Garlic. You know, the devil’s onion. Wait, that’s not quite right, since onions are wicked as well. Shallots, leeks, chives — alliums are terrible for human health. They stoke the passions, distracting the celibate. Worst of all, they cannot be offered to Krishna. Avoid at all costs.
Indian Ayurveda is not the only system to eschew certain types of food. A proper Ital cook never uses salt. No treif in kosher diets — food that is “torn.” Forget about pork in this brand of Judaism. Forget about pork in Ital. Just forget about pork.
Except if you’re in 15th century Spain and have just kicked out those taboo-loving Moors and Jews. Then swine it up. Erect statues of pigs. Stuff bacon into fish. Slather it all over your body.
Food restrictions are an integral part of many spiritual and religious systems. This stems back, in part, to tribal relationships. “Those guys eat cow? What a dirty animal. No one can eat cows! It is sacred!”
That’s essentially what happened in India, although that debate was inter-tribal. The Brahmans didn’t want the lower castes consuming their prime cuts. A taboo was born for everyone save priests and the 1 percent. Until Muslims invaded, that is. “Those guys are going to eat our cows? But ghee is sacred! Don’t touch our cows — they’re gods!”
While today humans generally don’t have as many food restrictions due to religious ideas, beliefs in purity are carried out in other realms. The obsession over what to eat and what to avoid is as strong as ever. Goodbye sugar. Goodbye gluten.
Nothing is as intimate and personal as food. Our eating habits speak to our emotional dualism: We want our bodies to be temples of purity while we simultaneously hope to "transcend" our flesh. Anything that disrupts this process is treated as an aberration.
In his 2003 book Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser investigated the American pornographic industry, following the visual trajectory from a flash of legs to a nipple to rubbing a nipple to softcore to hardcore to bestiality and group orgies. Once brains become accustomed, they grow bored. More stimulation is needed. Food will no longer do; it must be a superfood. Eating regular food becomes both a chore and toxic, so we have to cleanse.
Nothing could be more prescient than the term "cleansing." We already have a mechanism that cleanses our body regardless of what we ingest: our circulatory system. "Juice cleanse" is first and foremost a marketing term, as is "superfood."
Don’t misunderstand. I’ve worked in fitness for over a decade. I eat a healthy, vegetarian diet. I can’t believe anyone would ever ingest any foodstuff without first reading the ingredients. Our disconnection from our food sources is the result of urbanization and mechanization, so I do my best to understand what’s going in and how it reacts in my system.
It’s the fanatic religiosity given to food that’s disturbing. Ayurveda has one thing right: We each have unique constitutions that should be considered when deciding on a diet. For people suffering from diabetes or celiac disease, sugar and gluten should be avoided. As James Hamblin writes, many "toxic" substances are really dose-dependent. Eat too much and of course there will be problems.
Absolutism is the real issue here, the topic Hamblin discusses with religious scholar Alan Levinovitz regarding his new book, The Gluten Lie. As Levinovitz states,
"Ideas about religion can be so powerful that people can’t endorse them without giving up a part of their identity. It’s the same thing with diets. If you’ve adopted a diet and it’s become part of your identity, asking someone to reconsider something as simple as eating sugar or gluten is kind of like asking someone to give up their faith. To admit that the core of their identity is fundamentally mistaken. The pointy-head scientists and the people affiliated with Big Agriculture couldn’t possibly be right because they are demons."
Like Levinovitz, I earned a degree in religion after becoming fascinated with the narratives people create to explain and justify their existence. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes that humans are not so much natural storytellers as much as our brains are susceptible to the power of a story. Our brains hate gaps. We’ll invent all sorts of tales to fill in what remains unexplained. This might be the neural basis for religion.
It’s easy to see how our relationship to food follows the same trajectory. Religion was not here before us. It stemmed in part from our continual quest for purity, to feel "above" the rest of the animal kingdom, as well as other tribes considered dirty. Religion is a pattern of thinking, so it makes sense that what we feed our brains and what we feed our bodies would follow a similar course.
Just like metaphysics divides us, so does our diets. The obsession over "toxic" foods has created an entire industry, one that companies like BluePrint Juice have no qualms exploiting with $11 bottles of coconut water — or nearly $200 for a three-day cleanse package.
And just like the anxiety created when musing over deities, the stress of weeding through an Internet of nutritional verbiage is enough to make your brain explode. If you think garlic is going to ruin your meditation, well, if you eat it and sit down to meditate, you telling yourself that it’s ruined will do the trick. No allium necessary for this neurosis.
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