Food politics as religion

I have never understood the food-as-hobby thing. Of course, I’ve never understood the car-as-hobby thing, either. Some things are just used by most of us, while others of us delve into the inner workings, the bits and pieces, and know the subject from the inside out.

I have a friend who delves into food, and with it, food policy. I have left my comments on her blog since food policy (rather than actual cooking) fascinates me, too. A comment in her blog post about avoiding animal fats almost had me using up her comment space. My goodness, arguing about food! Not what it tastes like or whose going to cook it, but what it actually is.

I realized that my opinions about food were in part colored by what I had read and heard about it. Part of what I had read was that animal fats are not the reason for human obesity. Or heart disease.

And that’s when it hit me: Food policy is like a religion. People argue about what the tenets are, whose canon to follow, and which prophet to listen to. Various diets are like different denominations. We all know we must eat, but what to eat echoes the discussion that we all must worship God but how and which God? Does it serve God to deny yourself all things good (piety)? Does it serve your body to deny it all things fattening, sweet or highly caloric? Do the ones with the bloody Jesus have it right or do the ones who don’t have Jesus at all know better? Are only vegetable fats good for you? Or should we all be eating butter?

Recent findings in the world of food research suggest the following (in no particular order):

  1. It is becoming clear that being fat does not necessarily mean being well-fed. All good diets have a lot of vegetables and focus on food made from scratch with natural ingredients; the foods are not refined. If you want control over your weight and/or health, learn to cook at home.

  2. For any size human, overweight or not, avoid edibles that come in boxes or have long lists of ingredients on them; this includes soy products. They are edible, yes, but not they are not food. (See point 1.)
  3. Approach soy with caution (for the time being; studies are still arguing about it). If you’re going to eat soy products, eat them in their most whole and natural state; get the organically grown kind. Soy additives to food that do not normally have soy in them (like bread and cookies) should be avoided (same goes for soy-fed animals and meat substitutes). Soy was originally planted to replenish spent soils about every 7 years, not as a regular food crop. In Asia, it is eaten only in a fermented form. If you want vegetarian protein, there is less controversy over regular beans. And whole grains have protein.

    Cite: (this page offers links to both sides of the story)
  4. High cholesterol does not cause anything. Recent studies have shown that many heart attack victims had low cholesterol at the time of their attack. Elevated cholesterol may be a sign of infection, damage to the blood vessels or a thyroid condition. Cholesterol is the canary in the mine shaft; its changes are a warning, not a cause. Note: Your doctor may not know this.

  5. Fruit is tricky. Whole fruit has health benefits because it contains vitamins and fiber, but the sugar in fruits make them high caloric. (Fruit juices are no better for you, your waistline or your teeth than a soft drink; stick with actual fruit.) The way to control calories is to make sure vegetables are the bigger part of your five-a-day. Vegetables are actually just as or more nutritious than fruit.
  6. Onwards to the sweetener that is in “everything”: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Avoid it. Avoid it and table sugar. The body does not know what to do with fructose; it is the only sugar that doesn’t get processed in the gut (i.e. converted to glucose which tells the brain and the pancreas that you have eaten). So the fructose gets “filed away” by the liver into fat cells, preferably the ones closest to the digestive system: Your waistline. If you want to shrink your middle, start by shrinking the HFCS in your life.

    I got all that from this 90 minute video on obesity stats and human metabolism (I enjoyed the biology lesson): Sugar: The Bitter Truth – a lecture on digestion with Dr. Robert H. Lustig, MD – well worth the time. Or read about his talk here.
  7. Animal fat never hurt nobody. See my point above about cholesterol (point 4). That’s the only reason we’re being told to avoid animal fats, because it is believed animal fats raise cholesterol (and they may or may not do this) and increased cholesterol leads to heart attacks (er,no; see point 4). If you’re wondering about trans-fat, that belongs in the category about avoiding anything man-made or factory-made. (See point 2.)
  8. Eat bread. Unless you really need to strictly low-carb, starches are still a healthy part of any diet. Any whole meal bread is actually a great source of soluble fiber (the kind of fiber that people with irritable bowel syndrome can handle) and vitamin B and energy. A well-made sandwich is nutritious and filling and you don’t have to know how to cook to make one. Norwegians have traditionally eaten bread at three of their four daily meals (the fourth is a hot meal), and have one of Europe’s longest life spans. You can stick with rye breads if you need to low-carb.

