People look for meaning in life, whether consciously or not. We want life to have a purpose. Therefore, in this postmodern age when everything is relative and the here-and-now is as good as it gets—a devastating thought for people who didn’t get genetically or geographically lucky—many secular ideas inspire religious vigor. We make moral rules about things we imagine we can control.
The most often noted example of this habit is probably environmentalism. Query “environmentalism as religion” for a solid start on the topic. The green movement, however, has nothing on the morality of food. For one, dietary restrictions still exist for many religions. Christianity is an outlier on this point. From Matthew, chapter 15 (ESV, verse notes omitted):
And he called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.’ Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’
He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ And he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.’
Outside of religious rules, however, food is simply easy pop morality, conveniently branded. The grocery store offers aisles of Philippians 4:8: “Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are true…” Just, pure, lovely. These concepts are all brand-name trends, particularly in the drink and snack aisles, where the naughty foods live. (We can buy everything but chastity. Nobody sells chastity.)
And when life buffers us about, when bad things seem either cruel or arbitrary, the idea that we can defend or cure our bodies merely by what we put in our mouth gives added meaning to the idea of comfort food. Enter the holistic eating trends, which are lately taking quite a creditability hit.
The ‘Healthy Food Cures Cancer’ Lie
The latest publishing scandal is about food. It broke in Australia a few weeks ago, and has trickled over here through the holistic food network. A blogger and developer of a popular app and forthcoming book, both called “The Whole Pantry,” claimed she used healthy, organic eating to cure her multiple cancers. Readers ate it up. Belle Gibson’s app was so popular that Apple featured it in its iWatch rollout. Ensure your health, even cure yourself, just by what you put in your mouth! Who doesn’t want to hear that health is so easy?
Feel-good tale in hand, publishers did not start to verify her story until The Sydney Morning Herald reported that she did not donate money raised from charity drives among her large social media followings. First claiming an accounting error, Gibson now admits that she lied about everything. She never even had cancer.
In the Australian Woman Weekly’s teaser story, “My Life Long Struggle with the Truth,” Gibson blames her lying habits on her mother making her do things for herself as a young child. She won’t provide contact details for her mother and, given the nature of the present scandal, we do well to take her assessment with a grain of salt.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Irresponsible Celebrity Foodies
Then we have the celebrities. Gwyneth Paltrow is the figurehead leader of the holistic food movement—this although in 2010 her doctors found she had osteopenia thanks to her extreme diet and health regime, which excluded Vitamin D. But earlier this week, Timothy Caulfield published what might become the book on debunking Paltrow’s and other assorted celebrities’ advice. From Vox:
Timothy Caulfield, author of the new book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, spent the past few years looking at the scientific literature and testing out insane celebrity health and beauty tips to better understand the impact famous folks have on us. Through a hilarious and introspective journey, the University of Alberta professor finds that not only are most celebrities wrong, but they also distract us from things that will actually make us healthy and happy.
I have purchased the book, and not because I needed proof of Paltrow’s faulty science. I’ve been rolling my eyes at her pronouncements for years. I bought the book because I want to see his take on the distractions. It is not just that the celebrity advice wastes our time, money, and energy on some feel-good placebo, but that we do not spend our time, money, and energy on real solutions. The stars, certainly the mega-stars like Paltrow, have the time, money, and staff to patch over their own consequences. Their acolytes aren’t usually so fortunate.
Still, real solutions are hard. Even when confronted with facts, the lure of food as cure still attracts us. This “What I’ve learned” post from a holistic health counselor on the Whole Pantry scandal is typical. Of three lessons, number one states “Question everything” and number three states “Never, ever, ever stray from your truth.” Those lessons are at odds. To reconcile them one would have to explain away every doubt that comes up in questioning, which is what many do when their personal truths get questioned. Distinguish your beliefs, even if the only distinguishing fact is that the beliefs are yours.
In our world that shuns rules and standards, we need easy ways to pretend control. Food is both easy to control—for those with sufficient money and a stable society which allows for endless choice—and visible to everyone else. We can assure ourselves about our goodness and advertise it to society at the same time. How’s that for modern convenience?