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Dinner, With a Side of Self-Righteousness

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Back when I was a vegan, there was a joke I heard a lot, and which nonetheless always made me laugh. "I'm a Level 5 Vegan," they'd say. "I don't eat anything that casts a shadow." It's an all-too-telling poke at a tendency among vegans to suggest their lofty superiority over other mere mortals because whatever your dietary restrictions are, theirs are even more stringent.

I'm not against restricting your diet for moral reasons. Obviously, the fact that I was a vegan suggests that I think eschewing animal products is a perfectly swell way to live . I still buy certified humane eggs whenever possible, and get our meat from the sort of twee hippy CSA that my commenters think is no end of funny. I fast for Lent every year, and have friends who keep kosher. I'm not against applying moral principles to food. What I'm against is thinking that what you eat makes you a better class of person, and smugly lecturing those who don't follow your lead -- a phenomenon that, as Phoebe Malz Bovy points out, is hardly restricted to vegans.

Elite food writers aren’t just out of touch with the working and middle classes. They are out of touch with people who aren’t elite food writers. They’re oblivious not just to those who struggle to put food on the table, but to those whose jobs don’t send them on tours of Paris’s finest restaurants

The true villain for the food movement isn’t someone who buys fast food when they should be eating lentils. It’s someone who, despite having the resources to do so, hasn’t researched where his or her food comes from. Grocery shoppers’ desire to purchase fruits and vegetables -- a seemingly admirable, or at least innocuous, one -- is recast as consumer demand for out-of-season produce -- the height of decadence.

As Bovy notes, asking people to "eat local" who live in northern climes where "local" means "nothing green" for six or seven months out of the year, and do not get to spend a few months each winter in Sicily teaching a cooking class, is pretty rich. A food writer who is telling other people how they could eat, if they wanted to, is doing a great public service. A food writer who is telling other people how they should eat (just like me, except without my access to ingredients) is just obnoxious. You can't possibly know how they should eat, unless you have spent some time living their lives.

It is well to remember that people who spend time professionally writing about food have quite a bit more time in their day for acquiring and cooking food than most people. They also have more resources and recipes at their disposal. And you know, they can move to California to enjoy the produce.

Nor is it just the tyranny of localism; it is the list of ingredients that you ought to like, and the list of ingredients that you shouldn't, and what the hell is wrong with you troglodytes and your Twinkies? Now, personally, I hated Twinkies before Hostess went bankrupt, and I'm sure I'd hate them now, along with Hostess cupcakes, Ho Hos, Devil Dogs, Snowballs, and whatever other tasteless cake substance they've filled with that disgusting white goo that tastes like rubberized confectioner's sugar. I also despise anything made with canned cream-of-whatever soup, detest marshmallows in any form, and would rather eat paste than Cool Whip. You know what these are? Personal preferences. They are not signs that I have achieved a higher level of food consciousness. There is no such thing as a higher level of food consciousness. There is stuff you like to eat, and stuff you do not like to eat.

And if I may insert a personal plea: could the bittermongers please knock it off with the sneers? Somehow, in the collective cocktail consciousness of America's hipsters, "bitter" has become synonymous with "sophisticated". Bitter beer is good beer, bitter cocktails are good cocktails, and the louts who like things thin or sweet deserve what they get, which is everyone else at the bar struggling to conceal their bemused smile. Yet there are many of us who hate, hate, hate bitter flavors not because we haven't been exposed to them, nor because we're unadventurous slobs who would really rather be hooked up to a glucose IV. Personally, I find bitter flavors like Campari so strong that even a sip is on the verge of being physically aversive, as if you were punching me in the tongue. That's not a matter of sophistication, but a matter of personal chemistry. There are people who can taste bitter compounds in broccoli and soapy-tasting substances in cilantro that make it completely unpalatable, while the rest of us dig into our veggies and say they don't know what they're missing. In fact, we've got it exactly backwards: we don't know what we're missing -- and we're moralizing our deficits.

The most maddening example of this is, of course, the case of thin people, or folks who could really stand to lose ten pounds, lecturing the obese on how stupid they are for letting themselves get fat. A recent passage from a Vox article on obesity showcases what I'm talking about:

Keeping your weight down requires daily consideration. It requires planning and thought to choose foods carefully and make time for exercise. This indeed takes up "mental real estate."

But I would ask Brown: does being obese require any less mental energy?

Is it really more mentally freeing to feel tired when you walk up a flight of stairs, to have to buy two seats on an airplane because one won't do, to not be able to play with your children because you're too unfit, to continually worry about whether your clothes are going to fit in the morning ... the list goes on.

As a friend who really struggles with his weight points out, the author seems not to understand that for people with a weight problem, weight loss often involves both: you're tired and miserable and overweight, and also, you're spending a huge amount of mental energy counting calories and making time for exercise.

Moreover, this really underplays the amount of mental energy we're talking about. When you talk to people who have successfully lost really large amounts of weight as adults -- amounts that bring them from the really risky "super-obese" category into something more normal -- you find two things. First, that most of them don't keep it off, unless they have bariatric surgery, in which case, 50 percent of them keep it off. And second, that the people who are keeping the weight off without surgery are going to extreme lengths to maintain their weight loss, lengths that most of us would probably find difficult to fit into our lives: weighing every ounce of food they consume, counting calories obsessively, exercising for long periods every day, and constantly battling "intrusive thoughts of food." 

It's not quite fair to say that most of the public health experts I've seen talking about obesity are thin people brightly telling fat people that "Everything would be fine if you'd just be more like me!" But it's not really that far off the mark, either. In the words of another friend who struggled with his weight, and got quite testy when I suggested weight loss was easy, "You've hit the pick six in the genetic lottery, and you think you earned it."

I spent much of my life being really skinny, and now I'm a middle aged person who is still in the normal range but wishes she could fit into the clothes she wore when she was twenty five -- and probably could, if she would spend more time eating salad, and less time making elaborate meals for her family. I am, in other words, exactly the sort of person who often lectures obese folks on their weight.

But here's the thing: in neither situation have I felt anything like the struggles my overweight friends describe, where getting their weight down to anything approaching doctor-approved levels, and keeping it there, requires an ironclad will and monotonous focus on never eating anything you want. I doubt that I'd do better in their situation -- but more importantly, I recognize that I'm not in their situation, and won't be if I lose fifteen pounds, either. Obese people who have lost weight are not like thin people; they are like people whose bodies want to be much heavier, and constantly cry out for food (also known as: "intrusive thoughts"). Hunger is an imperative biological signal on par with pain, and overriding it is a titanic act of willpower, which luckily many of us don't have to exert. Moralizing that difference would be daft.

And so is moralizing the food you had the time and resources to put on your table this evening. Of course, we could all do better with our eating: our meals could be thriftier, or tastier, or more scrupulously in line with our conscience. These are all goals worth striving for. But we shouldn't chide other people for failing to reach our goals. Especially when we got to start the race miles ahead.

  1. Except for what the soy did to my thyroid, I mean.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net