Turning the tide: how marine life gave me a new perspective on my relationship with food
My childhood summer holidays revolved around the sea, first running naked around the beach, 306 - the number of our wooden beach hut - in marker on my back.
Reading time: 5 minutes
Recap: Food is a multi-billion-dollar business. Big companies dictate what, when and how we eat. This threatens our autonomy, and in turn our health and the resilience of our planet. We’ll dive into the meaning of autonomy, so we can reclaim it and make better food choices.
Reclaim your autonomy to make better food choices.
We are what we eat. Food is a basic constituent of who we are. To be free, self-determined persons, the decision what to put into our mouths, bodies and brains has to be our own. Our personal food choices must be autonomous.
The problem is, they are not.
In this article, we’ll see what threatens our autonomy when it comes to (good) food, and what we can do to reclaim it.
Let’s start at the very end: the present situation of our food choices. It’s no secret that the food industry, governments, and the media all attempt to dictate what, when and how we eat. This has left us eating often, fast, alone, a lot, mostly sugar and fat, and without attention. It’s not a pretty picture.
As much as your food choices should be none of other people’s business, they are, in fact, none of your own business. They are other people’s business, and BIG business at that. Just look at the Forbes Global 2000, an annual list of the world’s most powerful public companies. On the 2018 list, major food companies Anheuser-Busch, Nestle and Pepsico ranked as the top three food and drinks companies in the world, with whopping revenues of tens of billions of dollars (Anheuser-Busch: $91 billion; Nestle: $64 billion; Pepsico: $56 billion).
A Forbes reporter: “Wellness and clean eating might be having a moment, but when it comes to the products that are propelling the performance of the world's largest food and beverage companies, beer, chocolate and coffee are overpowering quinoa, kale and kombucha” (click here for the whole article).
Corporate heavyweights control, to a large extent, what we buy and how we eat. This needs to change, for there’s too much at stake. Our health, and the resilience of our planet. It’s time to take back some of our autonomy. How do we make our food choices our own again?
We become (more) autonomous by understanding what autonomy means. For “knowledge is power” and “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name” (we think these words were said by Francis Bacon and Confucius respectively, but they lived forever ago so we can’t be sure). Once we know what autonomy is, we can create it, claim it, be it.
Autonomy, then. As a philosophy teacher, I’ve heard many a student define autonomy as the absolute freedom to ‘do whatever I want’.
Whatever I want... Well, I want to eat French fries dipped in ice cream all day and go to the moon. So, I’ll discard my health principles and sell my family’s assets to buy a one-way spacecraft ticket. Is that autonomy?
That doesn’t seem right, most students agree (I repeat, ‘most’). Autonomy doesn’t mean responding blindly and immediately to all your cravings. That would make you super un-free. You’d be a slave to your own desires.
In order to live a free life, we need not only opportunities (to do and have things we value), but also boundaries (to not be dominated by our wants). These boundaries need to be our own, and that’s exactly what ‘autonomy’ means. The word comes from the Greek auto–: ‘self’, and –nomos: ‘law’. To be autonomous, is to have your own laws. To be governed by rules of your own making, formed independently without external coercion or manipulation.
No one wants to be force-fed another person’s beliefs. But we humans are nuanced beings. For just as much as we want to be free from others, we need them. To grow, learn from and push against. We are dependent on, and connected to others. They affect the way we think, act, eat, pray, love, live.
Autonomy then can only exist in relation to other people, and to the wider world. Autonomy is not about being left alone, or isolating yourself. It is about nurturing your capacity to live your life, but in this world you share with others.
Think of a painting. Your life is the picture you draw. Autonomy is the paint you use. And others, they form the canvas. The background against which your drawing becomes visible. That ugly picture we talked about? It depicted your life, but painted by someone else’s brush, with paint that wasn’t your own.
To be autonomous, you must think for yourself, follow your own heart. This means that you need to be willing to look at yourself. At the actions you take, the choices you make. What rules do you live by? Are you on a (not ‘the’) right path, for you, and for a larger world?
For many people, determining for themselves what good food choices are, feels like a burden (enjoyers!). It paralyses them (bearers!). It is hard indeed, and the whole Food, Inc. makes it harder still. As part enjoyer, part bearer myself, I understand and experience the worries, the annoyances, the exasperation. But I also believe we often lose sight of the fact that there are so many more people who don’t even have a choice.
As Michael Pollan, author of the book In Defense of Food, said to Oprah (2015: 9.42): “Just think about it, be conscious [of what you’re eating]. Realize that it’s a momentous [and] incredibly empowering decision. [...] you do have this opportunity to support one kind of world or another."
Your ability to choose, your capability of autonomy, is a precious gift. Accept and unwrap it. Observe it from different sides, then use it. For the love of God and Good Food, use it! To take back what’s yours, and makeyour food choices your business again.
P.S.: Don’t forget to share your gift of autonomy with others, in serious play and constructive discussion. It does not diminish your autonomy, when you allow others to advise and guide your food choices. In fact, building solid relationships with others will only make it flourish. Your food choices are then other people’s business, but in a good way. A business built on reciprocal trust, mutual respect and the motivation to work toward a better future.