G.K. Chesterton once said that thin monks might be holy, but fat monks are humble; to be fat is to be laughed at and that is a more wholesome experience for the soul of man.
Few people see humility in a fat man, but they do see a lot more. Food and eating seem to to be a very religious endeavor in our society. I can hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine and not read a dietary recommendation that doesn’t have a moral overtone. You should eat this and not that, you know, because studies have shown that eating bark is good for you. What is always left unstated is just how good for you something is, such as how much longer it will make you live. Something tells me that if consuming all sorts of other supplements and a Spartan diet objectively gave hordes of people longer life, we’d be offering it like a polio vaccine.
In The Gospel of Food, Barry Glassner writes about the rise of “natural” and “organic” products, or at least those that bear the labels. He gives a lengthy critique of just how falsely those labels can be achieved (more on this perhaps another time), and how people adjust their taste buds to conform to what they value.
In experiments where people are told they have been given those types of foods, they tend to rate them as tasting better, even when the researchers actually give them conventionally grown foods. Psychologists call this “expectancy confirmation.” The term refers to our tendency to find ways to fit experiences into the preconceptions we bring to them–something we do often with food.
And what have recent values caused us to confirm? The famous French Paradox points out that the French consume what Americans think will kill them, yet have similar rates of heart attack. Glassner cites a study done by Paul Rozin, a psychologist from UPenn where 1241 people from France, Japan, Belgium and the US reported their attitudes toward food. The French associated “celebration” with chocolate cake while Americans chose “guilt.” Heavy cream evoked “unhealthy” from the Americans and “whipped” from the French.
What’s worse, or better, according to another study conducted at Tufts University, people who enjoy a meal get more out it physiologically. Swedish and Thai women were fed a dish that the Swedes judged too spicy, and conversely, both groups were fed a hamburger meal disliked by the Thai. In both cases, the group that preferred the taste of the meal absorbed more iron. A third experiment was conducted where everyone was given a nutritious but sticky, savorless paste and neither group absorbed much iron.
How much does enjoyment, not to mentioned gratitude, have to do with health? Apparently a lot more than we think. Now, I need to go and I expect my protein and somewhat fatty lunch will do wonders for my whole being.