My 15-year-old son and I have been locked in a contest to see who can shed our extra cushioning first. We don’t aspire to look like models; he just wants to get fit, and I want to fit into my clothes. But we both agreed that over Hanukka, we would let our guards down. My husband makes the verifiably best latkes in the world, and we planned to enjoy them without remorse.
But while we plan to go back to curbing our carbs, I’m facing a bunch of new doubts. Just what is and isn’t healthy eating? What is fact or fallacy? And how much of what I have believed for the past 30 years is just so much received dogma?
When it comes to food, we all seem to have deep-seated faith in certain “facts,” whether from the food pyramid taught at school, or what Mom fed us, or the diet that shrank Aunt Lottie. We espouse those beliefs with moralistic certainty. But based on what?
Even religious leaders these days point out that caring for one’s health is a moral imperative. They cite Talmud teachings to make the point, but they don’t define how we should do that. Supplements: good or bad? Wine: good or bad? Oil: good or bad? Plastic containers in the microwave oven: good or bad? How do we know what is sound advice, and what is profit-driven corporate skullduggery?
When even drinking water and breathing air arouse fears of contamination, it becomes overwhelming. The old certainties start to seem very attractive.
For me, the doubts began in earnest a few weeks ago. I attended an excellent talk by food writer and cook extraordinaire Linda Eckhardt at the Ethical Culture Society in Maplewood. She has collaborated with Dr. Peter Salerno in writing an on-line book called The Silver Cloud Diet, promoting a system that emphasizes a high protein/low carbohydrate approach, avoiding processed foods and utilizing fresh produce wherever possible.
What she had to say about the corporate food industry struck many chords. I believe that its reliance on chemicals that no previous generation has consumed seems likely to curtail the great advances we gained by abundance and better hygiene.
But then she mentioned that she can’t bring herself to use unpasteurized milk. Having grown up with the dictum that pasteurization is one of mankind’s great advances, she cringes at the possible dangers, even though she knows herds can be certified as healthy and fresh, raw milk offers all kinds of advantages. On that, her roots still rule. And I began to realize that so do mine.
Michael Specter would probably agree with her about milk but nothing else. In his book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, he totally dismisses many widespread health concerns — ones I’ve held dear — as hysteria that flies in the face of the enormous benefits gained by such things at vaccinations, genetic engineering, and hybrid seeds.
Though his arguments make sense, I think he is also coming from a passionate position that precedes his rationality. We all get imprinted — whether by parents or professors or lovers — like so many ducklings. And then we stick to those positions as doggedly as we stick to our political affiliations. Is he right, or is he biased by his background? His points are reassuring, but I want him to be wrong.
In my case, the imprinting came from my health-food obsessed mother, a devotee of whole grains and supplements long before most of her friends, and my venerated older sister, who turned vegetarian just as I was entering college. Following their advice — after years of adolescent resistance — I did lose weight, and cleared my sinuses. I became a vegetarian, too.
When I adhere to their guidelines, I feel good, and virtuous. When I break them — and eat too much refined wheat or cheese or sweet stuff, things like pizza and bagels and cookies — I get congested. I feel lousy — and guilty. But now I’ve started to doubt the cause-and-effect link.
Some say it’s all about attitude, mind over matter. I don’t agree. My sister, one of the most disciplined eaters and most vibrantly healthy people I’ve known, died of colon cancer at 60, three years ago. It’s true she lived a year longer than her doctors expected, and that even as the disease took her down, she was spared many of its usual side effects, but all her passionately upheld beliefs in what was good food and what was bad failed to bring her to an average lifespan.
Listening to Linda, and to all the different diet advice out there, to the pro-protein people and the anti-fat people, and the pro-probiotics people, and the Acai berry people, and the drink-a-lot people, and the listen-to-your-body people, I’ve realized that I have no idea what is scientifically certified fact, and what science actually isn’t able to certify at all.
For now, all I do know for sure is that eating latkes makes me happy. And how can one feel guilty about something your religion instructs you to eat?
Elaine Durbach is a staff writer for the New Jersey Jewish News.