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