Washington - When I was a vegan, there was a joke I heard a lot that nonetheless always made me laugh.
“I'm a Level 5 Vegan,” they'd say. “I don't eat anything that casts a shadow.” It's an all-too-telling poke at a tendency among vegans to suggest their lofty superiority over other mere mortals because whatever your dietary restrictions are, theirs are even more stringent.
I'm not against restricting your diet for moral reasons. Obviously, I think eschewing animal products is a perfectly swell way to live. I fast for Lent and have friends who keep kosher. I'm not against applying moral principles to food. What I'm against is thinking that what you eat makes you a better class of person, and smugly lecturing those who don't follow your lead - a phenomenon that, as writer Phoebe Malz Bovy points out in the New Republic magazine, is hardly restricted to vegans:
“Elite food writers aren't just out of touch with the working and middle classes. They are out of touch with people who aren't elite food writers. ...
“The true villain for the food movement isn't someone who buys fast food when they should be eating lentils. It's someone who, despite having the resources to do so, hasn't researched where his or her food comes from. Grocery shoppers' desire to purchase fruits and vegetables - a seemingly admirable, or at least innocuous, one - is recast as consumer demand for out-of- season produce - the height of decadence.”
As Bovy notes, asking people to “eat local” who live in northern climes where “local” means “nothing green” for six or seven months out of the year, and do not get to spend a few months each winter in Sicily teaching a cooking class, is pretty rich. A food writer who is telling other people how they could eat, if they wanted to, is doing a great public service. A food writer who is telling other people how they should eat (just like me, except without my access to ingredients) is just obnoxious. You can't possibly know how they should eat, unless you have spent some time living their lives.
People who write professionally about food have quite a bit more time for acquiring and cooking food than most people. They also have more resources and recipes at their disposal.
Nor is it just the tyranny of localism; it is the list of ingredients you ought to like, and the list of ingredients you shouldn't, and what is wrong with you troglodytes and your Twinkies? Now, personally, I hated Twinkies. I also despise anything made with canned cream-of-whatever soup, marshmallows and Cool Whip. You know what these are? Personal preferences. They are not signs that I have achieved a higher level of food consciousness. There is no such thing as a higher level of food consciousness. There is stuff you like to eat, and stuff you do not like to eat.
The most maddening example of this is, of course, the case of thin people, or folks who could really stand to lose ten pounds, lecturing the obese on how stupid they are for letting themselves get fat.
Harriet Brown, in her book on obesity, “Body of Truth,” refers to an “obesity paradox” in which some researchers have found that being overweight is associated with some protective health effect. Julia Belloz, reviewing Brown's book in Vox, showcases what I'm talking about:
“Keeping your weight down requires daily consideration. It requires planning and thought to choose foods carefully and make time for exercise. ...
“But I would ask Brown: does being obese require any less mental energy? ... Is it really more mentally freeing to feel tired when you walk up a flight of stairs, to have to buy two seats on an airplane because one won't do, to not be able to play with your children because you're too unfit, to continually worry about whether your clothes are going to fit in the morning ... the list goes on.”
As a friend who struggles with his weight points out, the author seems not to understand that people like him are tired and miserable and overweight, and spending a huge amount of mental energy counting calories and making time for exercise.
This actually underplays the amount of mental energy we're talking about. When you talk to people who have successfully lost really large amounts of weight as adults - amounts that bring them from the really risky “super-obese” category into something more normal - you find two things. First, that most don't keep it off (unless they have bariatric surgery, in which case, 50 percent are successful). Second, that the people maintaining the weight loss without surgery are going to extreme lengths, which most of us would probably find difficult to fit into our lives: weighing every ounce of food they consume, counting calories obsessively, exercising for long periods every day, and constantly battling “intrusive thoughts of food.”
In the words of another struggling friend who got quite testy when I suggested weight loss was easy, “You've hit the pick six in the genetic lottery, and you think you earned it.”
I spent much of my life being skinny. Now I'm middle-aged and still in the normal weight range. But I wish I could fit into the clothes I wore at 25 _ and probably could, if I spent more time eating salad and less time making elaborate meals for my family. I am, in other words, exactly the sort of person who often lectures obese folks on their weight.
But I've never felt anything like the struggles my overweight friends describe, in which getting their weight down to anything approaching doctor-approved levels, and keeping it there, requires an ironclad, monotonous focus on never eating anything they want. Obese people who have lost weight are not like thin people; they are like people whose bodies want to be much heavier, and constantly cry out for food (also known as: “intrusive thoughts”). Hunger is an imperative biological signal on par with pain, and overriding it is a titanic act of willpower. Moralising that difference would be daft.
And so is moralising the food you had the time and resources to put on your table this evening. Of course, we could all do better; our meals could be thriftier, or tastier, or more scrupulously in line with our conscience. These are all goals worth striving for. But we shouldn't chide other people for failing to reach our goals. Especially when we got to start the race miles ahead.
Bloomberg News/Washington Post
* Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.