new trends, old anxieties

fads in health dieting are nothing new, but since i first heard about raw foodism in college, i've noticed how even disparate trends can speak to similar anxieties about food and physical well-being. while i often share the concerns that motivate people to seek out new ways of eating, particularly those that challenge industrialized food, i remain skeptical of any proseltyzing that insists on a narrow eating regimen to promote health. of late, i've noted both the growing interest in fermented foods and the "paleo" diet, which continues the low-carb trend.

part of what i find interesting is how these different dietary practices make similar appeals to a set of related issues, invoking historical or traditional ways of eating over "modern" ones, while insisting on eating habits as the key to health and well-being. frequently, these diets argue that the high incidences of heart disease, cancer, and so forth in industrialized countries are linked to contemporary food practices, and can therefore best be countered by making different alimentary choices. this is the same logic that has fueled health-conscious vegans and vegetarians for decades (and often supported by research -- at least, that eating a lot of vegetables is good for you). food journalist Michael Pollan has added momentum to the local and organic foods movement by advocating a similar position -- "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollan defines "food" as what your ancestors from a few generations back would recognize as such, and appeals to "traditional food cultures" for guidelines on what to eat.

these latest trends in fringe eating, then, rely on history (as we remember it) for a roadmap to food-derived health. like many earlier fads (and some established ones), there may be merit lurking within the questionable rhetoric (raw foodists, for example, speciously claim that cooking destroys necessary enzymes, but their diets succeed in increasing consumption of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, and similarly beneficial fresh, organic foods). the fermented food fad, for instance, capitalizes on the benefits of consuming live yeast cultures which help us digest certain foods (which feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway would call "companion species," organisms that have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with us).

certainly, many different human cultures have been consuming fermented foods for millenia, from Egyptian bread and beer, to sauerkraut, yogurt, and tea. people used to rely on catching wild yeast for their bread to rise (although yeast could be coaxed into inhabiting bakeries and wineries, making it easier to cultivate the right kinds in the right places). myself, i'm generally on board with eating cultured foods, and experimenting with making my own at home (this summer, we turned a head of cabbage into a tasty crock of homemade sauerkraut, and i am seriously curious about making my own sourdough starter). but i remain suspicious of the claims made by some fermented food enthusiasts, for example, that such food can treat autism or singlehandedly fight off infection and disease. there are many factors contributing to the rise of certain ailments in the industrialized world, some of which may be linked to environmental changes, while others may be rooted in different ways of conceptualizing and classifying illness.

the "Paleo" (paleolithic) diet, by contrast, appeals to a different (but related) set of assumptions about eating and health, principally the idea that we can improve our well-being by returning to the foods eaten by hunting and gathering peoples (usually known by anthropologists as foragers). this line of thinking relies on the notion that human bodies evolved to eat certain kinds of foods, presumably those consumed by the earliest hunter-gatherers, and that we should eat similarly to our prehistoric human ancestors to avoid disease and maintain optimum health. there may be some truth to these claims, that our bodies are adapted to process certain kinds of foods, and that we haven't evolved much physically since prehistoric days. however, there are some serious limitations to this approach, which depends on being able to ascertain what, exactly, those early ancestors were eating -- long a subject of debate among biological anthropologists.

the contemporary Paleo diet, however, is premised on a number of assumptions that have already been challenged by anthropologists. first is that modern foraging peoples must live like our early hunting and gathering ancestors. the reality is that no contemporary peoples can be considered "primitive" -- regardless of how they live, all humans today have the same millenia of human history stretching back before them to truly prehistoric times, and their cultures may have changed as much since then as ours (even if they haven't produced similar technologies or "civilization"). the very idea of the "primitive" has been countered by anthropologists as reflecting an evolutionist logic that all humans will ultimately move from more to less civilized, and that Western modernity is the end goal of such cultural evolution.

furthermore, the Paleo diet may say more about how we imagine paleolithic people lived than they actually did. this introduction to the Paleo diet (comparable to others I've seen) suggests that we should eat more lean meat and fish, but avoid grains and dairy. for evidence, the article turns to islanders off the coast of Papua New Guinea (presumably Melanesian peoples like the Trobrianders, famously studied by a father of cultural anthropology, Malinowski), and claims "[t]heir food is the same kind of food that human beings ate during the Paleolithic era, the kind of food our bodies are still made for." ironically, however, most Melanesian islanders are horticulturalists, small-scale farmers who cultivate gardens for their staple foods, including taro and yam, which are then supplemented by fish, vegetables, and occasionally pork. starchy tubers remain the cornerstone of their diet, contrary to the Paleo diet's claims. but moreover, it's quite likely that prehistoric people actually ate wild grains and a lot of wild tubers, and that meat was a rarity, since it's rather difficult to kill an animal with early weapons (especially a large one). finally, there are a few other flaws underpinning this diet. first is that consuming contemporary farmed meat (factory- or pasture-raised) cannot really compare to eating wild game, from differences in animal breed, level of exercise, and and what we feed them. in addition, one of the keys to human evolutionary success has been precisely our adaptability -- our ability to make our environment suit us, and to cultivate it so we can flourish.

whatever may be the benefit (or detriment) of this ecological flourishing, it seems overily hasty to look to (imagined) historical food practices to solve our modern health problems. those problems are rooted in many complex factors, which include the advent of factory farming and commercialized food engineering, but cannot be divorced from how we have transformed and damaged our physical environment, nor can we necessarily distinguish their genesis from conceptual shifts in how we imagine and experience health and illness. food, finally, cannot be reduced to a simple relationship between consumption and promoting health, but must be understood as insperable from a broader set of cultural beliefs and practices that shape our experiences of eating and health.