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About Food and Culture

8 min read

This post is largely influenced by Michael Pollan's books "The Omnivore's Dilemma", "In Defense of Food", and "Caffeine". An attempt to capture in prose the cultural aspects of our relationship to food, and why nutrition science is still in its infancy.

Genetic diet

It's weird that something as natural as eating differs so strongly from person to person. People sleep on the same kind of beds and wear the same kind of clothes in most of the world, but out of all the basic needs, eating is the most diversely satisfied. Why do we eat what we eat? What should we eat? Are we fine eating whatever we feel like eating? Or following whatever habits we got from our parents, assuming we don't replace them with a microwave by the time we go to college?

Aren't we animals? And omnivores at that! If we are in touch with our bodies, culture, and environment, shouldn't our bodies effortlessly discern the quantity, quality and variety of the food we need? Wouldn't we just "know" what to eat? This turns out to be an utopic and unrealistic state of mind, however, because our environments are being distorted by "food" that was never supposed to be eaten, in quantities that were never supposed to exist, in ever-lasting availability that superseeds the cycles of nature. Our culture was distorted, by industrialization and globalization, by immigration and emmigration, by climate change. In turn, the cultural and environmental distortion creates the corruption that leads our bodies astray. The culmination of this is what we call a grocery store. Without these distortions, humans likely function perfectly fine. Different cultures do fine on their local diets, and there's this cool and cough definitely representative study where Australian aboriginies return to nature and are suddenly cured of metabolic syndrome. Note that this argumentation applies to sleep too, among other other things.

The modern human

In reality, humans living in modern, culturally ambiguous societies suck at knowing what food is good for them. Culture has always trumped human reasoning when it comes to food. We give credit to populations that are healthier and try to use them as examples without realizing the cultural barries. Like "look at the Japanese!". They live the longest, have essentially no obesity, and they don't even exercise much. This is mostly owing to their traditional diet of fish, rice, and a large variety of unseasoned fresh vegetables. But they don't deserve any credit for this. We make it sound like they optimized their diets for health and pleasure, like it was a conscious effort, when it was actually just a natural development. Consider that Japan also has some of the highest rates of intestinal cancer, mostly due to an abbundance of charred foods, which they will never stray from despite numerous health organizations noting cancer risks. It's not that they make good decision, it's that they ended up with a favorable food culture largely by accident. That said, they also have the most advanced treatment methods for intestinal cancer, so hey, what's the harm right? We like to indulge in vices and then find excuses for them in the forms of available treatment or by pointing to that one study mentioned (but not cited) in that magazine article that your friend vaguely remembers reading. Like that one study everyone "knows", but doesn't remember from where, about where a glass of wine a week is supposedly good for you (maybe this one?), which was long since put into question but keeps getting turned over in articles because it supports everyone's culturally ingrained habits of intentionally intoxicating themselves. The summary of the current state of science seems to be that no amount of alcohol is healthy. Please do keep me posted if this turns out to be overturned again in the future.

Alas, it's not just modern humans that suck at food, even the collective human effort that is nutritional science sucks at food. As adequately chewed and re-chewed by In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, we have "successfuly" identified the substances the human body needs to survive, categorized them into macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients, though there are hundreds of other compounds beneficial for the body that are not included in those. Still, it turns out that downing a cocktail of the right proportion of micro and macro-nutrients will not automatically lead to a healthy diet, nor a happy, nor a cheap diet. Perhaps at least a low-effort diet. So what can we do?

Nutrition science

The hard part about analyzing food is, as with much of science, multidimensionality and the in-feasibility to isolate variables. What to eat, in which quantities, at what times of the day (or year)? What do eat in combination, or isolation? Apparently ingesting olive oil with tomatoes makes the lycopene in the latter more readily absorbed by your body. What if I exercise more or less? Does the weather affect nutrient absorption? How does my genetic heritage play into this? What if the salad one study tests has a different nutrient content than the salad of the same species that is cultivated in my local region? What if the salad just happens to have very nutritious insects on or in it that just happen to only populate my local one? What if something makes me feel sick but is actually healthy? What if the health effects are only noticeable after forty years? What if I eat something and feel sick but it's actually because of a recent change in my social environment with long-term impact that is inseparable from a coincidental diet change? Aside from this, it's literally impossible to do significant long-term studies on any large group of people. Most studies are observatory, demographic, following people that already do things rather than creating and observing real dietary change. Studies in controlled environments are rare, and those that exist are over very short periods of time, because it's hard to dictate an exact life schedule to a large amount of people.

As such, humans don't actually plan their diets, which would be fine if their environments weren't planned by someone else. A natural, unplanned diet in sync with cultural norms and a stable environment is what allowed us to get to where we are in the first place, but introducing any kind of large-scale human-led change will invariable destroy your inherent ability to make good choices instinctively, resulting in decisions driven by culture and availability, which can mislead. Perhaps, if society engineered a way to get you lost in the maze of dietary choices, you'll need to engineer yourself your own compass to find your way out of it again.

Let's assume, for a second, that we can figure out a diet that's optimal for us personally, and let's put on our engineering hats and figure out the constraints. Here's what I'm pretty sure about: You need to eat, at least a little. Not too much either. Best case, a variable amount that keeps you at your preferred or natural body weight. What you eat will affect your hunger, so we need to control for that. We also need to control for sleep, because it affects hunger and dietary choices. Nutrition science sucks, but thanks to it we know that there's substances that our body can't do without, so we should plan to get at least a little of everything in our system. We have examples of foods that generally works, dependent on culture. Let's make sure to consider that so we don't miss nutritional qualities that aren't yet adequately tracked by nutrition science. On that note, we should avoid substances that are known to cause issues, think toxins. Food also affects your mood. We'll also need to keep track of how our own body specifically reacts to our food intake, think digestion problems. Let's add taste preferences to that, and time preferences, and social preferences, and budgeting, and availability, and proximity to sources.

Can you imagine waking up in the morning and then having to make a breakfast choice while considering all of these variables (and more)? I sure can't. On the bright side, humans mostly function on any kind of food. As we can see, at least a few billion people seem to be doing totally fine without thinking too much about food, and instead choose to spend their time and energy on more important problems. What we want is good heuristics. How do you get most of the benefits from a perfect diet, without actually spending all that effort?