Why Is Healthy Food Deemed Elitist?
"What is that?"
I was pulling out ingredients for dinner from the refrigerator and my friend was visibly squirming looking at the quart glass bottle of green sludge that was on the first shelf.
"It’s just a kale smoothie."
She looked at me and rolled her eyes.
"I know, I know… who has kale smoothies in their refrigerator?" I responded. I paused for dramatic effect in order to underline the absurdity of my next statement. "It has chia seeds in it, too."
Telling someone you ate a bowl of chard sautéed in sesame oil because you hadn’t been grocery shopping lately and it was the only thing you had on hand will most likely get you a "who are you?"-type response, but tell someone you snagged a piece of pizza for lunch at the corner joint because you were in a rush, and no one bats an eye. Eating good food has turned from a regular habit into an elitist activity. Ever seen anyone roll their eyes because your refrigerator was full of Chinese leftovers, even though you know perfectly well that those leftovers are soaked in MSG and you have no idea what kind of meat particles they used in the orange chicken?
My mother instilled a healthy eating habit in me at an early age — I was making crackers out of flax seeds over the weekend after all — but it has never been about fitness or physique. It’s just what you do. Which is why when I recently received a press pamphlet in the mail about the latest and greatest diet that was "taking the world by storm" and whose central, revolutionary food was chestnuts and chestnut flour, I had the same response as my friend staring at the kale smoothie.
But wait, why was I rolling my eyes at a diet that was made up of all the things most people should be eating? The whole thing was after all comprised of whole grains, fruits, olive oil, nuts, herbs, honey, omega-3s, and beyond, the kind of stuff that fills my pantry shelves. Because I realized that we have put ourselves in a place where we need world-renowned fitness coaches to tell us those things are healthy, and in turn, we have turned eating well into a trendy, elitist activity.
Love kale? You probably listen to NPR.
Start your day off with a bowl of yogurt doused in flax seed oil? You obviously are making six figures a year.
Get excited about a meal of wild salmon and steamed asparagus when it’s in season? Speaking of seasons, you probably have season tickets to the opera, don’t you?
When did eating healthy and having a holistic approach to food become an activity of the 1 percent? If people have access to good food, and it’s fairly priced, no matter what the socio-economic background is, they will eat it. Junk food isn’t always cheaper than real food, and yet roast a chicken, boil potatoes, and serve a salad with an olive oil vinaigrette and you’re immediately on the verge of breaking into the "foodie" category.
I blame marketing.
We’re obsessed with the marketing of food. Instead of taking a holistic approach to what we eat, and buying simple ingredients, we opt for making bad food sound healthy, focused more on the vitamins, phytonutrients, and all the other flashy beneficial elements that sound like they’re good for us. Remember the pomegranate craze? Were people downing pomegranate juice because it was truly good for them, or was it just that it’s what they thought they should be drinking? You can argue both sides, but keep in mind that there is an official Pomegranate Council. Ultimately, we don’t need pomegranate drinks. We need fresh fruits and vegetables.
In this unhealthy society, we’re obsessed with trendy health foods. Walk into any large supermarket and there is probably a health food section (hint: it’s where you buy your Kombucha). Almond flour, chestnut paste, and sunflower butter? Check, check, and check; I want all of those things. But imagine seeing them in someone else’s basket, and you can immediately cue the "who does that person think they are?" comment. Health craze? Maybe, but at least all of those things are 100 percent natural and not infused with a grab bag of preservatives and corn-based elements you can’t pronounce.
The mere use of the phrase "health food" implies that we know that the other options aren’t all that good for us. At its core, shouldn’t food be healthy? And if you’re committed to buying real food, ones that come from places that you know shouldn’t that just be normal? Going back to the land after all is just as economical as it is on trend, but talk about having your own patch of arugula that you water everyday and people might make certain assumptions about who you are, what you make and your political preferences.
We know what we should be eating. Fast food, and even commercial baked goods (yes, we’re talking croissants, doughnuts, and pizza), aren’t just unhealthy for your physical state, they have also been linked to depression. Find me a real ingredient that has the same negative effects and I’ll stop my rant, but until then, we better start checking ourselves when we begin with the eye rolls.
Like coconut water? Great. But are you drinking it because it has less sugar and chemicals that your average sport drink or because the hipster in the drink aisle at the food co-op was buying it or the latest health blog told you it was super good for you?
In the food world, we need to recommit to talking about food in a way that doesn’t just focus on trends. We have to normalize consciousness.
Roll your eyes all you want at the fact that as I wrote this column I ate a bowl of yogurt with flax, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds and then I followed it up with a glass of lemon water (don’t worry, there was coffee later), but isn’t that better than high-fructose corn syrup-injected cereal out of a box, even though the box is covered in bold text reminding you how many vitamins, minerals, and whole grains the stuff contains?
It’s an understatement to say that the acronym for the Standard American Diet (S.A.D) is ironic. But as long as we keep making good foods trendy, and in a way elitist, people won’t eat them and pizza and hamburgers will get a lot less judgement than a kale smoothie. And that is a very risky path.
— Anna Brones, EcoSalon
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to independent markets to the culinary avant garde.
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