The phrase “you are what you eat” has been repeated many times. Each person saying it may have had a slightly different agenda. Sometimes the agenda is to promote viewpoints on nutrition and health. You are what you eat, and if you eat “bad food” you will have bad health. Or, perhaps, you’ll even be a bad person. Yes, sometimes, it is philosophical. Food is culture.
In fact, one of the most brilliant statements I’ve read concerning the culture of food is that a culture’s food traditions are much like language (forgive me, but I cannot recall the originator). Humans can make a very wide range of sounds. Hundreds, in fact. Yet, all human languages only use a relative handful of those sounds. The way we speak says a lot about us as a people, both what we aspire to and how we wish to be perceived.
Much the same is food. There is a great diversity of food that humans can eat. We are capable of using a broader range of food than any other animal. Yet, in any human culture, only a fraction of that food diversity is expressed. What food we eat and how we eat it says a lot about us as a people, both what we aspire to and how we wish to be perceived.
So, yes, we are what we eat. When viewed in this light, the statement may seem a bit more profound than a simple observation about “bad food.” In fact, these very observations speak to the above!
The original expression spoke to food and identity. It was not yet quite a simple admonishment about proper nutrition such as “”eat your vegetables, you are what you eat, you know.” Yet, it was still a statement about what we should eat, as much as a statement about what we do eat.
Although it is not known who may have been the very first to utter this phrase, or some version of it, the earliest readily identifiable use of the phrase was by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in 1826, in his seven-volume book The Physiology of Taste.
He wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” He was literally saying that a person’s mental, emotional, and physical health could be determined by what they ate, and indeed, their very character revealed. The idea that good food led to good character and good health and that bad food corrupt, both morally and physically, has hung on ever since, in some way or another.
Brillat-Savarin would have a hard time making good on his claim today and would perhaps be shocked at how open food-culture has become. It is doubtful he would have expected to see people from modern, developed countries seeking out the the “ethnic” foods that are so common-place today. In her classic book, Food in History, Reay Tannahill had this to day about his statement:
If Brillat-Savarin had been alive today [1970’s], he might have thought twice before he said: “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.” Certainly, he would have qualified it, for no sane analyst of gastronomic history could be expected to deduce a Liverpool pop singer from yogurt and unpolished rice, or a Manhattan millionaire from black-eyed peas and chitterlings; to connect Scotch whisky with a Frenchman, or French bread with a Japanese. But these apparently wild deviations from the logic of the table—although they have more to do with contemporary social pressures than with food do reflect a new and more general attitude of flexibility in the prosperous countries of the world and among the richer classes in developing countries.
After Brillat-Savarin, the German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feurerbach, in 1863, repeated the idea in his essay Spiritualism and Materialism, saying, “A man is what he eats.”
Friedrich Nietzche, although he used many more words, certainly seemed to agree with the notion. In Ecce Homo, from 1908, he wrote,
But as to German cookery in general—what has it got on its conscience! Soup before the meal; meat cooked till the flavor is gone, vegetables cooked with fat and flour; the degeneration of pastries into paperweights! Add to this the utterly bestial postprandial habits of the ancients, not merely of the ancient Germans, and you will begin to understand where German intellect had its origin—in a disordered intestinal tract…German intellect is indigestion; it can assimilate nothing.
Despite the early origins of the idea, the most famous use of it which is most responsible for its continued use today is that of English nutritionist Victor Lindlahr. In the 1920’s he said ‘Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.’ Then, in 1942 he parlayed this conviction into an extremely successful book: You Are What You Eat.
According to Lindlahr, “food is medicine,” an idea that is still extant.
The macrobiotic movement of the 1960’s relied on much the same message. There was, and always has been a moral undercurrent to the message. Although many use it to try to convey straight-forward nutrition advice, the moral implications are always there: If you eat bad food, you’ll be a bad person. A good person eats good food.
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