You’re Not What You Eat

Posted: March 19, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

Trust me!  Despite all you’ve heard and will continue hearing to the contrary, the title is entirely correct: you’re not what you eat.  Not now. Not last week.  Not next month.  Not next year.

87How can I be so certain?  What evidence do I have proving my contention beyond a reasonable doubt?   Here it is and it’s all very obvious.   Let’s do a thought experiment.  Imagine that this morning for breakfast you ate a big bowl of hot, high fiber, harsh tasting, steel cut oatmeal.

Next, picture yourself getting up from your kitchen table, putting your now empty oatmeal bowl in the sink, running some water in it, shutting off the tap, turning off the kitchen light, and then going to your front closet to get your coat and head off to work.  Lastly imagine putting on your coat, taking your keys out of your pocket, opening and going out the door, and then closing and locking it, before finally taking off for work.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with our theme?   Here’s the answer: though you do these things routinely, a bowl of oatmeal can’t.   Thus, you can’t be a bowl of oatmeal and my thesis is proven for you’re not what you eat, at least not the particular morning I have in mind.  And I’m convinced the same thing would be true if instead of oatmeal, you had some eggs and toast or, being in a terrible hurry, you only had time to grab a granola bar before rushing out of your warm comfy abode.

But might a skeptic claim my point’s pretty weak for I’m being much too literal minded.  Our title’s magic phrase doesn’t mean we become an actual glob of oatmeal after scraping  our bowl clean; instead, what’s meant is that our digested meal supplies what our bodies need to keep us healthy.

Yet I continue to hold we’re not what we eat.  Food certainly may influence how we feel and what we want to do, nonetheless the core of who we are isn’t defined by how our body functions as it may or may not be influenced in still not understood ways by what we’ve eaten.

As I see it, putting so much weight on how and what people eat leads to a host of problems large and small.  Slowly, we become preoccupied, even obsessed with food, as does our nation, which is blitzed daily by a media michael_bloombergculture which encourages the obsession.  Mayor Bloomberg’s recent effort to ban the sale of 16 once plus sized containers of soda provides a good example of an aspect of the food obsession now sweeping the land.

The mayor justified his ban arguing it would reduce the incidence of obesity.   One major reason his law makes no sense–and there are many others–is that there’s no data that shows the degree to which 16, or 17, or 18 ounce sodas cause obesity.  In an editorial written a day after a New York State Judge struck down the law, even the New York Times, usually a friend of trendy food regulations, stated that the law was ill conceived and wouldn’t work.

Thus in my view the notion that you are what you eat is both wrong and a symbol of a wider cultural trend which brings more harm than good.   Rather than worrying about becoming what we eat, we’d be better off seeing ourselves as a red red rose, or a dancing star, or the sum total of all we’ve surveyed and, after a good night’s sleep, still hope to survey as our train roars into the future.

  1. Jenny says:

    Your claim that there is “no data that shows the degree to which 16, or 17, or 18 ounce sodas cause obesity” is specious in its specificity. In 2008, the studies on the links between obesity and soda couldn’t find a link. In 2012, new studies started showing the links. Here’s a piece from Reuters on the new studies:

    “I know of no other category of food whose elimination can produce weight loss in such a short period of time,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, who led one of the studies. “The most effective single target for an intervention aimed at reducing obesity is sugary beverages.”

    I’m not arguing for or against the ban; I’m just pointing out that there are, in fact, links between soda and obesity.

    • Peter Stern says:

      Dear Jenny,
      Thanks for reading my piece and thanks for responding so quickly and thanks for the Reuters citation.

      As for the substance of your comment, I must confess to being a little unclear what you mean by “specious specificity.” If by “specificity” you mean my reference to the difference made by drinking 16 versus 17 or 18 onces of soda, I used those numbers because that gets to the heart of a key issue Mayor Bloomberg’s ban raises. If a law stipulates particulars, I assume the people who wrote the law had a good reason for choosing the particulars they chose, just as Dr. Ludwig felt that the numbers he cited justified the statements he made about sugary drinks and their elimination.

      I was aware of the soda obesity claim before Bloomberg proposed his law and it has certainly received plenty of publicity in the process of Bloomberg getting his bill passed. Moreover, if we agree to forget for a moment the merits of Bloomberg’s law, and discuss instead the link between soda and obesity, it seems to me that the size of the link is very important: if the link is large, that’s one thing, if it’s small, then the issue becomes very different. So when you write that there are in fact links between soda and obesity, it seems to me you’re leaving out a key part of what makes the issue controversial. Perhaps this is yet another case of the devil being in the details.

      In any event, again, thanks very much for your comment, and I’m going to try and find out more about the studies the Reuter’s article mentioned. Best, Peter

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