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The Ideology of Ideal Nutrition
On the Relativity of General Dietary Rules
By Dr Claude Pasquini- from IVU News 2001

The nutritional needs of a pregnant teenager in the African Tropics cannot be the same as those of a Siberian coal-miner...

There is no disease. There are only diseased people, who have to be treated as whole persons and according to their particular constitution, their age, their emotional sensitivity and mental states. As diet indeed often contributes directly or indirectly to a person's changes to the worse, it must also be the key to return to or to keep oneself in that state of mental, emotional, physical and social well-being we call health.

Yet modern techno-medicine has not yet focused its attention on the relation between health and the food we eat. There is still little interest in developing a full scale preventive medicine based on the nutritional origins and the underlying mechanisms of people becoming sick.

There are, of course, plenty of books on diet hailing a nutritional approach in the treatment and prevention of disease. As scientifically sound, justified, important and well-meaning as they may be, the nutritional recommendations and interdictions are usually concerned with minimal requirements, deficiencies, ideal combinations of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and vitamins and potentially harmful or protective dietary components. In other words, nutritional science deals basically with dietary rules that are generally applicable to the human species but not necessarily specifically applicable to every human individual. This seems obvious. For, how could nutritional science take into account equitably the dietary needs of, say, 7 billion individuals without knowing anything about their existential particularities with regard to food? It would indeed be difficult not to say impossible to take into account their culturally, environmentally and historically conditioned eating habits, and the food items they have or don't have access to.

While eating a lot of fruit may be healthy to many of us, it may be extremely harmful to people suffering from Type 1 diabetes. Many cultures thrive on milk as a staple food while thousands of individuals in other parts of the world suffer from allergies to it. Western dietary books recommend vegetables, fruits or cereals that do not even grow in Eastern countries. The nutritional needs of a pregnant teenager in the African Tropics cannot be the same as the ones of a Siberian coal-miner doing night work and having to face temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius below zero. The nutritional tolerance and flexibility of a high-strung New York City banker addicted to urban life will be different from that of a Tibetan monk who spends half of his life fasting in the Himalayan mountains. The diet for a top athlete preparing for the Olympics differs from the diet for a vegan baby. Good dieticians know that their general dietary rules are but a firsthand orientation and that they have to be individualized, which is to say, attuned to the specific environmental, cultural and personal contingencies that shape the needs and urges of every individual.

Indeed, there is no such thing like an ideal diet, simply because there is no ideal person, no ideal body, no ideal way of feeling, thinking or behaving, no ideal way of living, no ideal way of feeling healthy. Ideals have no material substance. They are meant to be guidelines, noble ideas to be realized by individuals whose real lives, let's not forget it, are conditioned by and conditional upon many unknowns. In the contingent world of diet and health there is therefore no place for absolutist ideals, all the more so since dietary knowledge is still in its infancy. Fighting for and teaching an absolutist ideal without nuances is creating an ideology. Living for an ideology is practicing idolatry.

Even serious nutritional science may slip off into an idealism that forgets that scientific generalities are generally true but not necessarily specifically applicable or even specifically desirable. A rigorous scientific dietary idealism may be as doctrinaire as some non-scientific or alternative nutritional philosophies, religions or fads. Any doctrinaire dietary idealism, grounded in science, philosophy or religion as it may be, lacks self-criticism and that healthy dose of scepticism characteristic of intelligence. It is exclusive, self-centered, narrow-minded and hence potentially harmful to science, philosophy and religion; harmful to nutrition as a noble field of knowledge, and harmful to our dignity. It is, in short, a health hazard.

There is no need for a nutritional monoculture but for dietary variety. It is the spice of life.

Claude Pasquini is the IVU Liaison Officer for Europe and a member of the IVU Council

Contributions to IVU News are welcomed. Material published does not necessarily reflect the views of the editor or the policy of the International Vegetarian Union.