Let’s Just Stop With the Food Wars, Okay?

Because this is the best/weirdest image that came up in my image search. Source: Jeff Neumann, The Denver Post.
Because this is the best/weirdest image that came up in my image search.
Source: Jeff Neumann, The Denver Post. Link here.

There’s something about the internet that brings out the basest parts of us. Can you imagine if people lived their day-to-day lives like they were on a Facebook thread (or, god forbid, in the Youtube comments section)?

I’m vegan (for political reasons) and gluten-free (for IBS reasons). Here’s what such an announcement would look like on the internet:

Commenter 1: I’m vegan too, but I don’t eat soy, corn, oil, sugar, grains, or joy. Anyone who does isn’t a real vegan!
Commenter 2: Fuck veganism. I’m paleo. Veganism is for [redacted misogynistic slur]!
Commenter 3: Gluten-free is such a fad! Stop being so pretentious! Fuck you!
Commenter 2: Fuck you! I’m gluten-free because Grok didn’t eat glutens! Do you even lift, bro?
Commenter 4: I can’t be vegan because as a man it will turn me gay and make me grow breasts.  STOP TRYING TO FEMINIZE ME YOU FEMINAZI!!!!
Commenter 5: I make $900 an hour working from home! Ask me how!

And so on and so forth into perpetuity.

Here is what it looks like if I tell a room full of people that I am gluten-free and vegan.

Person 1: Huh. That sounds hard.
Person 2: I think the cafe around the corner has some stuff you can eat.

I think part of the problem is that the internet is, still, kind of like the Wild Wild West and people are trying to find their people. One way to do that is to make big, extreme statements, hoping that doing so will bring your kind of people out of the woodwork. If you eat in a restricted or unusual way, it can be hard to find people who get it and have tips and recipes and can commiserate. I’m sympathetic to that.

But, more than that, I think the internet lets us conveniently forget that every username and avatar belong to a real person with real feelings and so we say the nasty things we would never say out loud but feel emboldened to say on the internet.

Pair that with the fact that a lot of the extreme, exclusionary diet talk is based on a type of moralizing that sounds, frankly, bananas, when said out loud in mixed company, and you have a perfect storm.

A lot of the extremely restricted ways that people eat don’t actually make any sense, and so they can create a lot of cognitive dissonance. Do we know what Grok was eating 10,000 years ago? Kind of. It was varied. Climate and geography have a huge impact on what foods are available at a low energy and safety cost. It wast mostly vegetarian. With maybe some grubs thrown in. And, more importantly, if given the chance, Grok would shovel down pastries by the fistful because he lived in a time of scarcity. (Plus, you know, evolution didn’t just stop 10,000 years ago–as evidenced by the various levels of lactose tolerance around the world and so many other things.)

Really thinking about why you’re eating bacon on bacon on bacon with half a sweet potato might lead you to some uncomfortable places. Are you swept up in a fad? Are you deathly afraid of carbs? Are you tied to an outdated ideology that is less and less acceptable in nominally liberal spaces?

Durant constructs an image of the “natural” that is entirely ideological. The real appeal of hunter-gatherer life is what he imagines to be its strict partition of gender roles, where “Men were hunters, women were gatherers” and where “women rewarded great hunters” with sex. Paleo eating is here connected with an image of society which reproduces itself largely through masculine competition.

Or maybe you have embraced “healthy veganism” wherein you exclude all “processed foods” such as flour, oils, sugar, and perhaps grains. And let’s throw soy in there for good measure because of something The Food Babe said. And maybe you’re doing it based on the promise that you’ll feel better for it, yet wondering why you are so tired and cranky all the time. So maybe you start eliminating more foods. And maybe you’re starting to get really afraid of food. But you’ve been sold a bill of goods that eating the right way will extend your lifespan, cure all known diseases, and make you a good person.

You can’t exactly walk away from that, can you? So how do you silence those doubts? You double-down. Maybe you start a new blog about “clean eating” or start trolling your friends’ pics of pasta on instagram. Maybe you just remove everyone from your Facebook feed who isn’t also paleo or raw vegan or orthorexic.

Whatever the case, you begin to build your identity around your diet. And that is a dangerous place to be. Not only because there are so many cultural and economic factors behind who eats what (and, make no mistake, both Paleo and mainstream veganism are not financially available to most low-income people, and are culturally irrelevant to many people’s traditional foodways), but because there may well come a time when you can’t eat that way anymore. And what happens to your identity if its prevailing factor is no longer available to you? The vegan community has seen what happens when people stop being vegan and become militantly ex-vegan. It’s weird and ugly.

The truth is, there are conversations we should be having about food. They involve the scarcity of good quality, varied foods in food deserts; the inequitable ways food is grown and distributed around the world; the subsidies high calorie/low satiety/low nutrient food producers get and their obscene advertising budgets; the lack of time and access many people have to the knowledge and means to cook for themselves between multiple under-paying jobs; the exploitative practices of using temporary migrant food workers for food production in Canada and the US which often involve unsafe work and living conditions and criminally low pay; the abhorrent realities of CAFOs which damage land and water while torturing animals and traumatizing slaughterhouse workers.

These are the conversations we should be having. And these are the food issues we should be moralizing–these are all incredibly unjust, unethical practices allowed and propped up by systemic issues of class inequality, racism, colonization, neoliberalism, and undue corporate influence on government policies.

Focusing on anything less is navel-gazing, us-vs-them bullshit that hides the real ethical issues of food politics and I’m tired of it.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Just Stop With the Food Wars, Okay?

  1. I just did something of a guffaw when I got to this:
    “Commenter 5: I make $900 an hour working from home! Ask me how!”

    I really love this post. I think you make a really important point: there’s so much confusion, misinformation, mythology and morality surrounding the food we do and don’t eat. The simple question of “what to have for breakfast?” isn’t simple at all! And I think you make a good point, too, that we’re moving ourselves away from the important questions that actually have moral stakes attached to them (food labor, animal cruelty, food scarcity, etc). I think, ultimately, everyone is confused and scared when it comes to food and health; it is comforting to latch onto THE ANSWER, and when someone comes along and questions that answer–or even tells us they have a different one–it threatens our tenuous hold on comforting surety. So people freak out and lash out.

    If we can’t have empathy for someone who does or doesn’t eat gluten on the internet, it’s hard to imagine how to transition to having empathy for these real and important issues. I think posts like this, pointing out how misdirected our energies are, is an important part of making that shift!

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