Ep 9: The Philosophy of Food with Martin Cohen, Author of I Think, Therefore I Eat
Martin Cohen, published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent and author of several books. His latest is I THINK, THEREFORE I EAT, which uses the great philosophers to help us think about what we should put in our bodies.
Before reading this book, I had no idea how much philosophers had to say about food!
The book begins with a quote, which says in part “Food is vexing. It is not even clear what it is.” So we began our discussion with what we can we learn from Silicon Valley experiments like Soylent which attempt to deconstruct food.
Then we moved on to how to avoid the complex chemical additions to foods that seem (and should be) simple, like bread. “We think of it as bread should be flour, plus water, plus a pinch of salt, and a bit of yeast. But if you get a modern bread, it’s got 20 ingredients. And some of it is really weird chemicals. Some of it is “e” numbers. We’ve got no idea what the “e” numbers are. Things like Plaster of Paris are added to bread. We just trust people to make our food but when you look at the evidence for it, the trust is misplaced. People are interested in money. They’re not interested in health. And you have to search very hard to find anything that resembles bread as our great grandparents would have eaten it.”
I wanted to know whether free-market fundamentals are at odds with health and wellness when it comes to Big Agriculture.
Martin talked about looking into the international efforts to promote the health benefits of a vegan diet, and found that nitrogen fertilizer companies were funding a lot of the messaging. This kind of reporting on the big money behind health and wellness campaigns, even Michelle Obama’s campaign to get people to drink more water, was definitely my favorite part of the book. “We need to be incredibly skeptical about everything we’re getting.”
We talked about what got Martin interested in food, which was the extensive scientific consensus on dietary fat in America. “I remember my parents going onto this, saying, ‘No more butter, we like margarine.’” It was only a couple of influential academics really pushing it, but they got the newspapers to report it, the government to recommend it, and pushed out all the dissenting voices.
We talked about grazing vs intermittent fasting. In Diet Tips: Straight from the Horse’s Mouth Martin recommends people “Graze—have lots of small meals.” But new research is coming out saying the opposite might be healthier. I asked for his thoughts on intermittent fasting.
And we discussed the logical fallacy of the “Appeal to nature.”
“How we ate thousands and thousands of years ago is not a simple matter. People ate very differently depending on which sort of tribe they were. If you were a tribe on an island you ate a lot of fish and if you were let’s say an African tribe you might have eaten a certain amount of meat but you would have had a great deal of trouble hunting it and it would have been little, tiny animals. It’s a myth, this picture of a caveman hunting the large beast. Even if it’s true that people used to do something it doesn’t follow that it’s a good idea.
We also discussed whether GMO food is good or bad. He personally avoids them because it often means more pesticides have been used on them.
And we talked about the interaction between body weight and emotional well-being and whether fat-shaming works to help people lose weight.
Martin also tells the story of Paracelsus, a Medieval figure who is credited with the origins of vaccinations. He experimented by putting excrement in bread and distributing it to German townspeople and helped them avoid the Black Plague. “I think he is in a way one of our great thinkers, a lost philosopher.”
Paracelsus then brings up the matter of fecal transplants and the right to try. For a much better treatment of the issue, check out Episode 7 of the Prognosis Podcast.
Last, we talked about how to avoid ingesting plastic by eating organic and unprocessed food. “Like it or not, you’re probably going to have a dose of plastic in your life.”
“Respect what your body’s telling you and maybe respect it more than what you might get from a nutritionist or something. The idea that advice suits everyone is probably part of the problem. People should feel free to listen to their own body. People should literally take back control of what they’re eating, and do it on an individual basis.”
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