You Are What You Don't Eat

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It’s an old saying: You are what you eat. But more and more Richard Swerdlow finds the people he knows turning the old saw on its head.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, that holiday where everyone overeats, I've been noticing our local fixation with food; what we eat - and what we don't eat.

Sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free... I've been to dinner parties where the entire meal conversation consisted of guests boasting about what they do not eat. Food avoidance as competitive sport: no-fat beats low-fat, vegetarians one-up gluten-free, and vegans one-up vegetarians.

Lactose-free, soy-free, no carbs... not an only-in-the-Bay-Area phenomenon, but here, it's remarkable how so many people seem bizarrely preoccupied by what they decide - or decide not - to eat.

Yes, some have serious, even life-threatening reasons for eliminating certain foods - allergies or medical conditions. And, of course, everyone should maintain a reasonably healthy diet.


But fashionable food abstinence one-upmanship has reached near-fetish proportions. Who hasn't been food-shamed by a food snob who is judging your lunch, bragging that’s something they don't eat? The coolest thing about a lot of people is what they don’t do, rather than what they do do.

How ironic, in a city famous for food, many people's identities are invested in what they're into not eating. The privileged hipster, grabbing a vegan organic kale green juice at the alternative grocery cooperative as she rides her bike to yoga is a Bay Area stereotype. But at some point clean eating can morph into eating disorder. Does no-meat, no-wheat, no-sugar eventually become a no-food diet?

I'm not against healthy eating, but I hope this recipe for being cool is more than just a trendy list of the latest item to leave off the menu. Because no matter how hip, being a picky eater stops being cute around age five.

I'm probably going to get a lot of hate about this. But that's OK. They're just grumpy because they're hungry.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.