The most famous French morality play, composed around 1500, was The Condemnation of Banquets (La Condamnation de Banquet). In the play a group of revelers, whose names include Gluttony (Gourmandise), Drinking Toast (Je-bois-à-vous), Treat (Friandise), Good Company (Bonne Compagnie), and Leisure (Pass-Temps), enjoy the good hospitality of two characters, Lunch (DÎner) and Dinner (Souper), before being enticed by a third character, Feast (Banquet), who leads them all into a trap. Feast delivers the revelers to a nasty group of thugs: Gout, Jaundice, Paralysis, Epilepsy, Tonsillitis, and Edema. Many revelers die and in the end the queen of this fictitious land (Queen Experience, of course!) puts Feast to death. She almost kills Dinner too but lets him go so long as he stays at least 6 hours away from Lunch.
The morality play in medieval Europe was meant to convey a clear moral message to a very broad audience. While the topics differed depending on the place and culture, one message was always clear: everything you do will come under cosmic moral judgment. For example, in The Condemnation of Banquets, not every reveler dies, only the ones associated with the cardinal sins of gluttony or sloth.
This idea is much older than medieval morality plays, of course. We can go back to the Book of Leviticus which tells us,
"You shall not eat any abominable things,"
and then goes on to list in great detail that which is acceptable and that which is forbidden. Because every human society in the world has moral rules around what is and is not good to eat, we can assume that the river between morality and food runs very deep.
And this is also why it seems so easy to slip from the science of health and nutrition into the moralizing of health and nutrition. The common advice of nutrition professionals to "eat this, not that" is so close in form to Leviticus and The Condemnation of Banquets that it becomes difficult if not impossible to pull apart the science from the almost religious emotions of moral judgment.
As anticancer nutrition advocates and as parents of a child fighting cancer, we've wanted to stay as close to the science as possible because, well, the stakes are high. But as much as we want to remove these moralizing emotions from our nutritional decisions, we find ourselves quickly demonizing any food once we discover a scientific study that suggests some minor carcinogenic association. We avoid it, not like the plague for that would suggest a scientific and well-reasoned act on our part. No, we avoid it like it was a Levitical abomination. We constantly need to remind ourselves that this is not a good thing--what we avoid and allow needs to be based on science, not our deepest moral emotions.
In the world of nutrition and health, these two things seem to be in tension quite a lot. Of course, there is a broad consensus, based on science, that everyone should eat more vegetables, less refined and processed food, less sugar, and less meat. This has become common wisdom and is backed up by decades of research. But the devil is very much in the details because pronouns like "less" and "more" are enemies of those moralizing emotions that deal only in absolutes. Leviticus did not say to cut back on pork, you know, only have it as a side-dish or once a week. It said,
"And the swine, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch."
And so we have the macrobiotic diet, the paleo diet, the Atkins diet, the Ornish diet, the vegan diet, and so on. And each one of these has its Levitical abominations. Each one, regardless of the intentions of its founders or best-informed proponents, turns into a morality play.
For example, on the topic of sugar-free sweeteners, so many nutritional professionals are discouraging or remain agnostic for the primary reason that they believe sweets lead to bad habits like overeating or eating the wrong things. (It's not so much artificial sweeteners that concern them because, as I've written about on this blog many times, there are some very good natural sweeteners out there.) So, while the science is clear that sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad, the moral judgment is clear as well: thou shall not taste of the sweetness, regardless of whether it raises your blood glucose levels.
The same thing goes for meat and processed foods. Cutting down on meat, particularly grain-fed, non-organic beef, appears to be warranted by all the scientific evidence. Likewise for processed foods. Michael Pollan's advice to shop on the periphery of the grocery store where the fresh food is, and stay away from the refined and processed foods in the middle is spot on as a general rule. But when I've mentioned our favorite brand of chips (Way Better Snacks) or veggie burgers (Hilary's Eat Well), both of which are excellent sources of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, to nutritional experts I've received frustrated looks and awkward replies about whole foods being ideal. And if I mention our favorite grass-fed, organic, preservative free hot dog (Applegate) to the wrong nutritional professional, I know I'm probably in for a smug and uncomfortable silence.
I've come to the conclusion that all of this is quite dangerous. Not for the converted followers of these diets--each one, when followed correctly, produces far better outcomes than the standard American diet (SAD). Letting nutrition turn into a morality play is dangerous because, especially for childhood nutrition, it turns families away. They look at the demanding Levitical prohibitions and say, after Jesus in the Book of Mark,
"The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath."
And then they go back to their old eating routine, believing that since such moral perfection is impossible they will be saved by the grace of modern pharmaceuticals when judgment time comes.
So what we need more than anything else is the ideal antidote to moral perfectionism: humility. It's not just that there are many paths to the promised land. But that the promised land of nutritional idealism isn't a promised land at all. It's a prison if what we want to achieve isn't nutritional wellness (or an anticancer environment in our body) but rather moral perfection.