Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My Body is not a Computer Game

My follow-up to 16 reasons why Gareth Morgan sucks (and it was supposed to be a start, not a complete list) was going to be an equal number of reasons why the Greens 'healthy food' policy sucked.

But I hate the word 'healthy' being applied to food with something approaching a burning passion. I occured to me that if I didn't get my rage at that out of the way first then my post might be quite incoherent. So first I am going to explain why I tend to say "foods aren't unhealthy or healthy, they're nutritious, or lacking in nutrients" on a semi-regular basis.

The language around food and health is pretty common. People don't just call their own food healthy they feel perfectly entitled to comment on the health qualities of what someone else is eating. Sometimes it's intended in a sarcastic manner 'healthy breakfast', if you're eating a chocolate bar, sometimes it's supposed to be a compliment. All this usage suggests that some foods have 'health' and some lack it, and this quality is the same no matter who is eating the food, which is ridiculous. Brazil nuts are very nutritious, but they're not going to be healthy if you're allergic to them, or if you've a high selenium in-take.

The idea of food being 'healthy' reminds me of computer games, where you lose health if you get shot at or land on the spikes, and gain health when you find first aid. But instead I'm supposed to be gaining health by the broccolli I'm eating right now, but I would have lost health for the chocolate I had this morning.

Our bodies don't work like that; they're not simple input/output machines. Any food that has any nutritional value (and apart from diet soda and the like, almost all food has some nutritional value) can improve the health of a particular individual at a particular time.

Just to be 100% clear, I'm not saying that there is no relationship between what we eat and our health. I'm intolerant to milk, I know that certain foods can make me unhealthy, but that doesn't mean that those foods have some mysterious amount of unhealthy that they subtract from my body.

The effect food has on our health is a relationship between the food and the state of our body atthe time that we eat it. Health is not an intrinsic quality in any food.

So I've proved my semantic point, why do I care? Mostly because I think it's a wider reflection of our eating disordered culture. Generally people who talk about food being 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' are people who are self-conscious about calling food 'good' or 'bad', but it sustains exactly the same fucked up attitude towards food.

But more fundamentally because I think that it is part of a wider project to create a commodity called 'health'. This commodity is becoming divorced from the needs of us as people, both in terms of the actual physical bodies we live our lives in and our wider social needs.


  1. Brilliant. Well said.

  2. Anonymous11:52 am

    Crap I was posting a comment and it disappeared!

    Aaanyway... re our just-ended phone conversation: of course the commodification of 'health' is part of my thesis (the general argument of which is that society fucks up our ideas about health and then sells us solutions).

    But as well, I was thinking last night as I nerded myself to sleep, part of the fucking up is the reification (such a cool word, though actually it just means turning stuff into a thing) of health. And I have arguments about how and why this happens...

    But anyway, health is turned into a thing - and it's a desirable thing (it helps to be rich, young and beautiful if you want it). And we all know what you do with desirable things - you package them for those who can afford them.

  3. Anonymous4:30 pm

    Hey, I tried to post the other day, on your Gareth Morgan blog entry, but it didn't work!! Gutted. Or was something I said in my post offensive?!? I hate writing nice coherent arguments, only to find it was a waste of time.

  4. john a - we shall see, there is water to flow yet on the AJ story, methinks.

    in terms of the health stuff, many years ago i went to a holistic health person who does all sorts of stuff including chiropractic (i still see her in fact) and we were talking about my diet and i said oh i have this really unhealthy diet blah blah blah. she asked me what i thought i should be eating and i said well i guess more veges and fruit and less fat, and she said, no, no for your body and your health at the moment - she told me that i actually needed to eat approx a third fat in my diet to help me with my health problems. and it worked (along with a whole lot of other things we put in place).

  5. Nope I didn't delete anything Suse - sorry it got lost - I'd love to hear what you had to say.

    That's exactly what I'm talking about Span - it can actually be really unhealthy to assume that the same foods are 'healthy' for everyone.

    I've no idea about AJ, it seems a little odd that he is so obsessed with pissing people off. There are certainly his equivalent on feminist blogs overseas, but they usually get banned.

