The Politics of Eating

Reflections on the psychological, moral and political implications of what we eat, and on prospects for non-violent social change.

Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.

— Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin, Jean-Anthelme, (Penguin Books, 1994): p.13.

Getting back into fasting after a break is difficult. In the past, I would fast for two days in every week, but occasionally challenged myself to extend that by a day or two, maybe three, until one day — evidently one day too many — I collapsed like a device unplugged and cracked my head on the sink and toilet bowl on the way down to the stone floor. Syncope is a lovely word, but I wouldn’t recommend the experience.

These days I opt for intermittent fasting, restricting food intake to an eight-hour window in every twenty-four. Thereafter, not even a wee measly sliver of dried mango, a peanut, a prune, a gherkin or grape is allowed through the gate. I don’t starve, but the tantalising whiff of someone’s bag of salt and vinegar-sprinkled chips occasionally tempts me to tap them on the shoulder and ask for one. I assure myself the craving will pass, but not before the prospect of finishing a whole bag alongside a slice of pizza topped with garlic, herbs and Kalamata olives floods the mind…adding a cake by way of dessert to complete the repertoire of gluttony.

Such efforts to control cravings for energy-dense foods are effectively attempts to discipline the savannah brain, more specifically the adaptive preferences for salt, sugars and fats inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. These nutrients are essential to human survival, but whilst they are in abundance for around seven of the eight billion people that currently inhabit the planet, they were most likely rather more scarce in our ancestral environment. Moreover, our ancestors did not live the sedentary lifestyle many of us have today, with all the calorific consequences this implies.

Anticipating famine further down the line, our ancestral urge would be to eat as much as possible of these essential foods whenever found in copious quantities. This inclination remains with us today, but converts to overdrive in circumstances where foods are widely available, made worse by being processed in forms that render them health-threatening and addictive. By imposing a limit on eating times, intermittent fasting therefore serves as a corrective to some of our evolved proclivities — those urges more in keeping with our ancestral environment — and if combined with a high quality diet a relationship with politics is necessarily established; it might not deliver a mortal blow to the ultra-processed food industry, but combined with a whole-food plant-based vegan diet it has a part to play in heightening resistance to some of the shadier tendencies of the food monopolists.

What does politics have to do with what we put in our mouths? Salt, fats, sugars and various additives are today produced in combined, and often concentrated forms by powerful multinational food corporations — global multi-billion dollar concerns that typically pound the public with adverts illustrating people looking like mindless zombies guzzling sugary drinks, emptying cardboard boxes of sugary cereal into breakfast bowls, and devouring unhealthy concoctions of deep-fried dead things from buckets. Their express aim is to maximise profit by exploiting the palatability of desired nutrients, the preference for calories, and the pleasure-seeking pathways — the latter being an increase in dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit, or to put it another way, the habit of liking something, getting a kick out of it, and wanting more. Many people are consequently undernourished, and in one sense starving, not because there is a scarcity of food in the category of good dietary quality, but because there is an abundance of cheap and available energy-dense foods.

The correlation between ultra-processed foods, obesity and food-related illnesses continues into the realm of food addiction. A glance at the criteria for determining addiction in the DSM-5, (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders), shows people who regularly consume foods rich in salt, fats and sugars conform to the stated criteria for addiction — a condition on a par with being hooked on cigarettes, though many self-report their experience to be far worse. These criteria include repeated consumption despite known harmful consequences, needing more of the substance to get the effect you want, wanting to cut down or stop but not managing to, craving to use the substance, and the experience of withdrawal.

It’s not difficult to find evidence that links highly-processed foods with obesity or illness among people of all age groups and all social classes, including their pets, but evidence does indicate a higher incidence of obesity and food addiction among lower income groups. That being said, not everyone suffering from food addiction or food-related illnesses is clinically obese. Whether we deem the continued use of highly processed foods the result of one factor, or a combination of several — biological, socioeconomic, behavioural or substance-related — it is perhaps unsurprising that many people, on becoming aware that they face life-threatening conditions, enter a 12-step recovery programme.

