A couple days ago Alanna and I were discussing an interesting difference between diet and exercise. While people certainly have opinions about exercise, there seems to be noticeably less emotion attached to them than their views on diet. Exercise is a tool, while diet is a way of life.
I know, I know, I’m saying this ‘seems’ to be the case without offering any evidence that it’s actually so. To which I reply: first, it would be incredibly difficult to answer the question with anything like scientific rigor. Second, spend any time comparing the way people talk and write about the two and you will see that I am right.
Perhaps food, as something we consume, has a particular charge to it. It makes intuitive sense that we’d be concerned about the quality of the fuel we rely on to sustain our bodies. It just feels more personal than exercise, which can encompass everything from an afternoon walk to Olympic weightlifting.
But the bigger reason, I think, has to do with systemic issues with the food system. I’ve written before about why I buy the argument that the reason all diets from vegan to carnivore work is because virtually any alternative eating pattern is better than the Standard American Diet.
Think about how strange this is. The baseline — the food environment most people live in — is incredibly unhealthy. For reasons that are not clear, some combination of the types of food we eat, the way they are marketed, their availability, and cultural habits around them, is making us collectively sick.
Given this state of affairs, we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that anxiety and distrust are widespread; if the experts knew what they were talking about, be wouldn’t be in this predicament. I happen to think this is unfair. There are factors that make the experts’ job singularly hard when it comes to giving dietary advice. But that doesn’t change the fact that they haven’t managed to fix a broken system.
What this means is that when we find something that does work for us, a better alternative to the mainstream, it can feel like a revelation. Enhancing this dynamic is the fact that many diet gurus actively lean into the idea that they have the one, best solution to the crisis, and they can point to the failure of the mainstream to enhance their credibility.
Compare this to exercise. While we do not get as much physical activity as we should, it’s not because we are getting the wrong sort. We aren’t jogging when we should be skipping rope. The challenge with exercise is doing it at all, doing something rather than nothing.
But the challenge with food is resisting constant encouragement to make bad choices, and to instead make better ones. Maybe sustained resistance to the default food system is only possible by becoming deeply invested in an alternative.