Demise of the Mediterranean diet

by Rob Horning

24 September 2008

 

Matt Yglesias linked to this NYT article about the disappearing Mediterranean diet, and he makes a point that reminded me of what I was trying to get at yesterday about the to-go mentality. Yglesias writes

As an American, I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to learn that our bad habits seem to have a quasi-universal gravitational pull and we’re not just a uniquely cursed nation. Conversely, the news that the state of public health in the developed world is likely to deteriorate is pretty disturbing.

It seems to me that what spreads is not our taste for specific sorts of food, but our attitude toward eating itself, whereby we treat meals with a kind of disrespect and choose options that allow us to eat with as little time and thought wasted as possible. Globalization and the aggressive spread of consumerism may be making this kind of time pressure universal, seducing people with the idea that their time is better spent consuming more stuff than lingering over a well-prepared meal.

That sounds a little conspiratorial, but it is the planned achievement of the advertising campaigns of multinational convenience-food manufacturers. The NYT article reports:

Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Athens Medical School, said the problem had grown acute with the spread of supermarkets and, especially, convenience foods.
“In the last five years it’s become really bad,” she said. “The children are all quite heavy. The market is pushing a lot, and parents and schools seem unable to resist.”
Advertising geared toward children has invaded Greece full force, stretching into the countryside. On television there are commercials for chips; at supermarkets there are stands of candy. Last year, Coca-Cola sponsored a play about healthful eating.
But facing both aggressive convenience food marketing and obesity for the first time, many rural residents here have little resistance to or knowledge of the dangers.

The question is whether resistance is even possible at this point. Americans, at least, haven’t figured it out yet. An “elitist” froufrou commitment to diet and exercise and healthy ingredients may help, but the ability to pursue such a course remains class bound. And even among those who can afford to eat healthily, the compulsion to consume more—the deeply felt symbol of having become successful in a consumer culture—is very hard to escape. Resisting the allure of convenience is linked to breaking the quantitative logic that suggests consuming more in the same amount of time means one’s quality of life has improved, a logic that is facilitated by the technological developments that make measuring and processing culture as data easier. But is it possible to reverse that logic once it has taken hold, or is it a form of path dependency?

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