One of the key things that separates humans from animals is the ability to make plans and then act on those plans. That humans have intentions is the basis of all morality, economics, and law. As such, it is important that we recognize the sanctity of free will and the uniqueness of our position as thinking, acting beings.
An area in which traditional ideas of intentionality have been turned on their head, however, in the the field of nutrition, also known as “telling people how to eat.”
We have all seen the rapidity with which fad diets come and go, where we are told one day that fat is the enemy and the next that carbohydrates will be the death of us, where margarine is hailed as a superior alternative to butter until suddenly it isn’t anymore. It’s understandable if we are wont to take these eternally fluid suggestions with a grain of salt.
Of course, people are free to eat however they like, but what annoys me is the attempt to represent these ridiculous habits as somehow objective “right.” An objective justification of the “right” and “wrong” way to eat tends to lend weight to government attempts to mandate, regulate, and otherwise meddle in our food supply. We see this all the time, from Michelle Obama’s campaign to relabel food to suit her whims, to Michael Bloomberg’s ceaseless efforts to ban anything he happens to personally dislike.
The argument I hear most often from the folks who would rule my diet is something along the lines of “humans weren’t meant to eat grains” or “we aren’t meant to east dairy.”
This always leads me to wonder “meant by whom?”
Dairy farmers clearly mean us to drink milk. Bakers mean us to eat bread. Where is this intention to which dieters so desperately appeal coming from?
It is possible that the agent in question is God, but if that were the case, why are there no such prohibitions mentioned in the Bible? The Old Testament is not shy about drawing up extremely extensive lists of the things God doesn’t like, from mixing wool and linen to “rounding the corner” of one’s beard. Granted, we are directed not to cook an animal in the milk of its mother, but milk per se is perfectly kosher. Grains are positively encouraged.
So if it not God who doesn’t mean us to eat these things, who is it?
Maybe they are referring to the process of evolution itself, but anyone who understands the theory knows that the whole point of evolution is that there is no will, no intention behind it. It is merely an accumulation of accidents that happened to be beneficial. In any case, the fact that humans have managed to survive and reproduce to the tune of over 7 billion people by eating grains and dairy would seem to contradict any claims that evolution doesn’t mean us to abstain from them.
Perhaps I am making too much of semantics here, but even if we give anti-grain advocates a pass for lazy use of language, their argument still doesn’t make sense. Humans weren’t meant to build huge metal planes that fly through the sky. Humans weren’t meant to be vaccinated against polio. Humans weren’t meant to have heart transplants or blood transfusions. This doesn’t make these bad things.
The other argument popular among these groups is that we should only eat what is “natural.” But what does that word really mean? Presumably it means something coming from, or belonging to nature. But nature is everything! To call something that exists natural is a tautology. To call something that exists unnatural is an oxymoron.
We consider honey natural, and honey is made through the efforts of bees, which are also natural. Similarly, Cheetos are made by the efforts of humans, who are undeniably a part of nature, so by the same logic that we call honey natural, we must also call Cheetos natural.
Agency and intentionality are crucial aspects of our humanity. Claims about what we are meant to eat, apart from being unscientific and meaningless, undermine our positions as rational actors. We are not meant to do anything. Rather, we mean to do the things we think will benefit us. We mean to eat, and eat well, and it is no business of nutritionists, especially government sponsored ones, to give us unasked for lectures on our habits.