    The best is to learn to bake your own, but if you’re like me and your attempts label you a bricklayer, then read labels on the store bread carefully. Basic bread is made of flour, yeast, some oil or butter, water and maybe salt to taste. Common and acceptable “additives” are seeds and sugar/malt/syrup (not HFCS!). There is no reason to add anything else to whole meal bread.
This page will guide you:

The above, of course, is what I have found makes sense. You may or may not agree. I am happy with my current choice of prophets in this matter and bought butter the last time I shopped. Just cream and salt. A pure, natural food. It makes more sense to me than margarine.

By Keera Ann Fox

I am a bi-lingual American who has lived most of my life in Norway.
Jeg er en tospråklig amerikaner som har bodd mesteparten av mitt liv i Norge.

13 replies on “Food politics as religion”

I'm so far behind. I put a star on this post, and I can't believe I'm only now getting to responding. I'm also surprised that there hasn't been discussion. It's a provocative list.Anyway, I think we're generally in agreement. I would only quibble with your comment about animal fats. Cholesterol/saturated fat is not the only reason to choose vegetable fats over animal fats. There is also the issues of getting enough of the essential fatty acids (which can't all be conjured up by our bodies, so we have to get some in our food). Vegetable fats (and those from marine sources) provide essential fatty acids, while animal fats do not.Further, I don't think the debate is over with regard to the issue of saturated fats. The jury is still out. And while it's possible that they're not the dreaded monsters that the AHA makes them out to be, why take chances? I haven't eliminated animal fats from my diet, but when there's a choice (say, between butter and olive oil, or between beef and beans) why not opt for the less saturated fat?That's why I like Michael Pollan's advice: \”Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.\” It's brilliant. Just be moderate.


You may be the only food policy interested friend I have. 🙂 The necessary fatty acids and amino acids are in animals fats, too. The problem with vegetable oils is that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is wrong (too much 6), so we shouldn't overeat those. Also, most oils in the western diet are made in factories, i.e. are not a whole food. That's a problem, too, if the idea is to get food as pure and nutritious as possible.The scariest part about current food policy is that doctors and nutritionists are completely side-tracked by an assumption about cholesterol and about fat and calories. In spite of foods becoming more and more low-fat or having animal fat replaced with vegetable fat in order to combat cholesterol, the west is growing increasingly fat. The current paradigm isn't working.I know your examples re choice are just that, but I don't think olive oil is an option to butter. 🙂 Both belong in the diet. Olive oil (cold-pressed virgin, natch) is for low-heat cooking and salad dressing while butter is for my bread. Butter is healthier than margarine simply because it is a natural food (cream and salt, that's it). I use coconut oil for high-heat cooking.


Until the debate on animal fats is decided with some sense of authority (I ran across this recently), I will continue to consume them sparingly. I don't think I'm missing out.I don't use butter because I don't put it on bread (I like whole grain breads that have plenty of flavor on their own) and don't do any high heat cooking. I don't have anything against it, though — in fact I love the taste and would always opt for real butter over margarine or any of the other substitutes. My friend Connie makes her own butter and I'm thinking about giving it a try this summer, just to have a bit of a treat once in a while (perhaps on some homemade scones? yum!).I wish I had more time to follow up on this stuff, as I am very much enjoying this discussion (despite my erratic attention). I'm really looking forward to the (hopefully!) lazy days of summer this year…


As the joke goes, eat carrots while they're still good for you! I read that butter helps mitigate the glucose effect of the bread. The recipes of our ancestors weren't based just on what was available to them but also on a knowledge of what foods seem to work best in combination.We'll see what reports come out ahead regarding foods, diets and whathaveyou.


I was reading the Healthy Skeptic I sent you a link to yesterday, and it turns out that butter (or fat in general) helps us get more nutrients out of vegetables. So I'm going to start putting butter on more than just my corn-on-the-cob.I have never heard of cultured butter. From the description, it sounds like something I'm better off not trying so I won't lose my liking for regular butter (which, in Norway, is quite tasty). 🙂


I'm fixing corn on the cob today — we don't have any butter, but we will be eating it with some (locally raised) sausages, so I won't worry about there being some fat for the nutrients to bind to.That's the thing — hardly anyone eats foods in a vacuum. I don't have to put fat on my veggies, since they're usually served as part of a meal, and that meal usually contains some kind of fat. If not, just a bit of olive oil on the salad, a slice of avocado on the side, or an appetizer of a really interesting cheese or some nuts will do the trick. I don't feel any need to add gratuitous animal fats to the menu.


