Diet Myths and the Puritan Ethic

Mijara T’ran:

One of the most insidious things about our entrenched set of diet myths is how nicely they dovetail with the other great American myth: that hard work and self-sacrifice cure all ills, raising folk up by their bootstraps from poor house to White House. The great USian traditions of moralizing and anti-intellectualism make the “gluttony and sloth” narrative hard to dislodge.

If we accept that the cycle of carbohydrate intake, insulin resistance, and hormone production in fat tissue describes the progress of obesity and diabetes, then we must accept that we overeat and stop exercising because we get fat, not vice versa. And if we accept that, then we must give up looking at overweight people and saying, “It is their fault for eating so much and sitting around all day! I’m thin, so you can see how much better a person I am than they!”

If we accept that human biology is not well adapted to a diet heavy in grain, then that would admit a victory of scientific understanding over tradition. And we do so hate to yield ground to science! We would prefer to put our faith in the majority, in the old saws of past decades, no matter how ineffectual or thoroughly debunked. (Ever notice how, rather than refute the science behind or effectiveness of e.g. Atkins, detractors dismiss his work as “not mainstream,” how “most nutritionists” don’t subscribe to it?) I’ve always been told that whole grains and fruits will grant me long life; how could that possibly be misleading?

If we accept that there is more going on behind weight gain than “calories in minus calories out,” then that would downplay the mighty power of exercise. No pain, no gain! To get better, you must punish yourself, redouble your efforts, submit to the yoke! Hard work is the American way, the only route to success. Eating more fatty meat and eggs, and cutting out breads and pastas… there is nothing virtuous in that. Even if it works!

It’s not the cause of our current misapprehensions about food and health, exactly (the McGovern Report takes most credit for that), but it does make it harder for us to change course, as a nation. It is far too popular an American hobby to pass judgment on others, to sneer at science, to thump our chests about hard work, for us to let go of it easily. And yet if we do let go of those tendencies, here, we will all be healthier as a result.

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