Food addiction and food-related illnesses are set to become our highest health concern. Setting a trend for the world, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in 2023 stated that over 40% of adults and 20% of children and adolescents in the USA are obese, whilst 70% of adults overall are overweight. Those rates are currently lower in Europe, but the trend is no less troubling. Obesity Statistics from the House of Commons Library in 2023 suggest UK obesity rates are running at 25% for adults and children, and that almost 40% of adults are overweight. The Scottish Government’s Health Survey of 2022 indicates that the highest rates of obesity and related illnesses in the UK are in Scotland, and those health risks include diabetes, strokes, sleep apnea, dyslipidemia, hypertension, coronary artery disease, fatty liver disease, a variety of cancers, and possibly cognitive dysfunction — such as poor decision-making and memory impairment.

In light of the individual suffering, the increasing strain on medical services, and what amounts to an impending societal if not global health catastrophe, the heavily-marketed campaign for intermittent fasting should have proved highly beneficial. The overwhelming focus of the programme, however, was not on individuals relinquishing highly processed foods, but simply on their reduction by restricting food consumption within set times. This was a widely-advertised lifestyle intervention, not a challenge to the dark side of the food industry, and as such it was hardly the worst outcome for the unsavoury food giants: continue eating rubbish, just less rubbish.

One might argue that any reduction in food intake, even at the level of basic survival mode, is welcome during an epidemic of obesity-related problems — an epidemic that is currently affecting a quarter of the world’s population. But endorsing highly-processed and addictive foods on the intermittent fasting programme, albeit in lesser quantities, not only leaves people ultimately facing failure and a range of health problems, it somewhat suspiciously sidesteps the chance to publicly condemn the food giants. When one considers the vast number of television programmes and magazine articles devoted to dieting, one can’t help but wonder if perhaps a parasitical connection exists between the dieting industry and the food giants, and whether they are in fact motivated to kill their host. Fat, after all, is a monetarist issue.

The effectiveness of intermittent fasting hinges on the extent to which it is allied to programmes of high dietary quality, otherwise it is no better than the ludicrous calorie-counting diets, some of which even allow chocolate bars and cakes to be counted. If they include foods that are correlated with health concerns, and with added sugars that render them potentially addictive, then even if they help people to lose excess weight, it is difficult to see how they could hope to clear a pathway to optimal levels of health and longevity. On the self-discipline front, speaking from personal experience, intermittent fasting combined with a high quality diet has worked well in the context of everyday circumstances. However, I must admit that when I’m out of the country, fasting all but goes out the window.

Wandering in foreign parts, as I often do these days, it’s easy to lose track of time and for fasting boundaries to become outrageously stretched. Being vegan, there is the additional challenge of finding suitable food, of laboriously checking ingredients, and of struggling to explain across the language barrier what should be left out of prepared meals. After a while it gets easier to navigate, and even in the once vegan-oriented but now notoriously meat-heavy Japan, I eventually located vegan restaurants in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, found options in restaurants that were otherwise a horror show, and eventually sampled the buddhist cuisine of shojin-ryori.

Although vegan alternatives are not always on advertised menus, they can often be conjured up if asked. Even in those obscure and in some respects forbidding narrow alleyways, some with vents of rising steam that one might imagine belong to a mythical underworld, people with a pot, a flame and a mix of ingredients will often cobble together something on the vegan front, and in fact I think many folk find the challenge fun. Food is frequently the lingua franca in interethnic situations, of which veganism has often proved to be a particular dialect that many of the people I met were curious to learn.

There have, however, been communication failures. By way of a well-meaning meat alternative, I’ve been offered a variety-bag of deep-fried long-legged bugs, a bowl of baby octopuses with quail eggs stuffed into their brains, and manure-scented peanut brittle; the latter I licked, causing a week-long bout of projectile vomiting and propulsive diarrhoea. I wanted to die. On the plus side, the food poisoning did render it a little easier to get back on the intermittent fasting track once home…not that I’m recommending that particular course for anyone.

