The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Cake Wars (or: The coming food paradigm shift)

I work in the office of a small DC nonprofit. Sometimes the Executive Director brings Krispy Kreme donuts to the staff meeting on Monday mornings. Our vendors send us baskets with cookies, chocolates, or other sweets, so the lunch room is always a good place to forage for candy and other baked goods. And a few times a month — nearly every week — we pack ourselves around the long conference table at 3:00 PM for cake, to celebrate somebody’s birthday. We also do this whenever an employee leaves, or whenever there’s a new employee. We make jokes about how much we all love cake, as though the shared love of cake binds us together, like it’s our mascot, our totem.

There’s always something a little bit self-centered, a little bit rude, in the occasional, scrupulously healthy employee who refuses a piece of cake and watches everyone else eat theirs. Office folklore even tells of the one time, many years ago, when a health-conscious staffer requested vegetables and dip for her birthday rather than cake. That experiment was not repeated, and the staffer subsequently left for unrelated reasons. (You know, she wasn’t a good fit.)

In other words, my office is probably exactly like most offices. There’s no sinister plot to make us all diabetics. In our culture, as in nearly every culture around the world, carbohydrate-rich baked goods, sometimes but not always heavily sweetened, are given as gifts, baked and shared to mark special occasions and anniversaries. They are tokens of communion and celebration. They’re also a great social equalizer. Bread, in one form or another, is a staple everywhere, enjoyed by the poor as much as by the rich. Since the Neolithic revolution, meat-eating has been a rich man’s prerogative, but everyone, except in the depths of famine, has access at least to bread. It’s the symbolic quintessence of goodness, and for four decades it (along with pasta, cereal, etc.) has formed the massive base of the food pyramid.

The futurist in me senses this is all going to change. Nutritional research like that I’ve discussed in previous posts is giving major new legitimacy to the idea of the “Paleolithic Diet”: That the healthiest diet should be one that resembles the diet of people prior to the cultivation and refinement of grains — i.e., foods we evolved to eat over millions of years, and did eat until just a few thousand years ago. I think we’re on the cusp of what is likely to be a huge dietary paradigm shift in the coming decades. As nutritionists’ fat blinders get lifted and they start reexamining the evidence, more and more legitimate scientific fingers are going to be pointed at refined carbs as the source of many of our worst health problems.

This is very interesting for two reasons. First, do you have any idea how huge the grain industry is, and how much weight Big Agriculture and Big Sugar carry in Washington? A backlash against bread and sugar will mean more than just dirty looks at office cake time. The grain and sugar lobbies are going to fight back against the growing anti-carb movement in a huge way. The ensuing societal war will be bigger and bloodier than the fight against tobacco ever was. My prediction: In the next few years, there will be MORE (not fewer) studies implicating dietary fat, and these studies will be funded directly or indirectly by America’s wheat, corn, and sugar producers.

The second reason I think this dietary paradigm shift is so interesting is that there is an unspoken and very antidemocratic scandal concealed in it: Eating a low-carb diet is really expensive. Eating “whole grains” doesn’t cut it. We should be eating organic meat, fish, eggs, green vegetables and fruit. As a result, some very difficult choices lay ahead, in the coming decade, in the coming century, about what to put on our plates. Since we’ve begun avoiding most carbs, my girlfriend and I spend twice or three times what we used to on groceries. There’s just no getting around it, and the reasons go back to the reasons our environmentally pressured Neolithic forbears shifted to a grain-based diet in the first place: It is more “economical” (not factoring in the hidden, deferred health costs we are now becoming aware of) to cultivate and refine grains than it is to cultivate vegetable crops or to husband animals for their meat; grain-based foods are called “cheap calories” for a reason.

The bottom line is, only people who live in the Western world and who make enough money to shop at stores like Whole Foods can afford to eat well. Thus there is going to be a major cultural divergence when it comes to diet. Most humans will continue to subsist mainly on cheap calories, and to suffer the health problems such a diet entails. Even if the world overnight became completely educated about the nutritional disadvantages of refined carbs, the laws of economics and ecology all conspire to ensure that the majority of people will never remotely be able to afford to eat the diet our species is adapted to eat. We are destined to remain an unhealthy planet.

About

I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at] gmail.com.

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