Modern technology and modern economic organisation have broken the link between what is tasty and what it is good for us to eat, and have made it possible, for the first time in history, for everyone to eat too much. So, good luck with your new year’s resolutions!
The most common new year’s resolution is probably to lose weight. I make this claim with the smugness of someone who successfully made such a resolution a year ago. It is not very difficult to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and to find fish that is rich in nutrients but not in calories. It helps to spend time in France but access to a modern large supermarket is almost as good.
We are all responsible for our own bodies and those who eat too much do so of their own volition. Yet quirks in the way markets work make it more difficult for us to make the right choices. Advertising and promotion are characteristic of oligopolistic industries with few companies, but not of competitive industries with many. There are scale economies in the manufacture and marketing of burgers but lettuce is produced by small growers. The Big Mac and the Whopper are heavily promoted but the little spent extolling the virtues of salad comes from government agencies and growers’ co-operatives.
Taken as a whole, modern food technology is beneficial. Pesticides and preservatives prevent many more diseases than they cause. Standards of food hygiene in commercial kitchens put the most pristine domestic environment to shame. In the rich west, we rarely suffer the food-borne diseases that are still endemic in much of the world and constantly debilitated our ancestors. When we envy our forebears’ diets, we nurture romantic illusions. The soup in which Provençal fisherwomen boiled up unwanted fish caught in the nets is today bouillabaisse and costs €50 ($60) a plate. Haggis, flown round the world to be piped into the Burns suppers of affluent expatriate Scots celebrating their national poet, is made from ingredients only those in desperate poverty would normally consume.
But there is still something in the intuition that older and more natural ways are better. Evolution programmed us to find appetising the things that are good for us. Modern food technology can subvert this process, by chemically engineering products that are tasty even if they have little nutritional value. Hence the paradox that poor people are still worse nourished than the better off, even in societies where everyone can afford a healthy diet. And the further paradox that they consume more calories than they need, not less.
Alpha males, who for thousands of years pointed proudly to their plump wives to demonstrate their affluence, must today pay for health clubs so that their women are thin. The unsophisticated and undeveloped palates of children can be satisfied with crude flavourings of salt and sugar, and that is why in the UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver must battle against chicken nuggets in his quest to make school dinners both nutritious and educational.
Evolution also programmed us to eat whenever food was in front of us, because we could never be sure where the next meal was coming from, and has not adjusted yet to an environment that contains airline meals and in which all the food we can eat is only a call to a pizza delivery service away. Obesity shortens the life of its victims and makes them less attractive to potential mates. In a few generations, genetic selection will have favoured those who like exercise and spurn fatty food. But not yet.
Meanwhile, there are diets. There is intellectual property in Atkins and in books that claim that the very act of putting them on your shelves will make you thin, even though these fads are less healthy and less effective than good general advice on healthy eating, available free but promoted only by scientists and nutritionists. Bad food is not intrinsically more profitable to produce than good food and there is no conspiracy to make us eat what damages our health. But markets are biased towards the sale of manufactured goods rather than fresh produce, towards proprietary panaceas rather than sound dietary education.
Modern technology and modern economic organisation have broken the link between what is good to eat and what it is good for us to eat, and have made it possible for the first time for whole populations to eat too much. Our bodies once told us what to consume; now our brains must do so. The best new year’s resolution is to eat with the head, not the stomach.