It may be easy to think of a pat of butter as gratuitous, but in this day and age, where so many Americans (and others in the west) have been asked to cut out fats, there is mounting evidence that we may have cut out too much. So even a complete meal in this day and age may not be so complete, after all.I am fascinated by what I'm reading about fats (among other things), and one thing I've learned is that we're conflating \”animal fat\” with \”saturated fat\”. All fats are a combination of saturated and unsaturated, but are labeled according to which one they have the most of. Meat is mostly saturated fat, but poultry is 30% saturated fat, 70% unsaturated. Olive oil contains saturated fat (14%). You get the picture. The discussion about food needs to be more nuanced rather than lumping whole categories into \”healthy\” and \”non-healthy\”. As you've pointed out earlier, everything in moderation.


I've see the American diet up close every day, and these people do NOT need to be encouraged to eat butter. They get plenty of fat. The problem faced by the ones who are cutting back is that they're eating too much overly processed food — and by that I mean things like Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers, which may be low in calories and/or fat, but are also very high in sodium, preservatives, binders, fillers and other unpronounceable additives. Those people _would_ be better off eating real veggies with real butter on them, but they'd be even more better off if they'd just eat some real veggies along side some fish and a whole grain.Yes, I absolutely agree that this is not a matter of right/wrong or black/white. G-Dog and I were discussing just that factor last night in the context of organic vs. non-organic veggies — sometimes just making the incremental steps are all that really matter. Progress is progress, whether it's made in leaps or hops.But to give people the idea that they should use MORE butter than they already do, especially when there is already plenty of fat in a meal (and at that point, it does become gratuitous), is a dangerous suggestion, because many (most?) people don't pay attention to the fine print. Sure, a little bit of butter is fine. I'm not a fan, but I see no real harm in it. But that's just a little bit — not on everything at every meal, which I do see here (in my own home, in fact, when my MIL is visiting… don't even get me started on the horror story that is her diet!).Also, I'm not anti-animal fat. As far as I'm concerned, cheese should be its own food group and I don't think there is such a thing as too much fish (well, unless it's high in PCBs and methyl-mercury. sigh. And now we have to avoid pretty much anything coming out the Gulf of Mexico. double sigh). But as you point out, there are better fats and not-quite-as-good fats and more often that not, the animal fats are in the latter category and the plant fats are in the former. Some people need this stuff shorthanded for them, and for those people, it's just easier to suggest that they avoid animal fats and let them worry about the details later. If they give up one burger a week, well, then that's progress. If they give up one burger a week, but replace it with a croissant slathered in butter, well, maybe that's not.


Well, another thing I've been learning from what I've been reading, is that all this industrial-made vegetable oil isn't good for us, in spite of what the USDA says. We'd be better off with butter.It seems to me that the problem with the modern diet for some is that they may be eating more low-fat or low-cal, but they are also simply eating more. Reminds me of the change in Norwegian drinking habits: The new (to us) continental style of drinking wine with your meal, also on weekdays, hasn't replaced the old habit of binge-drinking on the weekends; it has been added to it. Alcohol consumption has never been higher here.I think a lot of people would be better off going back to their meat and potatoes and gravy. At least it's natural.


[Maybe I'm going on too much about this, as I'm being forced to split my response into two parts! ] :-/Well, another thing I've been learning from what I've been reading, is that all this industrial-made vegetable oil isn't good for us, in spite of what the USDA says. We'd be better off with butter.I don't think you're necessarily better off with butter. Anything produced industrially is suspect as far as I'm concerned — olive oil and butter. Was the cow that butter came from fed hormones, antibiotics and other unnatural stuff? Unless it was raised on a small, local farm, it likely was. And I would guess that oils and butters and any other fats are especially susceptible to whatever awful things might sneak into our foods because so many things like to bind to fat. Plus, we digest the fats pretty thoroughly (as opposed to the fibers and things that can pass right through us).Maybe I'll change my mind about butter when I have a chance to make my own, from milk from a local dairy. In the meantime, I don't think you'll be able to convince me that butter is a good thing. Or even a relatively good thing. Which is fine. Your mileage obviously varies, different strokes for different strokes and so on.But maybe this is where I depart from the food politics as religion idea — for me this particular issue is not faith-based or theoretical, because here is a place where I have personal results. It's not scientific, but the fact is, at the end of 2008, I weighed close to 165 lbs (75 kg), I was exercising every day, and trying to eat good food, but I wasn't feeling particularly energetic and was having continuing problems with anxiety. And I was fat. I'd spent the last decade struggling with the weight that women tend to put on when they hit their 40s (especially, if like me, they had quit smoking!). I had tried the low-carb/fats-are ok-thing and got no results. And like I said, I was already exercising every day.


