The United States cannot afford food capitalism, given the interaction between health care costs and the Western diet. Nearly half a century ago, feminists put bodies on the political agenda. There they remain, as we struggle over what to have for dinner.
When I teach food, ears perk up. My students know every weight-loss diet. They quaff almond milk, calculate their BMIs on their devices, and struggle with food addictions. Body image is gendered, as we have known since Susie Orbach published Fat Is a Feminist Issue in the 1970s. Many women think they are overweight, hence imperfect, while men are happier with themselves, although there is now heightened body consciousness among men, who pursue cut abs and arms. My students applaud at the conclusion of the vegan video Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead and they buy juicers to make green kale shakes that save lives in the film.
Everyone knows that the American fast-food diet is broken. The film Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation have entered the mainstream. But there is still major disagreement about what to have for dinner, with two dominant competing paradigms: high carb, low fat (HCLF) and low carb, high fat (LCHF). The revision of federal food policy hasn’t helped much. After two iterations of the recommended food pyramid, the food plate was introduced in 2011, which relies somewhat less on animal protein and fills the plate with three non-meat quadrants taken up by vegetables, fruit and grains. Meat and milk are still on the agenda, but carbs are in the saddle, as they have long been for mainstream nutrition and medicine.
As a Marxist, I find it is easy to see that capitalism makes us sick with the standard Western diet of processed food and abundant sweeteners, for profit, and then heals us with various body industries, also for profit. Neocon angst over the Affordable Care Act would likely turn to hysteria if the federal government embraced veganism on health and environmental grounds. The American right to fast food is as central as the right to bear arms, although the fast-food sandwich, with fries, is far more lethal than the handgun, as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mortality data suggest. Esselstyn, Ornish, Fuhrman and other prophets of plant-based diets, including Colin Campbell who co-authored The China Study, note that we would save billions in health care costs by eating differently. Plant-based cardiology entered the mainstream with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta’s 2011 documentary Last Heart Attack. His account features heart patient Bill Clinton’s conversion to veganism, following bypass surgery.
These are many low-fat proponents, to whom the competing paradigm, based on the Atkins diet and now Paleo, is a response, also with many adherents. Paleos blame carbs, not meat, for American illness, and they install meat and dairy products at the center of their food plate. They argue that blood glucose does not spike and crash when protein and fat replace refined carbs and grains, breaking a carb addiction that leads to the so-called metabolic syndrome, including hypertension, obesity and diabetes.
Vegans who rely on The China Study’s epidemiology and on Esselstyn’s and Ornish’s clinical experience in stemming and even reversing heart disease are met by recent best-selling books such as Grain Brain (Perlmutter) and Big Fat Surprise (Teicholz), whose authors contend that meat and dairy are healthier than grains, which become addictive.
This food debate, between vegans and Paleos, spills over into an equally ferocious debate about exercise. The plant-based crew, who extol the need for complex carbs from plants, favor endurance training, such as running, while the Paleos disdain “chronic cardio” as unhealthy. The research literature on running has become a battlefield, with studies supporting the health benefits of long slow distance and competing studies finding that more than a little endurance training causes inflammation and even cancer. Paleos praise the gym-based CrossFit, which emphasizes total body fitness, to be achieved through lifting and nothing longer than sprints. Hardcore runners, who post on letsrun.com, disdain anti-running ideology as the easy way out.
I’ve been running for nearly 40 years, and until recently assumed that I couldn’t run and race on protein and fat fumes. Although I knew intellectually that fat burns in a carbohydrate flame – and that fat metabolism is essential when carb-supplied glycogen runs out at 20 miles – I accepted uncritically the high-carb paradigm. I found support for this in exercise physiology, for example in the book Lore of Running by preeminent South African running physiologist Tim Noakes. Self-styled serious runners could also cite the cult classic novel Once a Runner:
Cassidy . . . explained that he was a runner; just an athlete, really, with an absurdly difficult task. He was not a health nut, was not out to mold himself a stylishly slim body. He did not live on nuts and berries; if the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs.
We wanted to believe that anything would burn in our hot furnaces, giving us license to gorge while we ran it off.
Recently, I experimented and tried to run and live on low carbs. The first hellish week recalled the rigors of kicking caffeine cold turkey, a battle I always lose! The second week was slightly better, and in the third week, I survived a track workout. By then I was on very low carbs and rarely feeling hungry. During the fourth week, something kicked in – perhaps the shift from one metabolic pathway to another. I was suddenly able to do an effortless 64-mile week, followed by another and another. I muttered to my wife, who rolled her eyes, that running had become a hot knife through butter!
So I read around on low-carb running and found that my guru Tim Noakes had recently reversed his field on carbs. This was huge for me, because Noakes is evidence-based and not a crackpot. He was dealing with his own pre-diabetes and weight gain, and he found that running on low carbs energized him, forcing him to rethink conventional wisdom about the need for endless carbs.
My takeaway from the reading I have done and my own recent experiences on the roads is that there is genuine metabolic diversity, with some people accommodating carbs and others resisting them, perhaps for genetic reasons. As a vegan, I could accept the low carb part of Paleo, but not the high fat part, especially where fat is derived from animals and dairy. It is challenging to eat plants and get sufficient protein and fat to run, but not impossible, suggesting low carb, low fat as a dialectical synthesis of the warring paradigms. I knew veganism was right for me, as it is for Scott Jurek (Eat & Run), who won the hundred-mile Western States Endurance Run seven times in a row eating only plants.
Michael Pollan and Alice Waters offer a final perspective on cooking and eating that emphasizes the DIY pastoralism and pragmatism of the 1960s. Waters, emerging from the Berkeley ’60s, which saw the Diggers provide free food, revolutionized American cooking by founding Chez Panisse in 1971, which relies on locally sourced food. Pollan, in his recent book Cooked, writes from his own experience about how home cooking is more satisfying and healthier than relying on processed Big (Fast) Food. His simple admonition: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mainly Plants.”
The United States cannot afford food capitalism, given the interaction between health care costs and the Western diet. But as Thomas Piketty has recently shown, capitalism does not accept limits; the rich get richer – and the sick, sicker. Nearly half a century ago, feminists put bodies on the political agenda. There they remain, as we struggle over what to have for dinner.