By James McWilliams
There’s one T-shirt in my drawer that I don’t wear, mainly because I think it’s sort of offensive. It reads: Eat Less You Pig.
A nutritionist gave it to me. She had the shirts made because she was tired of the endless hand wringing over what it meant to eat ethically, eat environmentally, eat to optimize personal health, and so on. Rather than debating the fine points of the carbon sequestration of grass-fed systems or the amount of glyphosate sprayed on GMOs or the yield potential of organic agriculture versus conventional or whether animals suffer on “humane” farms, she simply wanted a few choice words that would cut through the fog and free us from the burden of culinary complexity. Hence, Eat Less You Pig.
The more I engage with the politics of the plate—specifically, the more I consider what it means to eat ethically—the more I appreciate the spirit of this message. The most obvious benefit of Eat Less You Pig is the fact that, if only as a common sense measure, you can’t really disagree with it.
Obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980; today, more than two-thirds of adults are considered overweight. The percentage of Americans with a BMI over 25 doubled between 1950 and 2000. The average American now eats a literal ton of food—1,996 pounds—per year. Between 1970 and 2000, Americans increased daily caloric intake by 24.5 percent. That’s the equivalent of an extra 530 calories—a Big Mac—per day. It’s thus an empirical fact that the vast majority of Americans—hearty folk who consume about 3,000 calories daily—should cut back. Even our crash test dummies have become fat.
An additional benefit of eating less food is environmental. By virtue of where our calories derive, a reduction in daily calories would disproportionately lower our intake of foods that are the most resource intensive. Americans today consume about 57 percent more meat than we did in the 1950s. We eat four times more cheese, 20 times more yogurt, eight times more corn sweeteners, and 18 percent more wheat flour. All of these goods require more resources to produce and they emit more greenhouse gasses than their lower-impact counterparts—namely fruits and vegetables.
But as far as produce goes, Americans have only increased our consumption of them modestly since the 1950s. Total fruit consumption had risen by a comparatively low 21 percent between 1950 and 2000, while total vegetable consumption has gone up 25 percent (a big portion of that increase, though, is due to tomatoes used for pizzas). One study concluded that if Americans reduced caloric intake to 2,000 calories per day, the carbon “foodprint” of the American diet would drop by 11 percent.
Beyond the obesity issue, there’s a great deal of debate these days—as there should be—about how what we eat affects our health. We go on endlessly about a “balanced diet,” interpreting what that actually means in a million different ways. But the one thing we can definitively measure and keep track of—how much we eat—could have critical health consequences, too.
A famous 25-year study on primates and calorie intake published in 2013 found that monkeys eating a restricted diet (by 30 percent) live longer and endure fewer age-related diseases. The results were by no means fully conclusive, but they led the New York Times to observe that “there is no doubt that with an overweight population, a 10 percent reduction in body weight would have tremendous health benefits.” Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would help accomplish that goal while tempering the endless debate about what exactly we should be eating.
There are also animal welfare benefits to cutting back. In a strictly utilitarian sense, the welfare of farm animals comes down to numbers. Eating animals requires slaughtering over 10 billion sentient farm animals a year in the U.S. The Humane Resource Council found that 75 percent of Americans agree that we should “eliminate all forms of animal cruelty and suffering.” Until we determine how to painlessly kill farm animals, eating them will undeniably involve harming them. Because so much of our caloric intake today comes from animals and animal products, a caloric reduction alone would automatically reduce the demand for animal products and thus the suffering of farm animals. Eating 2,000 calories a day instead of 3,000 calories would, in and of itself, likely have a greater impact on reducing demand for animal products than Meatless Mondays.
But the pursuit of food reform through caloric reduction mines a much deeper issue in a way other solutions do not. The most important—and most radical—benefit of advocating a reduction in caloric intake is that it would equate food reform with social justice. Specifically, if applied effectively, it would minimize navel-gazing foodie discussions among the educated elite—people like me (and likely you) who tend to view food choices as a form of identity politics—and focus on those who have the least culinary choice and are, as it turns out, the most victimized by a calorically dense food system.
There’s a correlation between being obese and being poor. As I have argued, the reasons for this correlation are due to the politics of scarcity. The sensation of scarcity—not necessarily physical scarcity but psychological scarcity—promotes the consumption of a lot of food. In fact, the underlying fear of scarcity makes it nearly impossible not to eat heaps of cheap and easily accessible junk.
Well-educated foodies, those who dominate the high-profiled discussions and read Pacific Standard and Modern Farmer and Cook’s Illustrated, are in relative dietary control. Too many of the working poor are not—and it’s not because they are weak or morally inferior or stupid, but because they live lives terrorized by scarcity. This reality may be the most critical problem we face when it comes to reforming the standard American diet.
All of the vocal debates that we now have about food—veganism, organic agriculture, GMOs, humanely raised this-or-that—are thus superseded by the question of socio-economic justice. Achieving genuine food reform today means focusing not necessarily on the Farm Bill or soda taxes or GMO labeling, but on the rudiments of social and economic justice that affect the least privileged. We need to look at the minimum wage, the right to unionize, health care, and a working culture in which the CEO-to-worker salary ratio is 331 to 1. Without bringing these themes into the debate—something an emphasis on caloric reduction would allow us to do—there will never be food justice, at least not for those who need it the most.
There’s systematic injustice between what we want to happen with the food system and how the system now operates. If the most effective start we can initiate is to eat less food—and I think it is—we need to look beyond the fact that we eat like pigs—or even that we eat pigs—to the underlying causes of that desperate gluttony. What we’ll discover is that, for all our angst over food, the politics of the plate is, alas, really just politics.
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