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Food Phobic Nation—A Brief History

by Jon Robison, PhD

“Good nutrition is getting a bad name — one that smacks of rigidity, guilt-making and extremism… Worse still, some eight out of ten (Americans) think foods are inherently good or bad… every single bite they take represents an all-or-nothing choice either for or against good health.”

Unfortunately, this two-decade-old pronouncement from the Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter still rings true today. Americans live in a constant state of anxiety and confusion when it comes to food. We have been warned of the need for constant vigilance to protect ourselves from the dangers lurking in a wide variety of foods. As a famous diet doctor cautioned:

“You must treat food as if it were a drug. You must eat food in a controlled fashion and in the proper proportions – as if it were an intravenous drip.”

For many, if not most adults, a longing glance at a desired food is sure to elicit the following inner dialogue:

“I wonder how many calories, fat grams, carbohydrates, etc. are in that food…I don’t know if I should eat it…Will it give me heart disease, diabetes, cancer?…Will it make me fat?”

If the desire to eat ends up winning out over the fear, which it usually does, the anxiety, now intensified by the guilt of not having resisted, returns:

“I’ve really blown it now…how many miles am I going to have to walk, run, bike, etc. to get rid of those calories…”

And in response to the possible eventuality of acquiring some affliction in the future:

“Now I’ve gone and given myself a heart attack, stroke or cancer. That never would have happened if I hadn’t eaten this or that food.”

Over the years the ongoing barrage of proclamations from the government and health organizations about the “badness” (unhealthiness) of various foods has managed to wrench from many of us the natural pleasures of eating while turning food selection into an intellectual activity, replete with mathematical calculations, “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and dire warnings of dreaded consequences.

It started in the 1970s and 80s with the fear of fat – lipo-phobia. According to the experts, all fat was bad and we should eat as little of it as possible. But wait! Scientists soon discovered that only saturated fat was bad for the heart, while other fats were not. Then they discovered that only some saturated fats were bad while others were not. Then they said that polyunsaturated fats were good. Then they told us that, although polyunsaturated fat helped with the bad cholesterol it also lowered the good cholesterol, so what we really should be eating was monounsaturated fat.  Then research suggested that a low fat diet might actually be unhealthful for a significant portion of the population.

Confusing as all this was, most experts agreed about what should make up the bulk of our diet!  – Lots and lots of carbohydrates! Hold the burger, eat the pasta! Then came Gary Taube’s fateful 1991 New York Times editorial entitled: What if it has all been a Big Fat Lie?  Seemingly overnight we traded in our nearly quarter-century-long lipo-phobia for a new fear – the fear of carbohydrates – carbo-phobia – Hold the pasta, eat the burger (without the bun of course!).

To make matters worse, special interest groups have promulgated a host of other food phobias that continue to haunt people as they try to decipher what might be left that is still safe to eat. With little or at best contradictory scientific evidence for the claims, we have been told that meat is bad for the kidneys, that milk should not be consumed past childhood, that the cholesterol in eggs causes heart attacks, that sugar makes children hyperactive, that High Fructose Corn Syrup is a major cause of “the obesity epidemic” and so on.

Is it any wonder that in a 2001 survey in the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, 43% of those polled said they were tired of hearing about what foods they should or should not eat and 70% said that the government should get out of the business of telling people what to eat? Perhaps not surprisingly, the media headlines recently heralded a study in the Journal of Nutrition that concluded “Nearly everyone fails to meet Dietary Guidelines.”

We are in desperate need of a serious serving of common sense when it comes to eating. With the possible exception of the recent “pink slime” (ammonia treated by-products in ground beef) nightmare, viewing foods as weapons of mass destruction is scientifically unsound and psychologically destabilizing. In fact, our burgeoning fear of foods has actually spawned a new eating disorder – orthorexia nervosa – the obsession with eating only “healthy” food.

With all of the admonitions to avoid this food, eat less of that food, and be sure not to get more than this percentage of calories from this food, maybe it is time to get back to basics. Wasn’t it grandma who said many years ago – drink your milk, eat your fruits and vegetables and go out and play? Maybe we need to reevaluate our alimentary recommendations. In this regard, perhaps we could follow the lead of our mother country across the sea, whose enlightened number one dietary guideline is – Enjoy Your Food!

Sadly, the committee responsible for the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans came one vote short of including “Enjoy a Variety of Foods” in their recommendations for fear that such wording “would unleash unlimited license” for people to eat “whatever.” The rest, as they say, is history.

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