The Mythology of Food

Eat less fat. Eat less sugar. Eat less meat. Eat more vegetables. Don’t skip meals. Eat little but often. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Less alcohol, less dairy, less caffeine, fewer diet drinks.

With all this advice, we might soon forget how real food tastes because the media, national guidelines, and food labels are secretly trying to sell us unhealthy meals as healthy products. A myriad of food choices with scientifically convincing descriptions opens an easy path to misinformation and manipulation. We are too busy to think about food; we simply want a quick-fix solution. But at the same time, we, as human beings, are too complex for a one-size-fits-all fix. The trillions of bacteria that live in our gut (or the so-called microbiome) are unique and even more extraordinary than DNA! In this light, the food we put into our mouths is no simple matter; on the contrary, it has a significant impact on our bodies, digestion, and both physical and mental health. “So, what we can eat?” you are going to ask me with a tired or cynical voice. I don’t know, folks. After reading more than 55 books in the last four months on this subject— food, microbiome, diet, and gut health—I am a bit lost, myself. 

 I’d say, though, that we have to eat 1) like a human; 2) the foods we are used to eating from childhood to adolescence; 3) everything we can or want but in small doses. 

By the way, there’s an exciting book on the market, Eat like a Human, written by Dr. Bill Schindler about the ancient ways of cooking (with 75 delicious but, I must add, time-consuming recipes). The author is an internationally known prehistoric and experimental archaeologist who teaches anthropology at Washington College in Maryland. He founded the Eastern Shore Food Lab, an innovative teaching and learning space dedicated to reconnecting people with their food and traditional (old-fashioned) ways of cooking. If you are not too sensitive to the mention of the butchering process or drinking blood in the savanna, check it out. 

 Let’s get back to the myths about food. What is true and what is false? Lies and bad science (as well as our laziness and stress) are not only misleading but also dangerous to our health. Plus, we can also add to the problem of digestion all the food myths with which we grew up. In his book Spoon-Fed, Tim Spector tries to illuminate us about food science and different fad diet rules.

 Example 1: Gluten is dangerous

“All of a sudden, gluten is unhealthy, unnecessary, and potentially dangerous. The food industry supports the idea because it sees this as a lucrative new market (currently worth at least 17 billion dollars globally) and growing at about 10% a year. With enormous profits at stake, the power of money shapes the debate,” writes Tim Spector in his book. “Look around; everything is labeled as gluten-free: chicken, shampoo, chocolate, water… Influencers, celebrities, food companies are bombarding us daily with their gluten-free offerings. True gluten allergy is a rare phenomenon and often confused with the more common IBS or even depression.” 

So where did all the fear surrounding gluten come from? 

From a small study conducted on rodents. Despite the crucial fact that the human equivalent of the amount of gluten consumed by the mice would be 20 slices of whole-grain bread per day. 

 There has also been a spate of sensational pseudoscientific diet books that lambast gluten as “unhealthy, unnatural, or bad.” We love to read; we want to believe in the wise words we read in books; we follow their advice, and, very often, we feel better, maybe due to a lack of clarity about what gluten is or by eliminating other troublesome foods such as alcohol, sugar, soda drinks, and so on. 

Approximately 65% of Americans believe a gluten-free diet is much healthier, but there’s no good evidence to support it. In fact, it is safe for 99% of us to eat whole grains. Unless you have a medically confirmed diagnosis of coeliac disease, avoiding gluten just because it is “trendy and cool” might do you more harm (in the long run) than good. 

 Example 2: Water

Everybody is afraid of tap water because it contains chlorine, estrogens, antibiotics, antidepressants, and even ibuprofen. Still, it seems nobody cares about it when they drink the same amount of chlorine and microbes from a swimming pool. I see you are smiling. You feel safe because you drink only bottled water… Ah, that happy smile! 😬

No one is safe. A survey and analysis of bottled water showed it was not better: 13 of 20 bottle brands had detectable levels of similar chemicals.

Furthermore, many of us try to recycle bottles to cut out environmental waste. What we don’t realize is that:

  1. a) the world produces nearly 20,000 bottles per second;
  2. b) only ONE in FIVE bottles gets recycled globally, and even fewer end up as bottles again. 

 About 8 million tons of plastic are tossed into our oceans each year, most from Asia. Only 10% of recycled bottles are remade into bottles in the UK. Other countries don’t give a damn and remain a plastic war zone. Why don’t they switch to glass? Because it’s more expensive and they probably have to produce less. 

The biggest problem is not only in the food itself but also in the marketing and advertising that the companies use to make us BUY and EAT more. In the book Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin, the author shares many fundamental marketing strategies of the big (or small startups) companies who make us believe we can’t survive without their products, foods, or drinks for even an hour. 

We are in an era of social media and personal expression where everyone can be her own expert. Emily Weiss

 And what does that mean in practice? When everyone is an expert, no one is! ☝️🤔 The next problem is the cost and the number of products on the market. James Hamblin describes the situation like this: “… wandering the New York store, trying not to look too out of place, I’m drawn to a product called ‘Invisible Shield.’ It turns out to be a usual sunscreen that costs 25 dollars for one ounce. I want it. I feel that I would be somehow better — that I might somehow belong in this place, world, with this crowd — if I were to open it right there and slather it on my face. Or even if I simply had it in my pocket.” 

 I’m familiar with that feeling of “I want it. It will make me better!” But the market (especially online) is so full of products that choice becomes exhausting. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up buying nothing simply because of too many options.

It’s not only smart marketing campaigns fueling sales and our desires. It’s our beliefs too. Some women bathe in mineral (raw) water because they think it has “miraculous” powers and cure-all properties. 

In addition, the tremendous pressure to stand out in a crowded field of cosmetics requires companies to hone the art of selling products that none of us would have imagined that we wanted or needed. This is done by creating severe concern over an ingredient or skin symptom that didn’t exist the season before.

Example: Snail Bee High EGF Anti-Age and Anti-Wrinkle Mask!

I don’t know much about EGF, and I can’t imagine snails on my face, but I feel like something magical is going to happen if I get it… so I want it. It costs 305€ for a bottle?! What? 😱🙃

 In the end, I’d like to mention the book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich. 

 We don’t want to die. We have to, but we resist to the last. Rich people dream about the time when they can upload their so-called excellent minds to some sort of AI and freeze their cells in liquid nitrogen in an attempt to permit future revival 100-200 years from now. Die—freeze your brains—store—rise from the dead. It’s as simple as that. But is it? So far, everything is only hopes and promises. It’s easy to promise to a dead person something he’ll never be able to check… 

 Meanwhile, we try to find the source of aging and try to understand why macrophages (cells involved in the destruction of bacteria) go berserk and activate inflammation processes instead of fighting it. As a result, people use any possibility and are ready to “kill themselves” to live longer. Therefore, our bodies are at constant war with the host, with themselves, and with the environment outside of their home. It’s a miracle we are still alive! 😉

As a result of this war, an epidemic of wellness grips the minds of humanity. And not always in a good way. Go figure… 

Next week, I’ll get back with a post about the depersonalization of violence and an explanation of why our free will (choices) are not so free. And don’t forget, 22 March is World Water Day! 🔆💙