Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stop calling it the 'Western diet'!

The standard villain in any discussion of the global health crisis is the so-call "Western diet." The meaty, sugary, refined-grain and processed-food heavy diet is blamed for the unprecedented growth of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and all the rest. "Western" is convenient shorthand. Unfortunately, it's also intellectually dishonest, lazy and inaccurate.

The "West" refers generally to Europe and its former colonies. It's a legitimate cultural designation based on historical reality. Europe was a creation of the Roman Empire, which itself was largely modeled on classical Greece. The "West" is Ancient Greece and its cultural descendants. The traditions that began in Greece, which served as the foundation for our views about Democracy, science, architecture, philosophy and more also included a culture of food. And while key aspects of the Greek cultural tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.) was lost, then rediscovered during the Renaissance, Greek food culture was never lost in Europe, and served as the foundation for two millennia of what can accurately be described as the real "Western diet." 

If you're an American, Canadian, Brit, German, Australian or citizen of any other Western country, you probably don't think there's anything particularly foreign or exotic about eating bread, cheese, salad, olives, raisins or any number of foods that can draw a direct line from you to back through Europe, Rome and all the way back to Ancient Greece. Our "Western" food traditions are ancient. And they're anything but unhealthy.

The healthiest cooking oil in the world is extra-virgin olive oil. The healthiest alcoholic beverage is red grape wine. The healthiest fruit in the world is the pomegranate (according to one study). These foods are as "Western" (and Greek) as you can get. The traditional staples of Western Civilization going back at least 2,700 years until the Industrial Revolution -- olives, figs, apples, pears, grapes, lettuce, cabbage, peas, beans, ancient whole grain wheat and barley, almonds, walnuts, onions, garlic and so on are now considered super-foods. This is the "Western diet." Ironically, it's the abandonment of the "Western diet," that's largely to blame for the health crisis. 

When people say "Western Diet," they're really talking about an industrial diet -- the factory foods developed since the Industrial revolution, which became far more pervasive since the end of World War II. Processed foods, stripped of nutrients and loaded down with added fat, artificial colors, preservatives, sugar, corn syrup and all the rest -- these concepts are recent inventions and as alien to the Western tradition as chopsticks.

Western academics and writers tend to use the "Western" label for negative things, but not positive ones. As affluence and modernity spread throughout the world, it's no longer politically correct to say that a rich Asian country is "Westernized," as used to be the case with early Asian modernizers like Japan. Istead, we say "industrialized." The new label is far more accurate, because there's nothing uniquely "Western" about modernity. Likewise, there's nothing uniquely "Western" about junk food. Well-off people all over the world, including in Japan, China, India are suffering the same illnesses from the same kind of food as people in the "West." You can find industrialized junk food versions of both "Eastern" and "Western" foods all over the world. Ramen in a Styrofoam cup can be found in every grocery store. Nearly every sushi restaurant in the world serves artificially colored ginger and fake wasabi. Most Chinese restaurants in America served the hardcore junk-food version of Chinese food. Junk food is not a Western phenomenon, and health food is not exclusively Asian or non-Western.

One major component of so-called "Western diet" is white sugar, which is actually a food invented in and borrowed from India.

One problem with the "Western" slur is that it implies that the solution is Eastern food -- as if tofu, curry and shark-fin soup are secrets to better health. The obvious truth is that both East and West offer foods that span the spectrum from healthy to deadly. The white rice favored in Asia isn't an improvement over white-flour bread. The fatty sauces of India aren't much of an upgrade from the fatty sauces of France. Chicken fried in a wok is no better than chicken fried in a pan.

The biggest problem with blaming the "Western diet" for the global health crisis is that it's simply inaccurate. The traditional foods of Western civilization are at least as healthy as any tradition in the world. Of the five regions identified in the book "The Blue Zones" as the healthiest spots in the world, four of them are located in the West and are based on a Western diet: Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece. (The fifth "zone" is Okinawa, Japan.)

In each of these four cases, residents are eating traditional Western foods in moderation, and abstaining from modern industrial junk food.

It's absurd to use the word "Western" to identify the diet that's wrecking modern health. The real villain is industrial food. And the solution is to reject such foods and embrace the traditionally prepared healthiest foods from all over the world, including and perhaps especially from the West.

So by all means let's blame fatty, meaty, sugary industrial junk food for the health crisis. But don't call it the "Western diet."