But in 2009, I tried something different. It was low fat and low calorie, but more specifically, I cut way back on all meats, cheeses, animal fats and processed foods. And the results were amazing. I sit here now, feeling good, lots of energy, it's been months (knock on wood) since I've had any anxiety problems and last time I checked, I weighed 116 lbs (53 kg). I might drop dead tomorrow, but until I do, I don't think anyone can argue with my results. That part's not religion.It seems to me that the problem with the modern diet for some is that they may be eating more low-fat or low-cal, but they are also simply eating more. Reminds me of the change in Norwegian drinking habits: The new (to us) continental style of drinking wine with your meal, also on weekdays, hasn't replaced the old habit of binge-drinking on the weekends; it has been added to it. Alcohol consumption has never been higher here.Yes. There has to be ebb and flow. You can't flow in one direction without ebbing in another.I think a lot of people would be better off going back to their meat and potatoes and gravy. At least it's natural.I would agree, but with one — really huge — caveat. If people are going to go back to old-fashioned meals, they also have to go back to old fashioned food — that means grain-raised (not corn-fed) meat, and potatoes made out of real potatoes — not out of a box. And gravy made out of flour and meat drippings instead of poured out of a can or a jar, or reconstituted from an envelope.I had a good time reading about red beans and rice recently. I was making some for dinner and in looking something up for the recipe, I discovered that red beans and rice is tradionally a Monday dish in parts of the deep south. The reasons for this are dual. First, Monday was wash day, so the woman of the house didn't have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen fixiing anything elaborate for dinner. Throwing on some beans and rice was pretty low effort. And second, Sunday was the day when most people cooked their one big meat dish for the week. They'd cook a ham and have a big family meal and then the leftovers would be put to use for the rest of the week. The ham hock went into the pot to flavor the beans on Monday. And for the rest of the week, the family ate plant-based food that was just flavored or garnished with the leftovers from Sunday's meat.But at some point along the line, because of marketing forces, government programs and a sudden surplus of a lot of foods, Americans started to eat meat more than once or twice a week — in fact, they started eating it once or twice a day. And I think that, along with the highly processed nature of our food, accounts for the majority of the obesity that we're seeing in America (and are exporting to other parts of the world).So, yeah. Meat and potatoes are not a bad thing. Unless you eat a lot of them. But as you (and I) keep saying, everything in moderation.Since I've stopped trying to lose weight (at the end of 2009, I reached my goal, and have just been maintaining since then), I've added some animal fats back into my diet on a very selective basis. There were things that I never really missed — like processed foods, burgers, butter and mayo — which stayed historical, and ones that I've been happy to welcome back into the pantry (in moderation) — like nuts and cheese. But that's all just personal preference… and maybe too, that's where I might get back into the realm of religion… ;-D


I'm happy to see such eager commenting! :-DI don't have much to respond with. Your personal story reminded me of when I was happiest, food-wise and that was when I was trying macrobiotics. It was the first time I didn't crave sweets all the time, and the diet is dominated by whole grains (like brown rice). That tells me that there may be something to so-called metabolic typing: that one diet does not fit all. People should pay attention to how they feel after a meal. If they still want to eat after a full dinner, then that dinner didn't contain the nutrients their particular body needs. I can always tell when my meal doesn't contain what I need because I want sweets or chocolate afterwards. So, inspired by you, this week a couple of dinners were rice and veggies with butter on them for flavoring, and the meals tasted just right to me and left me without any further cravings. Butter isn't macrobiotic, no, but neither are gravies and I've never cared for soy sauce. Fortunately, butter in Norway is still uncorrupted food.


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