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Cookbooks aren’t going to solve all our health problems

Food, glorious food. It is one of life’s great joys, and one that is constantly available in all of its wonderful fatty, salty, sweet diversity. As playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”

Yes, food is not just fuel – it cheers, consoles and unites people. It is a primal source of satisfaction, and sometimes even obsession.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, our choice of books reflects this obsession. In the list of Australia’s bestselling non-fiction books 2015/16, four of the top five books related to food and nutrition.

First on the list is I Quit Sugar: Simplicious, which sold 99,000 copies. After a war history book at number two, there was Donna Hay’s Life in Balance (58,000 copies), then Super Green Smoothies (admittedly about drinks rather than food, but you get the picture), and Fast Food for Busy Families by Paleo diet king Pete Evans finishing off the top five.

And as we know, books are not the only places where people indulge in their obsession with food: television programming is full of shows that celebrate food, and elevate it to a level far, far above fuel, to a level close to holiness. Yes, it has become sacred – god forbid the steak is overcooked or sauce to salty on Masterchef, the cake dry on The Great British Bake Off or the entree cold in My Kitchen Rules.

You might have noticed that, rather than being solely about food, many of Australia’s favourite nonfiction books focus on the health-giving properties of food. Because, obviously, it is healthy to think about food ALL THE TIME.

So, is this obsession with food and its health value anything new? Let’s look at the bestselling list from 20 years ago. In 2007, the top five non-fiction books were The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, followed by The Dangerous Book for Boys at number two. Then came Deceptively Delicious – a book about food – and You: Staying Young – The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your Warranty. Finally, at five, there was I Am America (and So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert.

While food has some presence on the list, it sits alongside a variety of other books – from a motivational title to a book providing advice on how to remain youthful to a satire. To me, although I’m not sure I’d be interested in reading any of the books on this list, apart from Colbert’s, it does seem to be more balanced than the list from two decades later.

Of course, this is not to say that nutrition is not important. It is. Very, and increasingly, as the proportion of overweight and obese in Australia start to outnumber those of a healthy weight.

Even back in in 460BC, there was an understanding that food and health were interlinked, with Hippocrates famously saying: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

Yet, I wonder whether these books are the answer. I doubt that the people who read Sarah Wilson’s or Pete Evans’ books really have trouble determining which foods are healthy and which are not. Or are they the same people who are also inclined to subscribe to health and well being blogs and exercise religiously? To eat activated almonds and drink wheat grass shots?

And I wonder how healthy this obsession with food really is, or is there a better way of spending our time than thinking about what we are eating? In the name of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am not writing from the viewpoint of someone entirely removed from this obsession – I wake up in the morning excited at the thought of eating the muesli that I have carefully made myself, full of chia seeds, puffed corn, rolled outs and pepitas. And most incriminatingly, I own Gwenyth Paltrow’s cookbook. Yes, I can see the hypocrisy of my argument.

So, now that all that is out in the open, let’s move on to what the alternatives to obsessing over food might be? Let’s look at the other books in the bestseller list.

There’s the aforementioned war history, Fromelles and Pozieres by Peter FitzSimons. Then there’s Reckoning, Magda Szubanski’s autobiography, which speaks of history, ancestry, sexuality and humanity. At number eight on the bestseller list is Island Home, Tim Winton’s meditation on landscape and how it shapes the lives of Australians, and the links between Australian writing and culture. I haven’t read any, but I’m guessing each would expand our knowledge in some way, whether that is our enriching our understanding of the human condition or the history of our world and those who have gone before us, our deepening relationship to with the natural landscape.

Of course, we’re not comparing like with like and these books are no more worthy than books on any other topic. But perhaps they ARE more worthy than spending time reading or buying numerous books on food, after we have digested any number of food programs clogging the prime time schedule and obsessed over our next meal. After all, the more we think about what we’re eating, the unhealthier our relationship with food risks becoming. And I’m not sure that all of this focus on food is bringing us any level or joy; for me, it feels like, quite to the contrary, it leaches every drop of joy from the act of eating.

It has been attested that the best nonfiction books add up to a biography of our culture, so what is our obsession with food and health revealing about us? To me, it has an unsettling whiff of narcissism. Yes, our bodies might be our temples, but we don’t need to genuflect at their altar night and day, offering up the gift of our own nutritionally-balanced blood and tears.

Food is a pleasure. It can bring people together and soothe the soul. Yet, I feel uncomfortable about how important what we are eating can sometimes seem, not just as a fuel or a source of pleasure, but as a socially-acceptable addiction. Perhaps, next year, all five top spots on the bestseller list might be taken by food books. A clean sweep. But you can be sure that I just won’t be buying one of them.


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