Food, Fads and Democracy

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Just recently I got a peek at the new for me food culture of road cycling. At rest stops on a biking jaunt I slurped nutrition from little white squeeze packets while enjoying boiled potatoes with salt, cookies, fresh fruit, and a smorgasbord of energy bars designed to help us cyclists summon the energy for the next 15-mile push.

This was all a bit jarring in that over the last several months I’ve been experimenting with a seemingly opposite fitness-oriented food culture. For my fellow members of the zone diet challenge at my local Cross Fit gym, potatoes are definitely off the menu, and the fructose in the squeeze packets a giant no-no. My wife and I, both ex-vegetarians, have been busily scarfing full fat Greek yogurt by the tub, sardines by the boatload, and pork chops by the, well, we’ll leave that one alone.

There’s a curious Northern California connection to these trendy but opposed food cultures. The manufacturer of the squeeze packets is headquartered in Berkeley, while the author of a bestselling book extolling the benefits of diets high in animal protein is based in Oakland. Cross Fit got its start in Santa Cruz, and many of the bikes breezing past me on my endurance ride were made by a company in Morgan Hill.

We seem to export food and fitness trends from Northern California every bit as much as we export technology. But it’s worth noticing that food and fitness trends and fads, like most trends and fads, tend to be rooted in fear. Could it be that a lot of us fear the obesity epidemic, and have latched onto fads instead of fixing our unjust healthcare system, our subsidy-fueled agricultural system, and the general economic inequality at the epidemic’s roots?

Or if, as some suggest, the obesity epidemic has just a single villain, sugar, then why are we so afraid to follow our progressive era ancestors like Teddy Roosevelt and take the fight directly to the sugar trust?


Old Teddy appreciated the strenuous life, of course, and people like me who participate in the flourishing denominational multiverse of American fitness subcultures are in many cases successfully improving our health. But when does it become time to add a dollop of bravery, of real democratic commitment, to our expensive Greek yogurt?

With a Perspective, this is Matt Mitchell.

Matt Mitchell teaches middle school math in Sacramento.