Eating is about more than food

Eat bread and salt, and speak the truth. – Russian Proverb

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, Skin in the Game and Antifragile makes the observation that time is the ultimate definer of everything. Decades, centuries, even millennia will tell us, without fail, he asserts, what works and what doesn’t. His core premise is that any decision, policy or personal choice only bears out its total cost over time.

It’s an interesting premise. We are besieged by possibilities constantly in every arena of life – from the food we eat, to our vocations to our everyday life choices.

Using time as your template simplifies everything. Taleb, for example, only drinks things with a history of at least one thousand years – water, wine and beer for example. No luminously colored energy drinks for him.  Or even soft drinks or fruit juices. His point is that not enough evidence has been accumulated to convince any of us that such things are either “safe” or contribute to human health and well being.

I generally avoid energy drinks, but we know of one young man who drank three of them and went into pre-diabetic shock and almost died.

You could say that someone like Taleb plays it safe, but he would say that he saves his strength for things that really matter. Depleting one’s strength by a lifetime of soft drinks or smoking (or even worse, vaping) is the ultimate waste. Any given food or drink should pass the test of time.

Even animals have food rules they should live by.Photo: Morf Morford

Even animals have food rules they should live by. Photo: Morf Morford

The US has vastly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease than any other country. Some societies, like virtually all of traditional Asia, have rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease that barely register.

To assert that what we eat should be good for us – should contribute to our physical and mental health – used to be a standard premise in any society but has, for us, become the domain of food fanatics and obsessives.

We think about food, and write about it, more than any culture. Consider how many food or cooking TV shows, books or magazine articles we cross on any given day. Taleb gives us one simple, time-based filter.

Michael Pollan has a complementary, though slightly different approach to food. In fact, Pollan has seven rules of eating; (1*)

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, “What are those things doing there?”

2. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.

3. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.

4. Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot. “There are exceptions — honey — but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food.”

5. It is not just what you eat but how you eat. “Always leave the table a little hungry.” “Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, ‘Tie off the sack before it’s full.’”

6. Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It’s a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. “Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?” 

7. Don’t buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.

If you have lived in, or even visited a traditional culture, one of the most striking things that will strike you immediately is how people eat.

French food is famous for its richness – and its ever present sauces – yet French people, for the most part, are renowned for their ability to stay trim.

When I lived in China for about a year, I was stunned by how thin everyone was – and how well they ate – food was abundant and cheap – but they only ate meals – no snacks. And any given meal, (not each item on the menu, but each meal) had five or six ingredients – usually some combination of rice, vegetables and fish.

Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease were rare or nonexistent. The vast majority walked or rode bikes everywhere. You won’t gain much weight on that diet. But you will if you eat like the typical American. You may have noticed that most of us eat anywhere and any time.

On I-5 recently I saw a woman who, while driving, was eating something with a spoon. She would look down, then reach with her right hand and bring up a spoon to eat.

I once saw a woman driving a mini-van full of kids, a phone in one hand and a half-eaten banana in the other.

I’m sure you’ve seen similar actions.

You have to wonder how we got so far from doing something meant to be enjoyable and good for us to the point where we endanger ourselves (or even those around us) and certainly take little joy either in the taste or in the social experience of eating.

Few things represent a culture more than its rituals wrapped around eating.

And few things embody American isolation and sterility more than our eating habits.

How, when and what we eat, as with every culture, defines us.

Eating together is the ultimate bonding experience. Photo: Morf Morford

Eating together is the ultimate bonding experience. Photo: Morf Morford

How many people do you know with food “issues”?

It might be gluten, lactose, high-carb, low-carb or no carb, keto, Paleo or vegan, it seems that everyone I know has some kind of food sensitivity or allergy.

Some (about 10%) are valid – or even life-threatening – most are some combination of personal preference or philosophy or even just a climbing aboard of the bandwagon of food issues. (More here)

So what does what we eat have to do with “truth”?

When it comes to physical survival, nothing is more important than food. When it comes to social survival, nothing is more important than truth.

If we are willing to (literally) swallow “food substances” and fruit “drink” (as opposed to “juice”) we are probably more willing to “swallow” any political theory or policy, no matter how absurd or even abhorrent.

It turns out that food, like truth is not that complicated – the more basic and elemental, the better. If there are too many words, or the words are bigger than they need to be, exercise more caution and tread carefully.

Keep it simple, believe your body, and trust those that came before you. Grandmother is probably right….


(1*)    You can see more on Pollan here –