I wrote a while back about what we know in regards to health and eating. I argued that we really don’t know all that much. Very different diets seem to produce healthy and long-lived people. Yet, here in the west, many different groups strongly advocate diets promising everything from weight-loss to a cure for cancer. Curiously, these diets are sometimes polar opposites. Ketogenic diets prescribe mostly fats with no carbs. Raw fruitarians swear by a diet almost completely made up of fruit. The only similarity here is that the respective practitioners are committed with an almost religious fervor. This level of devotion is increasingly common. Many people who avoid certain foods ascribe a kind of spiritual purity to their eating habits. When taken to the extreme, psychologists call this Orthorexia, an obsession with “right eating.”
Obviously, avoiding junk food, eating healthy foods, and not eating too much are perfectly reasonable practices that everyone ought to follow. And most diets, including the ones I’ve already mentioned, probably have some benefits. The problem occurs when food rules take on a spiritual dimension and are pushed to the extreme. Examples of food purity gone too far are when dieters feel they have “sinned” when they eat something forbidden. Or, conversely, when eaters feel a kind of moral accomplishment when they abstain from that forbidden food. The boundaries of Orthorexia are difficult to define. When is someone obsessed with food and when are they simply committed to healthy eating? This recent article from The Guardian describes a small group of raw fruitarians who have probably gone too far. Their diet demands they eat only uncooked fruits and some uncooked vegetables. Most practitioners describe their diet as a lifestyle. It’s difficult to find any information on this diet that doesn’t also include vague and confusing spiritual components as well. Some fruitarians describe feelings of ritual purity while others have angrily shunned members of the community who cook their food. This is clearly much more than a desire for good health. This is religion. A rather harmful religion at that.
Of course, lots of religions already have food restrictions as a part of their practice. Jews follow kosher rules, Muslims halal. Buddhists and Hindus fast. Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, fast during lent and before Mass, and feast at many different times of the year. We know Jesus observed the various fasts and feasts of Judaism. But he also had harsh words for those who lost sight of the purpose of these things. “The Sabbath was made for the man, not man for the Sabbath.” Paul explained further that it’s what comes out of the body that makes a man clean, not what goes in. Yet both Jesus and Paul still fast and strongly recommend the practice. I think this is probably because food is a pretty fundamental part of life and it hits us right at our core. Food obviously helps us form emotional bonds. Just think of Thanksgiving and how excited our feast-averse culture becomes at this annual tradition. And going out to eat is still a fundamental part of most dates. Not just because “we all gotta eat” but because sitting down at table helps us connect.
So, food and diet “rules” can definitely be a positive thing. Jesus’ main warning about food seems to be for us to remember that food serves us, not the other way around. Fasting doesn’t magically confer spiritual benefits. Eating or not eating a certain thing is not in itself a moral accomplishment. Rather, we fast as a way to discipline our bodies, especially our more base urges. This helps us master ourselves. Fasting can also help us focus on other things, specifically Jesus. Feasting helps us celebrate our God-given gifts, our family, our community, and our hope. Without this focus, eating can become a religion on its own. Without real community and without purpose beyond an ideal “healthy lifestyle,” food becomes its own end. And this – when we become obsessed with food – is gluttony. Whether that’s eating too much, eating too little because of an image obsession, thinking about food too much, etc. But the food itself is just that; food.
But that doesn’t mean that, free of gluttony, ethics has nothing to say about our food choices. Our food has to come from somewhere. While bread itself is morally neutral, stealing it is wrong. So stealing bread and then eating it would be wrong. Because of the stealing. Not because of carbs.
In light of this, there are actually a lot of ways eating has a moral component. Not so much in the calories themselves but in the manner food is produced, purchased, etc. Here are a few ways I think this is true:
How we treat our bodies
I’ve already said that we don’t know quite as much about food as we’d like to believe. But it’s still safe to say that spending all day gorging one’s self on junk food is going to be bad for you. Most people know this. So, ignoring this knowledge would be a kind of self harm. This does not mean that the occasional hot dog and Dr. Pepper is sinful (that’s literally what I had for lunch yesterday). Or that a bowl of spinach is a good deed (that’s literally what I had for breakfast yesterday). It just means we have to take reasonable measures to care for our bodies. In general, I’m skeptical of language that describes any food as a poison on the one hand or, on the other hand, lists some food as “pure” (the #cleaneating hashtag on instagram rubs me the wrong way).
How we treat animals
I’m not a vegetarian. I think there are some good arguments for why you should be. Obviously, they haven’t convinced me so I won’t present them here as I tend to do a poor job of explaining other people’s arguments (some might say I do a poor job of explaining my own ideas but that’s a different subject). But I will say that how we treat animals absolutely matters. Industrial agriculture, the system that keeps our meat prices so incredibly low, treats animals terribly. Tiny living spaces, a lack of open air, no access to pasture, poor diet, cruel treatment, painful slaughter practices, etc. I’m incredibly uncomfortable supporting this system. But it’s hard to find an alternative. I think the best thing to do is find a local farmer you trust and whom you know treats his animals well. Other than that, it’s hard to know what else to do. Sorry to be debbie downer.
How we treat land
Obviously, dirt is not a living thing. Well, actually, soil IS filled with vibrant and necessary microbes that work together to make dirt fertile. Still, you can’t really “abuse” it the way you can an animal. However, our soil is a valuable resource that we must care for. We’re doing an awful job of this at the moment. Pesticides and massive amounts of chemical fertilizers are leaving our soil diseased and dead. Organic practices forbids those additives. But worse than chemicals is erosion. We’re talking about tons and tons of topsoil washed away because of bad farming practices. The best way to counter that? Well, again, I guess it would just be to find a farmer who uses good practices. Shrug.
How we treat farm workers
This should come before everything else I’ve mentioned. But it’s often the last thing people think of. Our system of cheap food is propped up by cheap labor. Primarily immigrants who work for pay well below minimum wage in terrible conditions. Many of these people are also abused, financially, physically, and sexually. Food can be “organic,” GMO-free, gluten-free, raw, and a dozen other adjectives meant to signify purity. And yet, that food could still be harvested by men, women, and children who are practically treated like slaves. There are several charities helping these workers. There are often boycotts that actually do raise wages for them. And, very rarely, a politician or two might take interest in their plight.
There aren’t easy answers here. And there is obviously a lot more that needs to be said on each of these issues. We try to grow some of our own food. But time and space constraints persist. We try to support local farmers who use good practices and are conscientious. But money is tight and the temptation for cheap food persists as well.
All I can really say is that we must be aware of where our food comes from. We ought to think less about food as a religion and more about how our religion demands we treat our fellow creatures; man, animal, and earth.
All the pictures in this post are just from my instagram. Follow me! It’s fun!