There’s nothing left to eat—here’s how to navigate our collective food anxiety

Americans are constantly playing with their food.
Americans are constantly playing with their food.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a child, I was known for going to restaurants and ordering chicken—only chicken. There were so many choices and the mild, firm protein felt safe. Now my old standby has become an arsenic-riddled, bacteria-filled breast of poison. And sadly, it’s not just chicken. Ground beef is full of pink slime and gluten is slowly poisoning our brain.

So what are we supposed to eat for lunch?

The question starts around 10 am every day at our office. Just something tasty. Filling. Gluten free. Paleo compliant. No carbs. Farm raised. Locally sourced.

Amid the pile of requests, someone in our office (not naming any names) inevitably mentions Soylent, the drinkable, nutritional meal equivalent that looks like a sad, beige milkshake. If we drank Soylent, we wouldn’t have to get up from our desks. Or go on a diet. Or be forced to make a choice about food.

It remains to be seen whether this omnifood will indeed bring us into a new phase of eating, but it’s clear that the project has tapped into a moment of cultural, psychological, and health-related crisis over what we eat. Already, the Kickstarter campaign for Soylent, which set out to raise $100,000, has amassed over $1 million. The meal replacement begins shipping in early 2014 in the US.

It can’t come soon enough.

After all, January is diet season. But new research reveals that dieting was down dramatically in 2012—when 20% of people said they were on a diet—compared to 1991, when 31% reported dieting. Yet instead of becoming healthier, we are more sick—in large part because of what we eat. And the media only reinforce our fear of food. We’re faced with more information, more warnings, and less clarity. We’ve abandoned the food pyramid for the well-rounded plate but we’re really careening toward a food hourglass where our only viable options are mere grains of sand. (Preferably, vegetable-based grains.)

Yet the best solution might just be the simplest: practice common sense.

In 1989, Julia Child remarked that the shift toward healthy eating was having a distinct effect on our psyches: “What’s dangerous and discouraging about this era is that people really are afraid of their food. Sitting down to dinner is a trap, not something to enjoy. People should take their food more seriously. Learn what you can eat and enjoy it thoroughly.”

It’s impossible to enjoy a meal that threatens to be a ticking time bomb. For some guidance, I turned to the people who grapple with our food dilemmas for a living. Some might even say they’re responsible for them…

Amid all of the confusion between what constitutes healthy eating—organic or farm-raised, vegan or flexitarian—Michael Pollan set out some common sense rules in his 2009 Food Rules: An Eater’s ManualA condensation of some of Pollan’s more pertinent guidance:

  1. “Eat food.” With the follow-up explainer: “Don’t eat anything your grandma wouldn’t recognize as food.” This makes the distinction between food, say an apple or shrimp, and food product, processed items that typically contain more than five ingredients.
  2. “Eat mostly plants. Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.” And: “eat animals that have themselves eaten well,” which usually requires avoiding the grocery store.
  3. “Pay more, eat less.”

I asked Pollan what the single most harmful thing to be eating today is and he responded: “It’s probably no particular thing, but too much in general. One of the reasons we love to talk about specific nutrients, good or bad, is that it’s a way to avoid talking about the total number of calories we’re eating.”

In addition to the health problems inherent with the Western diet, Pollan is following these potential connections between food and health: “I’m watching the work linking high red meat consumption to cancer; omega 3s and 6s; the role of the gut microbiota in health, and the role of food in shaping the microbiota—all fascinating, and suggestive, but nothing definitive yet.”

It’s this lack of assurance about the ills of our diet that keeps fads profitable and our anxiety at a constant high. Americans have been dealing with this quandary for decades now, ever since processed food supplanted cooking. In a 1998 issue of Psychology Today, Paul Roberts explores “The New Food Anxiety.” He writes:

Today, in the superabundance that characterizes more and more of the industrialized world, the situation is almost entirely reversed: food is less a social matter, and more about the individual—especially in America. Food is available here in all places at all times, and at such low relative cost that even the poorest of us can usually afford to eat too much—and worry about it.

More than 15 years later it feels as if the age of food hysteria has only escalated, from fear of genetically-modified crops to food allergies to the pending food crisis. Harvey Levenstein is a food historian and author of Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat. He says the US has been in a panic over food since the 1960s when it became a matter of health rather than pleasure or pure sustenance. In a review of the book, Washington Posts’s Bonnie S. Benwick writes that we move through “established patterns of worry and dismay, deprivation and overkill.” Levenstein criticizes journalists, scientists, and advocates, all of whom fuel the food fads we cycle through.

The phrase “omnivore’s dilemma,” referring to the conundrum we face when deciding what to eat, was coined by Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In a 1999 study (pdf) on the role of food in the US, Japan, Belgium, and France, Rozin found that Americans characterize eating by health, rather than pleasure or culinary expression, more than the other groups. But there’s a large subset of Americans unwilling (or unable) to make eating entirely about health. Life expectancy in the US for 2011 was below the OECD average (pdf). The Western diet has been linked to poor nutrition and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and premature death. Now, there’s much consensus that eating animals is a big part of the problem.

Or as Neal Barnard argues, the entirety of the problem.

Barnard is a clinical researcher, author, and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group of doctors that promotes a vegan diet. I asked him why my doctor doesn’t tell me to stop eating meat to which he replied jokingly, “I suppose you could sue them if you wanted to.”

He went on to say, “It’s true, I think, that the medical profession should be much more vigorous in promoting it [eliminating meat] for blood pressure or heart disease or diabetes instead of automatically reaching for prescription pad …These aren’t caused by drug deficiencies, they’re caused by diet.”

Barnard advocates eliminating all animal products, including dairy, rather than taking a piecemeal approach. But if you had to pick just one thing? “I’d get rid of chicken; it’s one of the most deceptive foods. People imagine if they’re eating chicken instead of steak they’re doing themselves a favor,” but they’re not, says Barnard. Heterocyclic amines, or carcinogens formed when any meat is cooked, are highest in chicken and may increase our risk of cancer.

My poor 10-year-old self. The pillar of my former safety food destroyed.

Many people who “go vegetarian” for health, instead of moral, reasons never fully stop eating meat in the first place. I can attest: I have substantially cut down my overall consumption of meat and stop eating it for days or weeks at a time. What’s difficult is letting go of the things that tie me to my cultural traditions, history, and experience of the world. Daily rituals, like eating—healthy or not—are part of our identity. I can understand why it took Americans decades to collectively rebuke smoking.

What now?

An August study from the journal of Public Health Nutrition found that when people follow the principles of intuitive eating—eat when you’re hungry, stop eating when you’re full, eat what you want—they have lower BMIs and improved psychological health. The modern incarnation of the practice emerged in the ’70s as a response to the diet craze and eating disorders. While intuitive eating sounds like one of the fad diets it sets out to reject, it signals a more primitive form of relating to food, that the body itself, not marketing schemes nor pop science, is the only indicator you should trust.