What We Eat: Health or Secular Religion?

Western morality tends to focus narrowly on fairness and caring for others. But as Jonathan Haidt shows in The Righteous Mind, this doesn’t hold up cross-culturally.

Most human societies have a more expansive view of morality that includes not only fairness and caring, but also loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. Western culture sometimes forgets about these last three, and secular liberals often deride the last two.

Purity is a particular target for derision. Typically associated with religion, those concerned with purity are portrayed as uptight, narrow minded, hypocritical, and tyrannical.

So it’s ironic that it’s mainly secular liberals who are the most concerned about eating right. The list of self-imposed dietary restrictions is endless, but a sample includes:

  • Vegan: no meat, no dairy, no honey, no clothing made of leather or wool
  • Gluten free
  • GMO free
  • Nut free
  • Soy free
  • Low sodium
  • Low or no carbohydrates
  • Organic
  • Locally grown
  • Raw food only

By far, most of these food restrictions are driven by purity concerns rather than medical science. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. For example, vegans have serious ethical concerns about animal abuse. They’re vegan for moral rather than medical reasons. And although eating too much meat will clog your arteries, this doesn’t medically justify veganism: moderate meat consumption is not unhealthy.

Likewise, there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful. The main argument against them comes down to GMOs being unnatural. This is a purity argument. The anti-GMO crowd denies this and tries to make their position sound scientific, but this is easily debunked.

Some food restrictions are medically necessary. People with Celiac disease cannot have gluten. But this condition affects less than 1% of the population, and even if we consider those with gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy we’re still talking about 7% of the population at most. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever that 93% of us can’t have gluten. But if you’re in the business of selling gluten free food then you’ll want to expand your market by playing on people’s food obsessions.

A nut allergy can be life threatening, but it too is rare – about half of one percent of Americans (see p.7). Many parents avoid feeding their young children foods made from nuts, but this could actually make the problem worse because exposing kids to nuts can actually reduce their chances of developing an allergy (but obviously if nut allergies run in your family you should consult your doctor).

It’s fine to choose a special diet if you want to. My only point here is that only in the smallest minority of cases is it medically necessary.

The overwhelming majority choose special diets for purity reasons.

This puts religious diets in context because there’s no difference between folks who are kosher for religious reasons and most folks who are gluten free or anti-GMO because of their liberal secular ideology (which some may argue is like a religion).

Personally, I endorse my dad’s diet: “I eat whatever the fuck I want”.