  6. Ooooh. Great post - I only just saw it.

    Ya know, that's so true. Okay - plainly put - I'm fat. I'm also hypoglycemic (which just means I get very low blood sugar, basically). When this happens, I need something fast to get it back up, and something slow releasing to keep my blood sugar levels up. So, the perfect combination (if it happens around meal time) is a wholegrain sandwich with some protein in it, and something sugary like chocolate. It's amazing the number of people who think fat people shouldn't eat chocolate.

    Like you said, different foods affect different peoples health, differently.

  7. Anonymous6:01 pm

    Bah, it's OK, Maia. Although I did make a copy of what I wrote (and I tried re-posting, but to no avail) you pretty much said what I had to say anyway :)

    Anyway, about 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' foods...it's so scary. Every day I hear people talking about 'health', and 'healthy food'. It's becoming ingrained in society. No, it's already ingrained in society.

    I like to think I'm quite on to it, but even so I find myself saying things like, "I feel like something healthy". I know that there's nothing intrinsically 'healthy' about vegetables. You can't just live on veges - they are one part of a balanced diet.

    Sometimes I find this topic so depressing I just think, well, why don't I just buy into it? Everyone else does. Why don't I just go along with it and label chocolate as 'unhealthy' and grapefruit as 'healthy' and stress about all teh food I eat. But then I remember it's actually really demoralising to constantly label your food. It means that you judge and value yourself on what you put into your body. It's extremely bad for self esteem.

    So I totally agree. Health is commodified, and it's so fucking self-destructive. But the scariest thing is that it feels like EVERYONE buys into it. Fucking Sue Kedgley. I almost didn't vote Green because of her...

    So, I want to know is, how can we stop it?

  8. Yes, but none of this changes the fact that for almost everyone excessive ammounts of some foods are bad for you; while other foods (unless you are alergic to them) increase your chances of sustained good health. Most vegetables, for example, contain anti-oxidants which, in all probability, reduce the risk of you ending up with cancer. While foods which are high in saturated fat tend to raise colesterol (sp?) levels and leave you at greater risk of heart disease.

    True, people shouldn't be vilified for eating certain foods (as posters above have noticed, in moderation, very little is harmful). Yet, at the same time, unless you view heart disease as a socio-liguistic construct (which is nuts) it is worth providing the public with information about what foods they can eat and - everything else being equal - expect to optimise their health.

    Likewise, it is worthwhile trying to find ways of counterbalancing the pernicious effects of advertising which tend to steer us away from healthier towards things which (when consumed in excess) will damage your body.

    The funny thing is, I would have thought an anti-capitalist (I'm guessing at this from the title of your blog) might make such a point; rather than - in effect - defending McDonalds.

  9. Terence I'm having difficulty responding to your comment, because I actually can't see what it has to do with my post. I discussed why 'healthy' is an inaccurate word to apply to food, and why I believe that this is part of a wider trend to commodify 'health'. You respond with some basic nutritional information and an implication that my analysis in someway supports McDonalds.

    I am an anti-capitalist, which means I'm against the system as well as the individual companies. I don't care if it's McDonalds or Red Seal who are trying to sell 'health' to me, I oppose it.

  10. Hi there Maia,

    I think your last point's right and therefore my last point was wrong (doh!).

    But my basic argument - I think - still stands. That is, I think it is perfectly reasonable to call some foods healthy and others unhealthy on the basis of the fact that, in significant quantities, they will - everything else being equal, for the majority of people - either imporve of worsen your health outcomes. True calling food "healthy" or not is shorthand and looses some of the detail; but in a busy world it my well be the best way of gettting the information accross.

    As for the commodificiation of health. I agree this is undesirable. But in my mind the best way of resisting this (short of a completely different economic system, which ain't happening any time soon) is to have an adequately funded public health system; and for the governemnt to provide people with nutritional information so that they can best make the choices most appropriate for them. (Takling poverty would be good here too).

    Anyhow, sorry if I am still misunderstanding your post.

  11. I think the difference is that I think calling any individual food 'healthy' be it an apple, brocolli or bacon (you never know when you're talking to a scary low-carb person) or unhealthy be it oil, sugar, or dairy loses substance, not just detail.

    Your diet as a whole has an ability to effect your health, I'm not arguing with that. But that diet has to be considered as a whole, you need a whole bunch of different things, and to call a single thing healthy and unhealthy without considerabtion for what else you're eating hides this important point.

    To make the point you want to make you can talk about food being nutritious, or talk about the nutritious value individual food actually has.