Judge Not Your Neighbors By Their Diet

Pretty much all of us who get into “healthy eating” do it, at least for a while. It’s an inevitable part of the process. We do judge others by what they eat, and harshly most of the time. Like when we are in line at the supermarket with our paper goods and light bulbs, and look at what’s in the baskets of the other customers — “Aw, gawd, how can they EAT that junk! And their poor children . . . !”

Perhaps the reason we are so critical is because we judge ourselves unkindly. We have judged ourselves not good enough and in need of an overhaul, and the diet will set us right. I believe that if it were not so, we couldn’t stick to the effort it takes to change our diet, our lifestyle, to make a political statement through diet, or even to eat for “spiritual development.”

Nevertheless, our assessment may be correct, and the tool as well. Our blood sugar may be erratic, our cholesterol may be too high, or we know we need more fiber in our meals. A more appropriate way of eating may be extremely helpful. But believe me, from one who’s been there, there are sequelae to a dietary committment, a wake of consequences that may last for years.

Here’s a fictional scenario. Let’s call this person EZ. It’s no one in particular, just a composite of many cases I’ve known. EZ has decided that health needs to become a priority, and a change in diet is in order. EZ reads two books, throws out the old foods, buys all the new foods, and gets started with gusto. The more s/he reads, the more excited and fascinated s/he gets with the subject. Health is improving, there is more energy, the pimples are vanishing, weight is dropping, and people are saying, “you look great! What are you doing?” This question, of course, gives EZ the opportunity to expound at length about the new diet, about how much sense it makes, and how everyone should do it.

Soon EZ is convinced that the way s/he is eating is the only normal, rational way to eat. EZ becomes very committed to this viewpoint, and soon feels that not only is this the only way humans are supposed to eat, but it is also morally and ethically right. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t get that is misinformed, or lazy, or blind, maybe even immoral or, to put it kindly, ethically challenged. EZ’s explanations become sermons, anyone’s health complaint becomes an excuse for proselitizing. However, soon EZ finds that the questions from others become attacks, and their ridicule or dismissal follows quickly.

“EZ, why do you spend so much time and energy on this diet thing?” a friend asks. “Well, that’s because I know that how I eat is good for me and good for the planet,” EZ answers. The friend snaps, “well, you don’t know what’s good for me, and I think your diet is a bunch of hooey.” EZ is mystified. “I’m just sharing my experience. I thought you were my friend, you’d understand. Why do you attack me?” The friend shrugs and walks away.

Why is EZ being attacked? If we look carefully, this was in reality a counterattack. EZ actually attacked first, in a subliminal kind of way. What EZ said, “I know that how I eat is good for me and good for the planet,” is quickly interpreted as its shadow meanig, “What you eat is bad for you and bad for the planet.” This is a put-down of a most serious kind. It’s heard unconsciously, and even when people don’t quite know how to articulate it, there will be immediate reactions. When people feel attacked, they will strike back, even if the intention of the attacker was simply to share information.

Difficult, isn’t it? But wait, it gets even more problematic. Say the diet is accomplishing all that EZ wanted in terms of health, and all kinds of ailments, major and minor, are fading away. The shadow side of this marvelous state of affairs is that eating out with friends is becoming more and more of a problem; going to someone’s house for dinner is agony, or an exercise of the same round of explanations, justifications, and defenses. What EZ doesn’t realize is that when we refuse to eat what our friends perpare, we are in fact saying “Your food isn’t good enough for me.” Even if EZ were to go to great lengths of protesting that this is just the choice s/he makes, that there is no intention to judge how others eat, it’s to no avail: the statement has been made, and the explanations only make it worse.

And so, little by little, EZ’s old friends stop calling. They don’t invite EZ to dinner anymore, nor to group outings. New friends take their place, and these new friends have the same viewpoints and attitudes, so things go better. Now, instead of defending a position, EZ and friends discuss how important their position is, and how the rest of the world just doesn’t get it. They may become activists, to try and bring their position to the attention of the world, or they may just stick to their practices and ignore the rest. EZ becoms a teacher, passionately committed to the cause. Many people take EZ’s classes and learn a lot of useful stuff, and are happy. With a critical mass of people adhering to the dietary concepts, society eventually picks up some of these ideas and they become “common wisdom.”

The shadow side of this sunny scenario is that EZ has effectively removed him/herself from the world at large, and made a cozy little world of its own. It may take years before EZ notices this. And it may not be a problem: it may be exactly what EZ wants. However, as the years go by, EZ begins to realize that all the people around are like-minded. There is little challenge, all their conversations are along the lines of what Eric Berne, in Games People Play, called “ain’t it awful.” The scene becomes boring. EZ finds him/herself breaking the diet more and more often. Eating out becomes easier. New friends appear who do not need to be indoctrinated, even though they don’t “eat this way.”

And so EZ now wrestles with a different problem: how to be true to the original principles while re-joining the world who doesn’t follow them. Some people handle the problem by eating one way at home, and differently when out. Some people will stick to their principles, eat before going out, pick whatever is OK for them, but not discuss the issue of food. Many others simply quit, feeling that their “diet” is no longer required.

Regardless of the social problems it brings, this I can say for sure: going through any kind of dramatic dietary change, even for a short time, is both a rite of passage and a profound learning experience. It’s like eating from the tree of knowledge: once we know how deeply diet affects us, we can never again claim ignorance about the power of food.