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I Think, Therefore I Don't Eat

By Mark R. Vogel

NEW YORK, 9 December 2003 - The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes concluded that his existence was irrefutable based on the presence of his own thoughts. Simply put, if I am thinking, then I exist. This led to his infamous formulation: "I think therefore I am."

But cognitions determine far more than our existence. Our beliefs shape our everyday feelings and behaviors. Fifteen hundred years before Descartes, the Greek philosopher Epictetus espoused that man is not disturbed by the things that happen to him, but by his view of these things. In essence, what we think about something influences how we feel about it. It doesn't matter whether our thinking is right or wrong. What matters is our appraisal.

Individuals' receptivity to any food is highly dependent on their beliefs about it. If one concludes that a particular food is disgusting, unhealthy, immoral, or weird, he or she is likely to avoid it. Examples abound. The 16th century Europeans eschewed tomatoes and potatoes, believing them to be poisonous. The Reverend Sylvester Graham, creator of Graham crackers, believed that consuming ketchup and mustard led to insanity. He also believed that eating meat led to sinful sexual excess. Naturally he was a vegetarian.

Even modern man is not immune to bizarre beliefs about food. I know a homo-phobic individual who believes that sushi is a sissy food and indicative of homosexuality. Naturally, he has never tried sushi in his life, nor is he inclined to. And I guarantee you, no matter how compatible the biochemistry of his palate is with sushi, if he did try it, his thinking would prevent him from liking it.

Granted, these are examples of extreme ignorance or lunacy. While the average person's irrational beliefs about food do not reach psychotic proportions, milder but nevertheless askew perspectives still run rampant in the general population. They too are fueled by limited food knowledge and personality variables that render the person suggestible to such concepts.

A compelling example is the series of fad diets that have swept the nation over the past decades. The three main elements in all foods, excluding water, are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Our society has run the gamut with diets that have vilified or revered each element with recommendations for curtailing or increasing its consumption. Thus, there are low-carb, low-protein, low-fat, high-carb, high-protein and yes, believe it or not, high-fat diets out there. I find it a glorious tribute to the diversity of human irrationality, that each food constituent has advocates and enemies. Hello people. Everyone can't be right. All three are required for normal bodily functioning. We need a balanced diet as much as we need to be mentally balanced.

People also tend to draw erroneous conclusions about foods that are foreign to them. Strange foods are often assumed to be inferior or distasteful. Take my father for example. If an ingredient is not already in his repertoire, he will not only refuse to try it, but will hold it in contempt as well. One day my parents were coming over for dinner. I wanted to make Caesar salad and asked my dad if he liked romaine lettuce. He firmly asserted that he "only likes iceberg lettuce." Nevertheless I made a traditional Caesar salad with romaine and served it to him, (he doesn't know which lettuce is which). He wolfed down his entire bowl of salad with obvious delight and then proceeded to commend me for it

The reality of the situation, (the actual lettuce), had nothing to do with his initial resistance. His "concept" of romaine lettuce is what got in the way. By bypassing his thinking, I was able to determine whether he had a genuine distaste for romaine, which obviously he didn't.

Some folks are paranoid about contaminants in their food, i.e., bacteria, antibiotics, insecticides, etc. Let me say right off the bat that these are real concerns. However, I'm referring to the people whose thinking grossly exaggerates the danger or has no basis at all.

Let's take egg phobia, specifically the thinking that eggs not fully cooked, (such as eggs over easy), are dangerous because of salmonella. According to the US Department of Agriculture, one in 20,000 eggs will be contaminated with salmonella. If you're an average American and consume 180 eggs per year, it will take you 111 years to encounter a contaminated egg. But not all the eggs we eat are raw or partially cooked. We consume many fully cooked eggs such as omelets, hard-boiled, in quiche, in baked goods, and other preparations. So assuming that even half the eggs you eat each year are over easy, it will take 222 years to actually consume one contaminated egg whose bacteria was not destroyed from cooking. And even then, depending on the amount of salmonella in the egg, you may not even get sick. Your immune system will fend off small amounts. If your immune system is compromised by age, (the elderly and young children), pregnancy, certain medications, or medical illness, then all bets are off. But if not, when you start crunching the numbers, the issue begins to become absurd.

Some fearful thinking is completely groundless. I know a chiropractor who deprives his children of milk because of his fears that antibiotics given to cows will wind up in the milk. Yet it is against the law in the US to sell milk containing antibiotics. Milk is tested for antibiotics and if found, the milk is not allowed to be sold to the public. When dairy cows are given antibiotics for various infections, their milk is discarded until the medication has passed through their system.

Nevertheless, his kids will go without the nutritional benefits of milk because of his paranoia. And it's not like he can use ignorance as an excuse. Certainly a doctor of chiropractic is intelligent enough to research the issue and reveal the truth. I pulled up information on this topic within seconds on my computer. Sorry Doc but it's not your spine that's out of alignment.

At the very least, aberrant conceptions about food only serve to limit our pleasures. They restrict us from embracing life by decreasing our options and our freedom. Or they impose unnecessary guilt or self-disparagement if we partake in a mentally "forbidden" delight. At their worse, they can cause us to harm others as in the example of the chiropractor's children.

In any event, America has become far too neurotic about food. Numerous other cultures embrace food without reservations, and joyously make it a pleasurable part of daily life. Many Europeans eat whatever they want with far less hang-ups, and still live longer than us. Of the many explanations for this, one is the difference in how we mentally approach food. They celebrate food. We draw all sorts of kooky conclusions about it and then become leery of it.

How food became the target of so much twisted thinking in America is beyond me. A recent news story reported how some babies of ultra-vegetarian mothers were developing neurological disorders from the lack of certain nutrients in the mother's diet, and hence her milk. Neurological damage at this early stage of development can easily lead to permanent impairment. So these innocent little babies have to suffer for the rest of their lives because mommy is delusional about animal protein. The irony of it all is that the switch to the consumption of animal protein from vegetable matter 2.5 million years ago is what enabled our ancestors' brains to grow and become more intelligent. Maybe that's the answer. Maybe Americans are de-evolving.

Dr. Mark R. Vogel is a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist, professional chef and food writer.

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