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?
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.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Most of my friends went slightly mad as they finished their PhD dissertations; some cried compulsively, another forgot to eat, and I knew a couple who never wore anything other than pyjamas for months on end. My lowest ebb came when I developed a mild addiction to The Archers, a daily, fifteen-minute soap on Radio 4, featuring the activities of a large, extended family in the fictional village of Ambridge.
Described by Sandi Toksvig as ‘a memorable theme tune, followed by fifteen minutes of ambient farm noise and sighing,’ The Archers was created in 1950 as a kind of public information service: the BBC collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food to broadcast information about new technologies and methods to farmers during a period when Britain was trying to increase agricultural productivity.
The series still has an agricultural story editor, and there’s at least one fairly awkward moment in each episode when Ruth Archer discusses milking machines, or Adam Macy mulls over the relative benefits of crop rotation. But its appeal lies now in its human drama. It’s been criticised – rightly – for avoiding complex or uncomfortable social issues, but, recently, it’s featured an excellent storyline involving the series’ poorest family, the Grundys.
Struggling with cuts in benefits and reduced wages, Emma Grundy runs out of money and takes refuge in a food bank, where she and her daughter are given a free lunch. In a sense, this thread dramatizes the Guardian’s excellent Breadline Britain Project, which tracks the ‘impact and consequences of recession on families and individuals across the UK.’ The project has demonstrated convincingly that British people are eating worse as they become less financially secure.
One of its most arresting reports argues that Britain is in a ‘nutrition recession’:
It’s no wonder that so many columnists have evoked George Orwell’s description of the very poor eating habits of Wigan’s most impoverished residents during the Great Depression in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). But the use of the term ‘breadline’ harks back to an earlier, and arguably more influential study, Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study in Town Life (1901). Rowntree (1871-1954), the son of the philanthropist and chocolate tycoon Joseph (1836-1925), had studied chemistry in Manchester before beginning work as a scientist in the family business in York.
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree*
But like his father – whose awareness of poverty had been awakened, apparently, by a trip to Ireland during the potato famine – Rowntree’s encounters with York’s poor led to the first of three studies which he undertook into poverty in York. Inspired partly by Charles Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People (1886), which analysed the lives of London’s poor, in 1899 Rowntree conducted a survey of the working-class population of York. His findings caused a national outcry, as Ian Packer explains:
Rowntree used access to food as a means of gauging poverty, and it is here that he originated the idea of the ‘breadline’. Diana Wylie writes:
This and Rowntree’s subsequent two studies of poverty in York, published in 1936 and 1951, became some of the most significant evidence on which arguments for the creation of a British welfare state, were based. Rowntree’s point was that unemployment and low wages – and not bad eating or spending habits – were at the root of working-class poverty. It became, then, the ethical duty of the state to provide the means of freeing the population from the threat of hunger.
There is a direct line between Poverty: A Study in Town Life and the 1942 Beveridge Report, one of the most important documents of the twentieth century, which provided the foundation for Britain’s welfare state. But the influence of Rowntree’s work was felt beyond Yorkshire and the UK. In Starving on a Full Stomach (2001), Diana Wylie demonstrates the impact of the idea of the breadline on social scientists in South Africa during the early twentieth century.
In 1935, Edward Batson, a graduate of the London School of Economics, Beveridge enthusiast, and professor of social science at the University of Cape Town, arrived in South Africa and began work on ‘the first systematic survey of black urban poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.’
Batson’s research was undertaken in the midst of widespread debates around the founding of a South African welfare state, the underpinnings of which were put in place during the 1920s and 1930s with legislation such as the 1928 Old Age Pensions Act, and the 1937 Children’s Act. But although his work concentrated on black people, the South African welfare state was established largely to benefit whites. Indeed, Jeremy Seekings makes the point that pensions legislation in the 1920s emerged out of concerns about protecting the white (and, to some extent, coloured) ‘deserving’ poor from a perceived black ‘threat.’ This meant that evidence of significant hunger among black people was not a force in the formulation of South African welfare policy, at least before the Second World War.
So whereas Rowntree’s research contributed to the creation of a universal welfare state in Britain, where all people qualified for assistance from the state through the provision of social security payments, and free healthcare and education, in South Africa, welfare was raced: the welfare state was created to protect and to maintain white power, and to entrench racial segregation.
Understanding the origins of the term ‘breadline’ helps us to see the extent to which attitudes towards, and efforts to eradicate, hunger have changed over time, and the ways in which they’re influenced by thinking about race, as well as class. That being hungry and white meant – and means – something different to being hungry and black.
This photograph is from the National Portrait Gallery‘s collection.
William Beinart, Twentieth-Century South Africa, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Timothy J. Hatton and Roy E. Bailey, ‘Seebohm Rowntree and the Postwar Poverty Puzzle,’ The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 2 (Aug. 2000), pp. 517-543).
Ian Packer, ‘Religion and the New Liberalism: The Rowntree Family, Quakerism, and Social Reform,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 42, no2 (April 2003), pp. 236-257.
Jeremy Seekings, ‘“Not a Single White Person Should be Allowed to Go Under”: Swartgevaar and the Origins of South Africa’s Welfare State, 1924-1929,’ Journal of African History, vol. 48, no. 3 (Nov. 2000), pp. 375-394.
Diana Wylie, Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.