The Sacramento Bee’s recent editorial page included Robert N. Austin’s humorous piece “The wife says I have to eat healthy but I’m dying for a cheeseburger.” It appeared with an illustration of a dueling steak and tofu brick whose weapons were a knife and fork. Lots of such dietary “humor” appears in popular media, without much said to the contrary.
And I’m not unsympathetic. For decades, I thoroughly enjoyed unhealthy eating. For a while, I lived in New Orleans, the epicenter of unhealthy eating, where one famous chef was so obese he needed a scooter to navigate his kitchen.
Nevertheless, I object. I was miserable before I cut out meat and milk a few decades ago. I suffered from premature arthritis, and frequent illnesses. When I tried not eating meat and milk for a while though, the results were so dramatic that I’ve never gone back. My joint pain cleared up within two weeks. I had more energy, and became sick far less often. I’m not a purist about this—I’ll have some Thanksgiving turkey, for example—but eating healthy food yielded huge benefits and meant surprisingly little sacrifice.
Complaints about healthy eating are the stuff of popular humor in virtually every medium–and I dreaded changing my diet because of such “comic” portrayals of health nuts. Among the popular memes Austin repeats: Healthy eating is tasteless, bland, and requires a humorless ascetic temperament. Healthy eaters are common scolds, descending on poor meat-and-potato eaters “screeching ‘Heresy!’” like some humorless fanatics, etc.
But these caricatures lead to some distinctly un-funny results. American’s health is so bad that even pre-teens are at risk for type II diabetes in increasing numbers. Cancer, heart disease and obesity stalk the land. America spends twice what other developed nations do on health care because of its awful diet, among other reasons. Gluttony may have been one of the seven deadly sins, but it’s now got the official sanction of All-You-Can-Eat buffets and the Food Channel.
Worst of all, the comic caricature ignores human adaptability. Start drinking nonfat milk, or even better, rice milk, and at first it is “tasteless white water” as Austin says, but after two weeks, the unfamiliar taste becomes perfectly palatable on your cereal. Human taste buds can change – so much that drinking whole milk after this adjustment leads to comments like: “Hey! What is this, heavy cream?”
Far from the bland, tasteless food carnivores dread, vegetarians eat a completely satisfying diet. Every ethnic cuisine has vegetarian options, too. And remember: If you have good salsa you can cheerfully eat tree bark.
The worst of it is that “comic” writing like Austin’s encourages the public perception behind policies subsidizing our awful eating. Subsidies are the reason that a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than a calorie of carrots. Subsidies are why fast food places can offer dietary dreck so cheaply. Food writer Michael Pollan reports 40% of agricultural income is subsidy, quoting one farmer who says “It’s like laundering money for [agribusinesses] Cargill and ADM.”
Someone really interested in scolding meat eaters could remind them of the environmental destruction wreaked by destroying rainforest to make pasture for livestock, or for their feed. One UN study even concluded that livestock contributes as much toward global warming as human transportation.
Anyway, consider this an invitation to brother Austin, and others, to your local vegetarian society’s potluck. Spend a few weeks acclimating your taste buds to healthy eating. It’s really no sacrifice, and what you and Austin are laughing at right now…it’s just not that funny.
Mark Dempsey is a member of the Sacramento Vegetarian Society, a group that has monthly potlucks and many other events of interest to the veggie-curious. You can join the likes of ex-president Bill Clinton, casino magnate Steve Winn, mixed-martial arts champion Mac Danzig, Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Carl Lewis, 70-year-old triathlon champion Ruth Heidrich (who was diagnosed with fatal cancer 40 years ago). The recent documentary Forks over Knives covers this topic and is now available on Netflix.