Growing up, there were basic table rules: Eat what was served, finish what was on your plate, and don’t start until the hostess lifts her fork. On occasion, a cook had to allow for nut allergies or religious restrictions. Special requests attributable to allergies, food exclusions or diet-driven preferences were uncommon, though.
Fast-forward to 2015 where the waiter’s mantra is, “Anything our chef should know about food allergies or dietary restrictions?” — or, as I like to say, “Is there anything we can eat?”
The robust list of food exclusions stemming from the proliferation of serious food-related allergies and the explosion of personal diet regimes is overwhelming and shows no sign of abating. My personal list includes: no meat or fowl; limited fish; no dairy; never octopus; and eggs only of known origin. All of those are personal choices.
So, what is the landscape? I thought this would be easy to discern, but the more I read and spoke with people, the more confusing things became. What we choose to eat is more complex than ever. Talk to someone about his or her diet and you get a philosophical, strictly medical or self-diagnosed explanation of his or her choices.
The most popular food choice (it was the most Googled in 2013) is the paleo diet, which purports to mimic what our ancestors ate in the Paleolithic era, before the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals. Since precise records of the caveman’s diet don’t exist, the régime is open to interpretation. Broadly, though, its guidelines emphasize meat and protein, few carbohydrates (avoid starchy options like potatoes or squash) and a high fiber intake (not via grains but by eating lots of fruits and vegetables). On the paleo’s no-no list: dairy products, grains (wheat, rye, barley), legumes (beans, lentils), processed foods, refined sugars, junk food, sugary drinks and all those treats the cavemen couldn’t find at the local bodega.
Why paleo? It is based on the belief that our metabolism has not evolved fast enough to digest the modern Western diet and that our inability to properly digest what we feed ourselves leads to the rise of diet-related illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, obesity). Paleo adherents claim the régime leads to healthier and longer lives. The debate incorporates discussions over what exactly was on the paleo plate, the health impact of these food choices and the evolution of our digestive systems. A paleo diet has attractive characteristics, especially the avoidance of overly processed food.
Then there are vegan diets. Vegans are like vegetarians, avoiding meat, fish or poultry but they also completely shun animal-derived products like eggs, dairy or honey. The rationale behind choosing a vegan diet (and lifestyle) tends to be based on ethical and environmental reasons as well as on health reasons - or feelings of well-being. Speaking with most vegetarians or vegans, it becomes clear that the concept of eating animals is simply repugnant. For some others, though, it can also be a political statement about the inhumane treatment of animals in most meat processing facilities. The increase in the availability of humanely and sustainably raised meat is a great trend, but still represents a very small — and expensive — fraction of what you find at the meat counter. For all that, there are also “flexitarians” who selectively, and on occasion, add a meat or fish meal to their diets.
Exploring gluten-free diets is fascinating and new information is emerging daily. Simply, a gluten-free diet is one without gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats. Fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, beans, legumes, nuts along with specific grains are naturally gluten-free. Processed foods pose a risk since most processing facilities are not gluten-free. Individuals with celiac disease are most at risk from the side effects of eating gluten, but many people find a gluten-free diet improves their sense of well-being in addition to being a weight-loss régime. Gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines of people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. The proliferation of gluten-free products, from pasta to desserts, is in response to the demand for gluten-free options. In the past two years, the sales of gluten-free foods has increased 63%, according to the market research firm Mintel.
Other significant diet categories include low-fat, low-sodium, dairy-free and nut-free. These régimes are typically in response to allergies or health concerns, with some adherents among those who want to lose weight. Popular culture or personal and religious choices include Atkins, macrobiotic, kosher, halal, Mediterranean, detox/cleanse régime and countless more.
I had lunch this week with a woman who followed three diets, in sequence, over an eight-week period. She started with a vegan cleanse, then eliminated caffeine, alcohol, salt and oil. She followed that with a primarily bean diet, including very lean meat and salmon. Lastly, she embarked on a paleo stretch.
As we sat at a table with a third friend, who has nut allergies, the waiter took note of our various and varied requests with great finesse. Our preoccupation, or borderline obsession, with what we allow ourselves to eat, or more significantly, what we won’t put on our plates, is of epic proportions. It reflects knowledge we have gained in the area of allergies and diet-driven diseases. It is a sad reflection on the absurd complexity of our commercial food industry that it buries allergens in common foods and adds sugar or high-fructose corn syrup to too many products.
But it is also an opportunity to look in the mirror and wonder how we have become such a diet-obsessed culture. Our relationship with food has become so complicated that there is rarely a meal where a group can sit down and just enjoy what’s on offer without thinking about every ingredient. I used to cringe when my friend asked the waiter for her salad dressing on the side. Now that request, by itself, would be music to my ears.