Wendy’s is a real choice. The problem is we don’t take the time to distinguish and focus on genuine quality. We approach food as if it were fuel—an assumption that underlies both linked articles.
Unlike Costa Rica, we are a nation of immigrants. If we wish to avoid the sugar/salt/fat-laden American diet, we have a wealth of healthy, inexpensive options to choose from including rice and beans from Latin America, lentil-based dishes from India, the various healthy cuisines from the Mediterranean, and the stir-fries from Asia.
The many food choices we have in the U.S. are a good thing. But that virtue is undermined by the seemingly inexhaustible search for convenience and indifference to the quality of pleasure, both of which are encouraged by the idea that food is merely fuel rather than one everyday focal point for leading a life of excellence.