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  • Do Identity Politics Hurt Nutrition?

    hello my name is badgeFrom a sociopolitical standpoint, I appreciate and understand identity politics.

    Without it, groups of disenfranchised or oppressed individuals would not be able to band together and gain power and strength by celebrating their differences and mobilizing.

    In nutrition, though, I often see a more destructive — rather than constructive — side to identity politics.

    I often experience it when meeting people for the first time in any context where a meal is served.

    They’ll notice the absence of red meat or chicken on my plate and ask, “Are you vegetarian?”

    I find the phrasing of the question most interesting.  It doesn’t come from a place of wanting to learn or truly know more (i.e.: “what do you normally eat?” or “do you eat meat?”), but rather from one of “what pigeonhole can I stick you in?”

    I also find it quite fascinating that just one meatless meal is apparently such a foreign concept to some individuals that their only logical thought is that the person eating this way must be vegetarian.

    Here’s another example: over the past year and a half, I have incorporated various raw food dishes into my diet.

    I recently met a friend for coffee.  Prior to our meeting, I stopped by a local health food store and bought a slice of raw, vegan key lime pie.

    No sooner had I taken my first bite when my friend asked, “Are you raw now?”

    Obviousness aside (I was drinking a latte along with that slice of pie, so clearly the answer was “no”), I once again was faced with this concept of dietary branding.

    Similarly, I see the self-induced pressure many of my clients face when they become interested in a particular style of eating (say, vegan) and begin to embrace it.

    Some have described feeling “bad” about the fact that they may sprinkle a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese over their pasta when they go out to an Italian restaurant a few times a month, even though they otherwise eat in a way that is completely in line with their principles.

    If a pre-existing dietary mold does not entirely work for you, then define your own diet.

    Perhaps the optimal way of eating for you is one that is entirely vegan, except for the three or four times a year that you enjoy tuna sashimi at a top-notch sushi restaurant.

    Or, you are a “localvore” who exclusively eats foods grown within a 100-mile radius, but makes exceptions for pineapples and bananas.

    There is no reason to feel shame or a sense of failure because you “broke” some sort of pre-defined universal code.

    And, if anyone ever asks what “you are”, explain you eschew dietary labels and instead eat a diet that you found to be optimal for YOU.

    Share

    11 Comments

    1. Marianne said on March 22nd, 2010

      This is how I often feel about labeling my “eating style”. I like to eat foods that I enjoy and make me feel good. Sometimes that includes meat, sometimes I’ll whip up a fabulous vegan dish. I can appreciate and enjoy cuisine from all the “styles” out there, and see no reason not to. I figure if I have to give a label to someone for them to feel satisfied, I just call myself a “foodatarian” because I eat food ;)

    2. Katie said on March 23rd, 2010

      I eat “vegetarian” most of the week, try to eat “local” in season, eat “vegan” sometimes, and sometimes enjoy meat and fish too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “So you’re a vegetarian?” when I’m out to dinner. Thanks for addressing this- I agree that labeling is unnecessary and would just cause me stress if I tried to fit myself into one box.

    3. Koshtoo said on March 23rd, 2010

      This reminds me of a conversation I had with a cashier at my grocery store last week. I bought a few frozen Indian dishes that contain tofu. The cashier saw tofu and said she’s never gotten the “nerve” up to try it, but she didn’t think she’d eat it because she’s not a vegetarian.

      I was not thinking quickly that day. Wish I had told her I’m not a vegetarian, I just like to eat tofu sometimes. Apparently it never crossed her mind that it’s not an either/or thing. You can eat meat and still eat tofu. Might have to go back and buy a few more and see if she asks me about them again.

    4. Andrew Carney said on March 23rd, 2010

      I’ve got this more then a few times before too when I turn down a slice of pizza that has some meat on it or something in a group event and people keep trying to get me to join in on the eating and I mention I’m vegetarian and that it’s totally fine so they shouldn’t worry about it. Maybe it is that they feel bad that they didn’t order any just cheese pizza or something and going on the offensive is a way to keep from being embarrassed but what they do instead is worse, it’s pure shock. They don’t understand how I “live” without eating meat. They ask if I just eat it at home, or once a week, or something like that and when I explain it’s never then they get all flustered and ask what I eat and so many times just give the example of “all you eat is salad?!”. It gets frustrating because I have to basically teach them that you CAN eat lots of stuff without dumping bacon or pepperoni or something on top. I don’t even get into the crazy stuff like not being able to have medication in gel capsules or marshmallows or anything, those are the points that actually make day to day life a little hard :(

    5. Rachelle said on March 23rd, 2010

      Great post! I used to get very hung up with trying to be perfect in my diet and other ethical choices. At some point, I realized that any deviation from perfection would lead some people to consider me a hypocrite, while actually achieving perfect would lead others to see me as a zealot. I decided to forget the extremes and do my best. I don’t have anything to prove.

    6. Renee said on March 24th, 2010

      I love how well you’ve articulated this problem! I’ve eaten vegetarian-style since I was a kid, and it baffles me when people find out, and immediately ask what kinds of fake meat I like (“So, you eat a lot of veggie burgers and tofu dogs and stuff?”). Why do so many people assume that I became a vegetarian to see how well I could imitate a meat eater? I think the general association with “vegetarianism” is either a moral objection to meat, but secret love of it; or a “healthy lifestyle” goal, with that secret longing for a cheeseburger. I don’t identify with either of those. Some vegetarians just love the taste of vegetables! Blame it on our mother’s great cooking.

    7. Lynn Nappari said on March 24th, 2010

      This post struck such a chord with me! What I’ve really gotten fed up with is the general concept of “dieting” and the idea that in order to lose weight we have to be on some specific, regimented “diet plan.” After years of effort wasted on a plethora of “plans” and failure after guilt-induced failure stemming from “cheats” or “slips” I am officially rebelling. I will never “diet” again, but I will eat health portions of healthy foods of my own choosing and get more physical activity doing whatever I feel like doing. So far, seven pounds gone in two weeks, and not even one teeny bit of guilt! I can use all the encouragement I can get, so feel free to drop by my blog and say hello. (FindingFitAtFifty.blogspot.com)

    8. Jasmine Garsd said on March 25th, 2010

      I’m almost vegan myself (i eat fish, sometimes milk in my tea) Something similar happened to me in the past with a person who was a very strict vegan herself…like we’d go get sushi and she’d get very weird about my eating something non-vegan… i think sometimes people also enjoy belonging to a certain “food religion”. I eventually had to tell her to cut it out!

    9. Andrea said on April 5th, 2010

      Great post! Cannot find a “do not like” list about this one :-)

      Please stick the following on a billboard in Hollywood… please!

      “If a pre-existing dietary mold does not entirely work for you, then define your own diet.

      Perhaps the optimal way of eating for you is one that is entirely vegan, except for the three or four times a year that you enjoy tuna sashimi at a top-notch sushi restaurant.

      Or, you are a “localvore” who exclusively eats foods grown within a 100-mile radius, but makes exceptions for pineapples and bananas.

      There is no reason to feel shame or a sense of failure because you “broke” some sort of pre-defined universal code.

      And, if anyone ever asks what “you are”, explain you eschew dietary labels and instead eat a diet that you found to be optimal for YOU.”

    10. Andy Bellatti said on April 5th, 2010

      Thanks, Andrea! I find this is one issue that often gets overlooked. It is important, too, because I see a lot of people feeling guilty/”bad”/confused because they desperately want to adopt, say, veganism but there is one dairy-based food they LOVE. I tell them, “So what’s wrong with being a vegan 90% of the time?”

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