It’s difficult writing a piece about diet because diet isn’t really about the food. It’s about a lot of other things. The contemporary discourse on eating right and dieting doesn’t really address these concerns.
Most of the time eating isn’t even about eating.
1) Finding novelty
2) Getting volatility out of your day with it
3) Alleviating stress
4) Alleviating boredom
5) Alleviating loneliness
6) Mimetic desire
7) Being part of a group or cause
8) To relax
9) To take a photo to put it on Instagram
We will go over some of these reasons for eating in future issues.
Deep Roots of Diet
It’s no surprise people get emotionally involved when it comes to what it means to “eat healthy”. Conversations turns heated. Much more than in other domains.
Why? I don’t know. There is something deeply human about food, diet and its connection with culture. You see people in every nation boast about the superiority of their cuisine. One of the staples of life for a very long time is eating together. Going to restaurants. Having dinner. So it is no surprise that cuisine has historically mapped to culture. Nations get conquered by invaders and while languages and religions change the cuisine does not. Cuisine is a robust indicator that passes through the filter of time.
There are the cultural demarcations: Olive oil (Med) vs butter (N Eur) vs ghee (India) vs rice (Middle East)
Kosher and Semitic Diet Restrictions
Much of Semitic dietary laws kept people from socializing outside their group. If we can’t eat together then we can’t intermingle, marry, or merge with our neighbors. It’s a mechanism for keeping separation in an environment where you are a minority or where there are other minority groups around you. Was this the intention of Kosher? Is there a health basis? Well, the evidence is not really clear that Kosher is worse or better than the diet of other Mediterranean diet cultures around them at the time. It did, however, produce the effect of maintaining a distinct Jewish identity (and genetics) that exists up to this present day, even when in foreign lands.
Interestingly, the opposite happened with Christianity. The aim was for universalism. So one of the earliest edicts is to remove the dietary laws. Dietary laws separate Jew from Gentile.
Islam came a long a little later. It adopted the Jewish Kosher laws but it added another restriction: It “discouraged” alcohol as a fence. Alcohol was allowed both in Christianity and in Judaism, and groups of paganism linked to Bacchic ( Iobacchi) & Dionysian societies prevalent in Asia Minor/Levant (Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek) at the time.
Veganism and Keto/Carnivore
This phenomenon is not only found in ancient religions, you see it today. Take for example the contemporary diets of Veganism and keto/carnivore. They are not just guidelines on what food to eat, but entire cultures, social groups and identities.
Veganism for example with its liberal/left wing slant, it’s emphasis on yoga, bicycle riding, animal rights, long distance running and urbanist living.
The Carnivore/keto people tend to be more right wing, into lifting and have no qualms with animal rights.
There is also more skepticism of governmental authority on the keto/carnivore side. They will share with you their disdain for sugar and carbs and the food pyramid made by the US government. It was interesting seeing how so many of the carnivore/keto people went hard-core COVID truther last year. It’s no surprise that Bitcoin has also clustered with this diet.
Bitcoin’s great threat is government trying to eradicate it because it sees it as a threat to its sovereign right to issue tender.
Again, the food is almost incidental to the culture and identity that forms around it. Both carnivore/keto and veganism purport to be healthy for you and each show you a range of studies trying to demonstrate that. What we eat and who we associate with how we eat is an extremely deep part of the human experience.
When we look at most ancient religions we tend to see one commonality. Fasting. Refraining from food for a certain part of time. If something is in almost every religion, it probably is a signal. Before the modern era, food availability was unpredictable and highly irregular. Frought, war, insect infestations and disease all played a part in restricting food, sometimes to the point of starvation. So did the seasons: during the summer and fall, fruits and vegetables were plentiful but during the winter and spring, they were scarce. Periods without food could could last weeks.
There’s a reason that one of the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse is famine.
As human societies developed agriculture, these periods of famines were gradually reduces and eliminated. However, ancient civilizations, recognized something deeply, intrinsically beneficial to periodic fasting. As periods of involuntary starvation faded, ancient cultures replaced them with periods of voluntary fasting. These were often called times of “cleansing,” “detoxification,” or “purification.”
Religions do a lot of things, and one of them is be a vehicle for activities that help humans survive.
Humans started becoming more than just another species of monkey when we started transmitting culture with high fidelity. Humans evolved big brains in order to be able to maintain cultural-adapted practices (like making a fire). Everything that separates us from the apes is part of an evolutionary package designed to help us maintain this kind of culture, exploit this kind of culture, or adjust to the new abilities that this kind of culture gave us.
Fire is an especially important food processing innovation, and it is entirely culturally transmitted.
Go outside and try to start a fire. Can you do it? Flint is involved, rubbing two sticks together works, sometimes.
I predict that you will not be able to do this, despite you having an IQ far beyond that of most of our hominid ancestors. In fact, some groups (most notably the aboriginal Tasmanians) seem to have lost the ability to make fire, and never rediscovered it. Fire-making was discovered a small number of times, maybe once, and has been culturally transmitted since then.
But it’s not just about chopping things up or roasting them. Traditional food processing techniques can get arbitrarily complicated. Nixtamalization of corn, necessary to prevent vitamin deficiencies, involves soaking the corn in a solution containing ground-up burnt seashells. The ancient Mexicans discovered this and lived off corn just fine for millennia. When the conquistadors took over, they ignored it and ate corn straight.
