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Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Deon #

    While I subscribe and firmly believe in the WAY that those following macrobiotics prepare their food – with love, care, gentleness and positive energy, I cannot ever think that one could live and be healthy while following the diet in all its rigid restrictions. Many years ago I followed the diet half-heartedly for a period and even then my cholesterol levels fell below detectable levels. Not a good place to be…

    August 5, 2012
    • Hello! And thanks so much for your comment. I agree – there are aspects of macrobiotcism which are certainly laudable and worth copying, but it seems like such an extreme way of understanding how to eat.

      August 5, 2012
      • Deon #

        Do you think this is possibly a case of “lost in translation” – that the West simply takes it all too seriously or that we do not understand that the principles are merely that – principles that are not supposed to be followed like religion?

        August 5, 2012
        • I really don’t know, but given that Ohsawa travelled fairly frequently to France and was in contact with many of his followers, I suspect he had a pretty good idea of how people were following his advice. Also, the guide books seems to have been pretty clear on the point that they had to be followed fairly rigidly. (But I’ve never attempted to follow the Zen macrobiotic diet, so I’m not absolutely positive about this.)

          August 5, 2012
  2. Thanks: this is really interesting. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the current ‘paleo’ diet fad, which is heavy on protein, and low on dairy and grains. As far as I can see it’s based on no factual/archaeological evidence at all about what ‘primitive’ or paleolithic people actually ate. (Obviously they all ate the same stuff, according to this view of the world). It’s also brought an interesting turnaround in attitudes to coconut oil, which has gone from ‘deadly dangerous, must not be consumed’ to ‘ultra-healthy fat, fry your steak in this’ in about five years.

    August 6, 2012
    • I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. In fact, the paleo diet was at the back of my mind as I wrote this. I haven’t really thought about it in any depth yet, but I am suspicious of anything which is promoted on the grounds that because it’s ancient, it must be healthy. There’ll definitely be a post on it soon.

      August 6, 2012
      • I look forward to it.

        > I am suspicious of anything which is promoted on the grounds that because it’s ancient, it must be healthy

        Exactly. I’m also suspicious of anything harking back to a generic tribal past, given that ‘tribal’ behaviour varies as widely as any other field of human behaviour. (cf also childrearing theories, theories about gender roles etc. You can prove anything if you pick the right tribe.)

        August 6, 2012
        • Ha! I LOVE that: ‘You can prove anything if you pick the right tribe.’ Exactly, exactly, exactly.

          August 6, 2012
  3. The ‘free-from’ mantra reminds me of what Barry Glassner calls the ‘gospel of naught': ‘the view that the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks. The less sugar, salt, fat, calories, carbs, preservatives, additives, or other suspect stuff, the better the meal’ (Glassner wrote The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat – much as you rightfully recommend). Good post.

    August 6, 2012
    • Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely take a look at Glassner.

      August 6, 2012

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