I have a friend who I refer to as a “food Nazi.”
She is a wonderful person, kind and insightful, and a hell of a lot of fun to be around–most of the time. However, she is a hard-line fundamentalist about certain foods. This in and of itself is somewhat annoying, since she buys into the conventional wisdom (low fat is good, high carb is good, vegetarian is good, and raw vegan is best) without questioning its foundation and its relevance to her life. What makes me crazy is when she creates a byzantine series of exceptions to her rules that allow her to enjoy the food she condemns. Wheat is bad but couscous and bulgur are okay. Bread made from flour, yeast, water and salt is bad; a gluten-free loaf wrapped in plastic and sitting in the freezer at Whole Foods is healthy. If something is “fresh” or doesn’t have “chemicals,” it’s fine.
Clearly, wheat is a hot-button subject for her. But in addition to avoiding wheat and gluten, she goes a step further and buys packaged gluten-free food that she perceives as healthy because of what it does not contain. Once, when she was raving about an expensive loaf of fake bread she bought at Whole Foods, I asked her if she really thought a frozen brick of plastic wrapped ingredients straight from a factory was healthy. I asked her to read the ingredients. To her credit, she heard me and graciously conceded the point. But then she was on to the next sausage substitute, carton of hemp milk, or jar of chlorophyll powder.
A lot of what she believes and talks about has a solid basis in fact. There are TONS of chemicals and preservatives in our world today, and who knows what they’re doing to us? I respect her commitment to eating well and feeding her family healthfully. She does better than many of us, myself included. And maybe this rant is more sour grapes than disinterested observation. She is in great shape. She is not a food addict and is able to indulge in a little bit of candy, bread, or alcohol without having difficulty stopping. I wish I could be like that.
It’s not her message I have trouble with but the way it’s conveyed. She can be so adamant, so uncompromising, so extreme about her diet at times, and then just throw everything out the window at other times when it suits her, that it aggravates me. She lives a life of moderation in small doses while preaching abstinence. When I told a mutual friend that I brought the food Nazi doughnuts from a gourmet specialty store thirty miles away, she was shocked. She thought our friend, who had been telling her about grinding her own flour (non-wheat, of course), would never eat something like a doughnut, even a gourmet one that costs $3 and that can only be bought by waiting in a long line.
Sometimes I debate her, and sometimes I decide it’s just not worth it. Food is a sensitive subject for me, and I really try hard not to classify things as intrinsically good or bad, just appropriate or inappropriate for me to eat in a given quantity at a given time. Although alcohol and sugar are both substances I consider toxins, I don’t think either of them will kill me if I consume them infrequently and in small amounts. Don’t apple seeds have cyanide in them? And as someone who’s worked in the food service industry and who’s seen what’s gone on behind the scenes, what impresses me most is how resilient the human body is in the face of all of the potential contamination customers don’t get to see and would probably prefer not to think about. Unless you have a true life-threatening allergy or immune condition, moderation in moderation is usually fine. And if you choose to abstain, for goodness sake, let others make their own choices without haranguing them about how bad they are.
She came over for dinner a few weeks ago with her husband. I roasted a curry lacquered duck, stir-fried some spinach in coconut oil and garlic, and served apricot pecan bars with banana soft serve for dessert. Neither of them could get over my husband’s quick and effortless 20 pound weight loss (I could kill him) ever since I started serving a paleo diet at home. My friend’s husband who, ironically, is overweight couldn’t stop saying, “If this is what I had to eat, I could stick to this diet, too.” From what my friend tells me, her kids beg her for “that banana ice cream, ” although I’m not sure whether she’s made it yet. And that night, no one wanted bread–gluten-free or not.
My friend will still talk about baking healthy with soy milk, even though she will concede, when pressed, that soy has harmful estrogenic products and that soy milk is a heavily processed and unnatural food. I’ve let her know that perhaps grass-fed dairy could be a non-inflammatory substitute and have turned her on to Kerrygold butter, which replaced the Earth Balance she kept in a tub in her fridge. She’s not quite ready to split a cow with me; she’s only recently begun to eat animal protein (on the advice of her doctor, who pointed out her thinning bones, and even more disturbing to her, her thinning hair), and although the iron would do her good, the stronger grassy flavor of the meat turns her off. I get it. She’s learning. It’s a slow process. I do with her what I do with my kids and my students–plant the seeds when I can and hope that someday, they will bear fruit.
And I try to lead by example. When you don’t walk your talk, your message becomes diluted and, ultimately, powerless.
Gandhi told us to be the change that we want to see. I’m not perfect. A lot of the time I wish my eating was tighter and that I looked like a better spokesperson for the paleo way of eating. I would love to be at the point where I view my diet solely as fueling and nourishing my body instead of helping me fit into a certain size or satisfying any unmet emotional needs. But when I share my struggles and cop to eating Nutella from the jar with a spoon and choose not to condemn others for making less than optimal food choices, perhaps I can create an opportunity for others to see change as an ongoing process instead of the flicking of a switch from “off” to “on.”