For four hundred years, Europeans and Americans ate unnixtamalized corn. By official statistics, three million Americans came down with corn-related vitamin deficiencies during this time, and up to a hundred thousand died. It wasn’t until 1937 that Western scientists discovered which vitamins were involved and developed an industrial version of nixtamalization that made corn safe. Early 1900s Americans were very smart and had lots of advantages over ancient Mexicans. But the ancient Mexicans’ culture got this one right in a way it took Westerners centuries to match.
There’s manioc. This is a tuber native to the Americas. It contains cyanide, and if you eat too much of it, you get cyanide poisoning. From Henrich:
Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it? For basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.
A reasonable person would have asked why everyone was wasting so much time preparing manioc. When told “Because that’s how we’ve always done it”, they would have been unsatisfied with that answer. They would have done some experiments, and found that a simpler process of boiling it worked just as well. They would have saved lots of time, maybe converted all their friends to the new and easier method. Twenty years later, they would have gotten sick and died, in a way so causally distant from their decision to change manioc processing methods that nobody would ever have been able to link the two together.
What Fasting Does
Fasting—allowing our bodies to exist in a state of want us unquestionably good for our health and longevity. We stress the body. And it adapts and get stronger. There are processes like autophagy that happen as well.
What happens when we fast?
1) Insulin Goes Down: Regularly lowering insulin leads to improved insulin sensitivity, the opposite of insulin sensitivity, high insulin resistence, is the root problem in type 2 diabetes and has been linked to heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer, gout and sleep apnea.
2) Adrenaline Increases and Metabolism Speeds Up: Rather than slowing the metabolism, fasting revs it up.
3) Growth Hormone Goes Up: Excessively low HGH levels in adults leads to more body fast, less muscle mass and decreased bone density.
Fasting Leads to Longevity
A Cornell University professor named Clive McCay demonstrated that rats fed a diet containing 20 percent indigestible cellulose (cardboard) lived significantly longer lives than those that were fed a typical lab diet. Studies demonstrated again and again that fasting and calorie restriction (without malnutrition) leads to longevity in all sorts of life-forms.
In 1978 on the island of Okinawa, a researcher learned that the total number of calories consumed by schoolchildren was less than two thirds of what children were getting in mainland Japan. Adult Okinawans were taking in about 20 percent fewer calories than their mainland counterparts. Okinawans had a longer lifespan than Japanese mainlanders, but so was their health span. They had significantly less cerebral vascular disease, malignancy and heart disease.
The Mediterranean Diet is a Lie
The important thing is not just what we eat but the way we eat. As it turns out, there is a strong correlations between fasting behavior and longevity in Blue Zones such as Ikaria, Greece, “the island where people forget to die,” where one-third of the population lives past the age of 0- and almost every older resident is a staunch disciple of the Greek Orthodox church and adheres to a religious calendar that calls for some manner of fasting for more than half the year. On many days, that means no meat, dairy products, or eggs. Additionally, many Greeks observe perods of total fasting before Christmas or Easter or Holy Communion.
Other longevity hotspots, such as Bama County in southern China, are places where people have access to good, healthy good but choose to forgo it for long periods of each day. Many of the centenarians in this region have spent their lives eschewing a morning meal. They generally eat their first small meal of the day around noon, then share a larger meal with their families at twilight. In this way, they typically spend sixteen hours of more of each day without eating.
We see over and over in Ancient literature a disregard for breakfast. Here Plutarch shows us there is a long history of frowning upon people who ate breakfast:
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, lists praepropere—eating too soon—as one of the ways to commit the deadly sin of gluttony; the eating of a morning meal, following that logic, was generally considered to be an affront against God and the self. Fasting was seen as evidence of one’s ability to negate the desires of the flesh; the ideal eating schedule, from that perspective, was a light dinner (then consumed at midday) followed by heartier supper in the evening
If you skip breakfast you get an extra 6-8 hours of fasting. Which leads to enormous health benefits. This was all known.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century—and the rise of factory work and office jobs that accompanied it—normalized breakfast, transforming it to an expectation. The later years of the 1800s, in particular, saw an expansion of the morning meal into a full-fledged social event. Wealthy Victorians in the U.S. and in England dedicated rooms in their homes to breakfasting, the BBC notes, considering the meal a time for the family to gather before they scattered for the day. Newspapers targeted themselves for at-the-table consumption by the men of the families. Morning meals of the wealthy often involved enormous, elaborate spreads: meats, stews, sweets.
Breakfast became a feast in its own right. And that soon led to another feature of industrialization, health problems, indigestion chief among them, that people of the 19th century and the early 20th came to know as “dyspepsia.”
Cereals invented by Graham and Kellogg and C.W. Post became popular in part because they could simply be poured into bowls, with no cooking required; soon, technological developments were doing their own part to turn the laborious breakfasts of the 19th century into briefer, simpler affairs. The advent of toasters meant that stale bread could be quickly converted, with the help of a little butter and maybe some jam, into satisfying meals. Waffle irons and electric griddles and the invention in Bisquik, in 1930, did the same. Those appliances and other cooking aids made breakfast more convenient to produce during a time that found more and more women leaving the home for the workplace—first in response to the labor shortages brought about by the World Wars, and then on their own accord.