My daughter bought me tickets to Anthony Bourdain’s Tripes and Glory show at the Place des Arts. It was a quiz-show format, where Bourdain asked two chef/owners from one of Montreal’s best restaurants about a host of issues related to food and restaurants  It was frankly awful IMHO, but the sold-out crowd of acolytes lapped it up to great applause …so what do I know. I found it somewhat pointless. I had hoped to emerge with some insights into the culinary world. Instead, I found it glib, disorganized, and with an underlying tone of, “Man, are people crazy enough to pay $75 to hear us bullshit for 2 hours?”.

During the Q&A, one young food blogger asked Bourdain about his disdain for veganism. He gave a very evasive and politically correct response, as in, “It’s all about respect”. He did however, make one interesting point about veganism and other eating distortions.

Bourdain emphasized that we must make a distinction between people who are vegan or vegetarian (or kosher, halal, etc., for that matter) as a function of their cultural and religious upbringing, and those who “take it up” as some form of born-again redemption. For the former, there is no requirement of intellectual integrity, i.e., they do not have to be able to explain why they do it, because it is interwoven in the larger fabric of their religious, cultural, and familial experience; it is largely “hardwired” as a function of early childhood experience, and inseparable from their cultural identity. An ultra-religious Orthodox Jew would no longer be an Orthodox Jew if he gave up kosher food laws, even if he followed every other tradition in that faith.

But there’s more to this story that Bourdain did not touch upon. We must understand that food and the act of eating are extremely vulnerable to being co-opted for psychological reasons. In my experience, I have met very few people (from the born-again variety) with a distortion of the basic human omnivorous tendency, who weren’t using food for psychological purposes. The reason for this is very straightforward: Human beings (and most higher order animals), have a unique relationship with food that is different from all the other external substances and things with which we interact.

Food is our first experience of the outside world and of another person. The newborn wants to eat not because he is hungry (up until a few seconds ago he was perfectly fed through the umbilical cord), but rather, as an act of soothing from the stress of being born and the need for comfort. This need binds the newborn permanently and inextricably with the mother, and connects food and eating forever with love, safety, comfort, and with the larger sense of “another”.

We may well say that food is the only substance for which we are hard-wired to be addicted and to use to medicate our daily stress. Many have speculated that all other addictions are sublimations and distortions of the food-for-comfort instinct. In fact, the 1995 discovery of the endocannabinoid system (the neurochemicals that control pleasure), showed conclusively that all addictions are very closely clustered in the same part of the brain as our sense of pleasure from eating, and managed by the same biochemistry. That’s why I laugh with frustration when I hear smokers, shopaholics, boozers, dopers, gamblers, etc., express contempt for fat people. Now that’s the pot calling the kettle black!

But on to veganism and other eating distortions. Veganism isn’t just a way of eating. Properly executed, it is a complete system of living that focuses on non-harming of other life forms. Vegans with a high degree of intellectual integrity eschew all forms of animal products down to the remotest by-products such as gelatine, milk cultures, etc. They don’t wear leather shoes or accessories. True vegas are like being pregnant…there’s no half-way, “I’m doing the best I can” veganism. Even within the vegan “community”, there are ultra-vegans, who will not eat anything not intended by Nature for consumption and seed dissemination and propagation. So they only eat fruits, nuts, and seeds. I’m not sure they live very long.

As we have seen with the current epidemic of eating disorders, the act of eating is very easily affected by psychological problems. At the sub-clinical level, many people use food and eating as tools for getting love, power, and control. The infant quickly learns that if he/she refuses a certain food, Mommy will run around trying to find something else to please it and make it eat. Children use food all the time to control their parents. As they become adults, people understand at a subliminal level, that food has the power to make you different, distinct, and to make others “hop” at your discretion; it very quickly becomes a weapon of identity and power.

If you want to separate the true believers from the psychological dilettantes, ask them why they do what they do. Do they have intellectual integrity? Have they thoroughly thought out their veganism (or any other food distortion) and do they live consistently in every other aspect of their lives (or are they vegetarians who eat fish?). You will quickly find that 99% of people with food distortion have only a superficial sense of why they do it. “Oh, I am against cruelty to animals”, or, “It’s bad for the environment”, etc. They usually have no understanding of the research that supports or challenges their belief system. You will quickly be able to tell the fakers from the real McCoys!

So in summary, veganism and all other food “philosophies” can be genuine, or they can be (and usually are) forms of psychological manipulation and identity. You can usually tell them apart by the degree of intellectual integrity that they bring to their belief system.