The Contrarian Credo, or Why We Have to be Smarter

If you haven’t already embraced your cultural maverick status (here), I’m about to give you some more ammunition. Because here’s the deal: It takes a daily resolve to navigate our loud pro-grain, pro-sedentary atmosphere.

If we take a look at the 20th century and the havoc it wrought in our diet, we’ll see something pretty fascinating. We’ll see that its lineage begins around the Industrial Revolution (and yes, we can keep going back, but let’s keep it manageable, shall we?), but that things really started to go awry in the 1900s. Why?

Something that eluded Marx in his thoughts on capitalism: advertising. He couldn’t have predicted it, and it proved to be the proverbial straw and a major player in the food world we have today. Let’s imagine your grandmother (or great-grandmother for you young whippersnappers) making a birthday cake from scratch only to be told that it’s not nearly as good as the new Betty Crocker one from a box. Where did that message come from? Food companies –> America –> Friends and neighbors –> Kids (a vast untapped resource as far as food companies are concerned—an opportunity for a lifelong customer!). Convenience became the preferred privilege of the new middle class in post-WWII America. A Betty Crocker cake meant you could afford to take shortcuts. Then marketing came along, amplifying these messages and suddenly those messages just became common wisdom. When someone tries to point out fallacies in Paleo eating, if you ask them to identify where their “evidence” comes from, they won’t be able to tell you because it has just been the water we’ve all been swimming in for decades.

Before I go further, for the record, I am not against folks making an honest buck, and I think most people who work in food industries aren’t out to kill everyone. I think a cognitive dissonance occurs for many of these people and they can’t understand how their actions contribute to the larger issue. They have to buy into the dominant message just to get through their day, to pay their bills, to feed their own families in turn. Totally legit. But you know who else was governed by this phenomenon? Supporters of the Nazi party in Germany. An extreme example, and I’m not comparing the relative morality of the two groups, but an apt one all the same. This is what happens when specialization takes over and interferes with the ability to see the big picture: “But I’m just doing my job.” I’m not railing against the individual here, but rather hoping to highlight what can happen when we become a compartmentalized part of a whole, and especially a part that becomes dependent on a whole that doesn’t have our best interests at heart.

As someone who has worked in marketing, I totally get how talk about abstract ideas becomes an echo chamber that doesn’t exist in any physical reality. Or if it does, you’re so far removed from the consequences that it requires a whole other method of input to understand the repercussions. This is why companies LOVE social media, because it provides this conduit for free. Unfortunately, at this point, food companies are ignoring the cues they’re getting about how truly damaging their products are and why. Instead, they try to get out ahead of it and control the message from the source. When criticism of processed foods became too loud to ignore, they jumped on the whole grains bandwagon and they will continue to push it until the steam runs out on that one too: “But how can you say we’re unhealthy? We’re adding Omega-3s to our Cocoa Puffs!”

A disturbing video recently made the rounds that perfectly illustrates the problem:

  • What the video gets right. It shows how our culture, our friends and family, and our own behaviors reinforce the problem. The assaults are constant and come from all fronts. This is why there is no such thing as “moderation.” It shows that parents are the gatekeepers to their child’s experience and that there are things more important than a non-fussy child.
  • What the video gets wrong. It continues the blame. This is a tactic employed by food industry companies, the government, “experts”, healthcare, pharmaceutical companies, and even your own friends and family. And while family dynamics are no doubt really important, my own experience is a small counterargument to the portrayal in the video. I grew up on Domino’s pizza, Snickers bars, a constant supply of Coca-Cola, Little Debbie’s snack cakes, chips, and sugary cereals, and yet the minute I was on my own as an adult, I began to seek out healthier eating.