Places where monks hang out are always a fair bet, and I’ve been offered vegan platters in or around Buddhist monasteries in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Sikh gurdwaras, Jain basadis and Krishna temples across India, Taoist pagodas in Vietnam and Cambodia, and Hindu mandirs throughout Indonesia. The trend continued in Malaysia and Borneo, where the most edifying establishments, built from the ground up for moral instruction and intellectual nourishment, tend also to be the best eating joints…or to be neighbouring them.

Among several areas in which temple followers excelled and I failed was fasting. I have often been beckoned by the aroma of sizzling street food wafting through the tropical night air, and must admit to having devoured a wee Pad Thai at midnight — well outside my fasting hours. In my defence, it is difficult to stick rigidly to a fasting regime whilst wandering wildly for miles in vast areas ten thousand kilometres from home, and when uncertain where the next meal will come from. Stirring up the atavistic remnants of our distant ancestors, I’ve eaten heartily when food was in abundance in preparation for anticipated periods of scarcity, and occasionally compromised to the extent of eating highly processed foods that are potentially detrimental to health. Interrupted fasting might be a more apposite name for my version of intermittent fasting — when I’m abroad, at any rate — but at least I’ve not strayed from the vegan path.

On that side of things it was disheartening to learn that the Jainist, Hindu and Buddhist priests, monks and nuns I encountered — whilst at the level of rhetoric they avowedly adhere to the principles of ahimsa: of having respect for all living things, and the avoidance of violence towards others — were not in fact vegan. If not meat itself, monks and adherents to each of these religious orders, though there were some exceptions, use dairy, and consequently commodify nonhuman animals for personal benefit. Perhaps many would hope to find consolation in the fact that they are vegetarian, but this is no less barbaric than the exploitation of animals as things for clothes or meat and various products. Bizarrely, some Buddhist orders formally announced meat-eating to be at the discretion of the individual — a position that not only contradicts the principle of ahimsa, but effectively condones violence towards all.

One could no more tolerate violence selectively applied towards particular groups of sentient beings, than one could selectively condone human rights abuses, or selectively discriminate against particular religious or ethnic groups. Just as it is not possible to disentangle exploitation from violence, animal or human, there is an equivalence between speciesism and other forms of discrimination, such as sexism and racism. For their perception of ahimsa to be anything less than hypocrisy, they would need to stop eating, wearing, and otherwise using nonhuman animals. Breaking the rules of fasting, and even crossing the line for short periods into the terrain of ultra-processed foods, is one thing, but the moral injustice of exploiting sentient beings as objects of property, no less than human slavery, is quite another.

Becoming vegan does not mean that by definition one upholds the principle of non-violence towards all, but it is impossible to uphold that principle without first becoming vegan. There are many countries around the world with a relatively high percentage of vegans among their population, and occasionally we even hear boasts of a commitment to the extent that the uniforms and boots of their military are made of vegan materials, yet some have a reputation for oppression, war, ethnic cleansing, and a wide range of human rights abuses. Becoming vegan will not automatically render us any less the most murderous species on Earth, but we cannot hope to reverse that trend unless we become vegan.

Precisely because they participate in the exploitation of nonhuman animals, the meat-eater who professes a commitment to spiritual, ethical or indeed socialist principles is at best deeply flawed in their thinking, and at worst morally suspect. The fact that non-human animals are sentient beings that avoid pain, and have a desire to live their lives to the full, renders veganism a moral imperative. In other words — and quite apart from the benefits conferred by veganism with regard to personal health, the global climate, and world hunger — killing animals is clearly contrary to reason and to what is morally right. Whilst it is generally and somewhat misguidedly packaged and promoted as simply a consumer choice, personal preference or lifestyle option, veganism is at heart a moral and political way of life, one that by necessity fits with campaigns against violence, and with social movements against oppression in all its forms.

In the 1820s, the French politician and author of The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, cautioned, “The destiny of nations depends on the way in which they feed themselves.” It is a statement that implies the choices we make about the future begin with the next meal. To put it yet another way, to change the world, start with yourself.

Paul Tritschler lives in Edinburgh, Scotland teaching psychology in Adult Education. He has written for various magazines and newspapers. Read other articles by Paul.