Food Fluff (and the atrophy of the American mind)

Some kids are "Picky Eaters".

In the most recent issue of Psychology Today, an article by Emily Anthes titled “Accounting for Taste” attempts to map the entire landscape of human eating preferences.  In four pages.  Lucky for Anthes (and the editors of Psych Today), she broke it all down to 3 easy to swallow categories:

  1. Picky Eaters
  2. Adventurous Eaters
  3. Reformed Eaters

No great insight was shed.  Highlights – kept at a minimum – include empirical evidence that pickiness may be hereditary and that children develop broader palates by observing others than by being forced to try new things themselves. That’s pretty much it.  Where the article succeeded was in begging the question: Why was it written in the first place?  Psychology Today is a pretty insightful magazine – why devote 6 pages (2 for the title) on fluff? 

Of course, part of that answer is obvious: if you’re going to fill a 100+ page magazine every month*, you’re probably going to cut corners here and there.  Still, a more telling reason for the article is brought up by Anthes herself.  In her analysis of the Reformed Eater, she discusses an eating disorder known as ortherexia nervosa, in which “people are overly fixated on eating only ‘pure’ or ‘healthy’ food.”  I’ve read about the concept of orthorexia once before, in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  Pollan described the disorder as endemic to the culture of American eating.  Paradoxically, for having among the world’s worst diets, Americans are flat out obsessed with the concept of eating healthily.

SPOILER ALERT: She eats cucumbers (...I read it)

Anthes’ article in Pysch Today may discuss the phenomenon objectively, but it’s more striking as a living example of it.  What to eat is a profitable conversation in America today.  It sells magazines (and tv shows, and blogs) in the same way as does celebrity gossip – through a constant, ever-meaningless stream of updates.  And the more we look elsewhere for advice on eating, the more incapable of making our own decisions we feel, intensifying the cycle.  The editors at Psych Today saw this behavior and cashed in.

For the record, this isn’t intended to be a blanket bash of everything that promotes healthy eating (nor an attack on this particular writer).    After all, the subject is sort of the raison d’etre of this blog.  It’s just that some advice out there is aimed at liberating readers, while some seems content with making them more dependent.  Anthes could have written an awesome article about the psychology of orthorexia nervosa, about what exactly has made Americans feel a loss of control with one of nature’s most basic instincts.  Instead, she played to the symptoms of the disorder and gave the populace the meaningless fix it needed.


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