Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

The bad news is that Americans are health-threateningly fat and getting fatter with every passing year. The good news is that we have never before been more conscious of the benefits of healthy eating or had so much scientific information about foods that are good for us. But here comes the bad news again: According to a new book by Dr. Steven Bratman, healthy eating can be bad for your health.

Health Food Junkies does not succeed in proving that “orthorexia nervosa,” Bratman’s impressively scientific-sounding coinage for compulsive healthy dieting, is a widespread eating disorder. Yet healthy eating as illness is an irresistible metaphor for a larger truth: The more food there is, the more out of whack our relationship with it becomes; we are whipsawed between gorging and denial.

Common sense tells us that a healthy diet is a “natural” one. It’s filled with the foods that nature intended to maintain our bodies—no more, no less.

Unfortunately, there may be no such thing as a natural human diet. Ever since we tool-making primates learned to stick a piece of meat over an open flame or grind a wheat stalk with a stone, food has been as much culture as nature.

But in an age caught between fat-soaked tacos and cheese snacks in a single microwave-ready pack and healthy-food pathologies, we have become hopelessly disconnected from whatever “natural” eating might be. And the most unnatural thing about food today is the sheer abundance of the stuff.

I had the opportunity for a little eating-habits field study on a recent trip to the Florida Everglades and Keys, where I spent a lot of time watching two different species feed: birds and tourists.

There are no fat egrets or brown pelicans with bellies. Water birds are what we would call “healthy eaters.” They have regularly scheduled meals at every low tide. Their fish diet provides all the proteins and nutrients their bodies need, with no empty calories. Once they are full, they stop eating. After all, fishing for food is work. The birds seemed to prefer spending their time leisurely perched in the sun, preening and sleeping.

By contrast, we humans can sleep and preen in the sun and stuff ourselves. Feeding is not a form of work, but of leisure—and never more so than on vacation. No need to fly off to a distant bay in search of a full stomach. The roadside is chockablock with restaurants that never met a fish that couldn’t be fried and where mayonnaise qualifies as a major food group.

One need only spend time on the beach to see the extent to which humans have lost touch with what comes naturally to every bird-brained blue heron. The white sands offer a front-row seat on the American obesity crisis.

True, occasionally one would spot a slim 35-plus couple strolling down the beach, their slim children in tow. But when they got within earshot, they invariably spoke French, Dutch or German. They were probably talking about how fat the Americans are.

These days, it is little wonder that Europeans are so thin. They’re afraid to eat. Their confidence has been broken by a series of food crises, cruel trials for people who for centuries have known how to eat well and enjoy it without becoming candidates for adult-onset diabetes.

Little wonder that Europeans are traumatized by genetic fiddling with food. The appearance of foot-and-mouth in the U.K. is just the latest blow to the Old World food supply, which in recent times has weathered outbreaks of e-coli, salmonella, dioxin poisoning and even the notorious Coca-Cola “contamination.” But all are overshadowed by the spectre of mad-cow disease, which, if you believe pessimists on these shores, is coming soon to a sirloin steak near you.

In almost every case, these breaks in the food chain can be traced to technologies designed to make food more plentiful, more transportable and more available to more people. Mad-cow disease originated in contaminated commercial feeds that make it cheaper to feed cattle.

Even foot-and-mouth disease, a “natural” scourge, became much more threatening thanks to transportation technology. An outbreak in England potentially puts the globe’s cattle population at risk.

Hunger is an ancient affliction. Satiety is a modern one. Producing and eating unprecedented amounts and varieties of food is dangerous to our health. Without enough food we cannot survive. But the question for the world’s richest nations is: Can too much food kill us as well?