Nothing we do is less rational than eating.
Food anxiety: Dilemmas of flaxseed and forgetting
By Mary Croke

One day during a PBS pledge week, I tuned into a lecture by my favorite  health guru. "Yep," I decided, hearing some things and not others, "can't live without flaxseed."

The next day, I drove to my local health-food store, where I picked up the last of the stuff on the shelf. There had been a run on flaxseed, explained the clerk.

While waiting at the checkout, I picked up one of the nutrition and fitness magazines on display. Let's see . . . nice-sounding recipe . . . only 200 calories per serving . . . boron is important; gotta eat brazil nuts . . . taste-test results on those new low-fat cookies . . .

By the time I got to my car, I realized I was caught up in a series of food moments. Flaxseed was the least of my problems. (It would get toasted and put into muffins at some point -- after sitting for a few months in the freezer, right next to the rice flour and -- what was it? -- oh yeah, the oat bran.) I couldn't help wondering how I, and so many of the people I know, got into this fix.

Why is food such an object of fuss, fascination and forgetting? If Americans know so much about nutrition, why do we often eat so badly? If food is so necessary, why is it so taken for granted?

Here we have something humans have always really, really wanted: lots of food. Good food. And it makes us crazy. Making us even crazier is this habit we've picked up of treating what we eat as so many discrete physical, even chemical, substances to be used to fuel our machines. Maybe this is inevitable in a society as well-soaked as ours in scientific study results and experts' opinions. We're always considering information, making decisions and berating ourselves for not doing what we think we should.

What's more, we're relatively removed from the process of hunting, gathering and raising our food. We don't see our dependence on other forms of life or the labor and suffering of other species in our food chain. Because our supermarkets are so well stocked, we think and act as if we've conquered the elements. I imagine our ancestors, worshipping earth goddesses and animal spirits and the like, suffered no such illusions.

But in the meantime, bad eating -- or bad thinking about good eating -- is here to stay. I can think of various reasons for that, such as troubled hormones and the easy availability of fats and sweets. Not to mention boredom and loneliness. They are two important reasons for the odd ways we eat. Boredom and loneliness are big for us, too; as forms of detachment, they are broadly rooted in the way we live. We need to fill in all those little, sad, empty spaces with something consoling and reliable, something we have control over. But I think mostly we're trying to connect to something bigger. We're just not big enough by ourselves.

The antidote? Beats me. It's handy to know why broccoli is good and butter is bad, but learning ever more about nutrition isn't going to change us. We're not, by and large, rational eaters. Sooner or later, most of us do whatever we please.

Nevertheless, we need to recognize food's power to connect us to a larger scene. After all, we're pretty permeable; in between food's coming into us and going out of us occurs that mysterious internal combustion that sustains life. Air and water, too. Whether we like it or not, we depend on things utterly outside of ourselves.

Some of that larger scene includes other people. Mostly I enjoy what I eat for its own sake, but I think my favorite meals are those quietly and attentively prepared with whatever's on hand (flaxseed from the freezer?) and quietly and attentively shared with someone I love.