It’s this blame tactic that, in combination with advertising and marketing, is so insidiously harmful. Yes, on the one hand, it all comes down to individual choices and parents are the arbiters of their children’s choices for almost two decades. This fact can either be incredibly empowering or impossibly, soul-crushingly defeating. On the other hand, when the blame is focused on the consumer, it removes the blame from where it most surely belongs. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Food Safety. The fact that this is even a familiar concept should tell you how broken our relationship with food really is. Whenever there’s an outbreak of something foodborne (E. coli etc.), you can bet it’s the consumer’s fault for not preparing it properly or cooking it thoroughly. Nevermind the unsanitary conditions it was grown under, or how feedlot antibiotic usage has created superbugs, or the role GMOs play in altering the natural lifecycle of plants. Nevermind that food companies now advertise their produce, particularly packaged lettuces and greens, as being “triple-washed,” but if your child dies from the spinach in his smoothie, it’s your fault for not washing it well enough.
  • Weight Gain. If you’ve read Mr. Taubes, this is a familiar idea. The message from our culture to the overweight/obese is that it’s their fault (more on that here). They are lazy gluttons, end of story, and the food companies are happy with that conclusion. What gets me about this is how more and more, I’m hearing this from people who are themselves overweight—it’s that dominant of an idea that people can’t even see how it applies to them. And while this is true to some degree (we are, after all, ultimately responsible for what we put in our mouths), let’s take a macro view. They are up against the industrial food complex, the dominant health message in our culture, the advice of their friends/family/doctors, their upbringing, their emotional state, everything that’s familiar to them, advertising. They are up against the freakin’ tide of the world, not to mention the hijacked signaling going on within their own bodies. That’s one hell of a tsunami to swim against. Let’s all congratulate ourselves right now for being damn good swimmers.
  • The Financial Crisis. Let’s use a non-food example. When the bubble burst back 2007-08ish, immediately the blame divided into two camps: the big financial institutions and the little people caught up in the turmoil. And both are true, but by blaming people for unknowingly signing their lives away on an outrageous mortgage, it completely relieves financial institutions for what was outright criminal behavior, and they prefer it that way. This was another hysteria fueled by culture. When my husband and I lived in the Bay Area during the worst of it, EVERYONE was telling us we’d better buy or we’d be priced out forever. We took one look at our humble little rental house of 950 sq. ft. going for $750,000 and said, No thanks.

So what’s the remedy? You have to be smarter than they are. You have to know how they work, why their messages jive with the human animal, why you respond the way you do. You have to become an efficient observer of yourself to change your reaction and behavior. Be willing to learn from your mistakes and keep challenging yourself. This is not about reaching a pedestal of perfection, it’s about adaptation to the conditions in front of you.

I have a few suggestions for how to combat the noisy noise:

  • Unplug. The less advertising you see, the less sway it holds over you. Get rid of the TV. If you can’t, consider other options than just having a steady stream of cable available at any time, like AppleTV or NetFlix. Do what you can to make your viewing as intentional as possible—no channel surfing. How about your magazine subscriptions? Internet? And etcetera.
  • Circle the Wagons. Many of us aren’t surrounded by huge Paleo communities, so we have to make do. There’s a vast Paleo community online and this goes a long way toward making me feel less like a pariah. If you belong to a CrossFit gym, chances are, you’re surrounded by like-minded folks. Switch out one of your crazy old-school fitness or food magazine subscriptions for Paleo Magazine. Hit up one of the ancestral health conferences or try a MovNat workshop. Look online to see if there’s a meet-up group in your area or start one.
  • Spend Your Dollars Wisely. Every dollar spent on a Nabisco product is a vote for the company. Take it away from them. Investing that money locally is one of the best ways to put your money where your mouth is, literally. Make relationships with local farmers and ranchers. How else can you align your money with your principles? Make companies earn it by conducting themselves ethically and responsibly.

Do you enjoy sticking it to the man? How do you navigate all of it?

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2 Responses to “The Contrarian Credo, or Why We Have to be Smarter”

  1. Most historians of the industrial revolution date its start to around 1712, when Newcomen introduced the first practical steam engine.

    Mr Pedant.

    • Indeed. Hmm…Hopefully there’s not any confusion, but what I was trying to say is that some of the problems I’m highlighting about the 20th century have roots in the Industrial Revolution (which I didn’t date here) and beyond. Industrialization brought about massive changes in how we conducted our lives and were able to feed ourselves. That was my only point with that. But thanks for that!

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