Humans are among the world’s few species that are omnivores.
In 1976, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin coined the term, the omnivore’s dilemma, to describe the angst of deciding what to eat when you can eat just about anything.
This anxiety has never been truer. Just a visit to the local grocery store, with its aisles of shelves packed high with countless varieties of processed foods, is enough to drive home the concept of the paralysis of choice. Meanwhile, what exactly is our food made of in the contemporary American diet? Deciphering the inexplicable list of ingredients on the food label is equally effective at driving home the concept of the paralysis of analysis.
Yet, feeling overwhelmed by the dual tasks of deciding what to eat and understanding the origins of our food comes at a time when our nation’s health is being ravaged by the twin epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Our relationship with food has never changed so quickly, and the changing nature of this relationship is contributing to a disturbing phenomenon – the first decline in life expectancy in modern human history.
Meanwhile, food science has been teaching us that the food habits of our grandparents’ generation and the generations before, based on a recognition of the inherent goodness of nature, were in many ways closer to health and nutrition than the food habits of today. At the same time, the people of the geographically distinct but culturally similar blue zones (which have the highest percentage of centenarians in the world) have a template for eating, rooted in moderation and a plant-based diet, that seems to work consistently for better health.
People eat for enjoyment and for social interaction as well as for sustenance. It is also true that eating habits and related traditions represent one of the cardinal features of human culture. To test this hypothesis, one need only page through a calendar, identifying the many religious and national holidays and celebrations for which specific foods and food preparation techniques are emblematic.
People also eat for a variety of other reasons, ranging from boredom to anxiety. The fact that food not only sustains us but also comforts us, and in many ways identifies us, is inescapable. With so many competing traditions, desires and emotions, it is no wonder the choice of how and what to eat is fraught. Yet, it is possible to appease both our appetite for enjoyment and social interaction through food without compromising our health or nutrition.
The solution to this problem may be found in the wisdom of the blue zone societies. Moderation and a mostly plant-based diet are the foundation. Also, consider the concept of family mealtimes, gathered around the table in a screen-free zone, with a wholesome, homemade meal lovingly prepared by those who will share it together, served family-style for portion control and enjoyed in the context of deliberate social interaction that not only builds social bonds but also permits time for satiety. Perhaps that’s a recipe we all may wish to follow.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.