Human self-awareness means that, from a relatively early age, we are also aware of death. In his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Becker hypothesized that the fear of death–and the need to suppress that fear—is what drives much of human behavior. This idea went on, in social psychology, to the form the basis of Terror Management Theory.
Ancient humans must have decided, once their bellies were full, that there was more to life than mere survival and staring mortality in the face. They went on to build things in which they could find distraction, comfort, recreation, and meaning. They built cultures in which death became another rite of passage, not the end of everything. They made structures to live in, wrote songs to sing to each other, and added spices to their food, which they cooked in different styles. Humans are supported by a self-created system of meanings, symbols, rituals, and etiquette. Food and eating are part of this.
The act of ingestion is embroidered with so much cultural meaning that, for most people, its roots in spare, brutal survival are entirely hidden. Even for people in extreme poverty, for whom survival is a more immediate concern, the cultural meanings of food remain critical. Wealthy or poor, we eat to celebrate, we eat to mourn, we eat because it’s mealtime, we eat as a way to bond with others, we eat for entertainment and pleasure. It is not a coincidence that the survival function of food is buried beneath all of this—who wants to think about staving off death each time they tuck into a bowl of cereal? Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.
When it comes to food, Becker said that humans “quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment,” and that the desire for more life—not just delaying death today, but clearing the bar of mortality entirely—grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object that might achieve a sort of immorality. Diet culture and its variations, such as clean eating, are cultural structures we have built to attempt to transcend our animality.
By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret. If you haven’t evangelized about it, joined a movement around it, or been praised publicly for it, have you truly cleansed?
As humans, we are possibly the most promiscuous omnivores ever to wander the earth. We dine on animals, insects, plants, marine life, and occasionally non-food: dirt, clay, chalk, even once, famously, bicycles and airplanes.
We are not pandas, chastely satisfied with munching through a square mile of bamboo. We seek variety and novelty, and at the same time, we carry an innate fear of food. This is described by the famous omnivore’s paradox, which (Michael Pollan notwithstanding) is not mere confusion about choosing what to eat in a cluttered food marketplace. The omnivore’s paradox was originally defined by psychological researcher Paul Rozin as the anxiety that arises from our desire to try new foods (neophilia) paired with our inherited fear of unknown foods (neophobia) that could turn out to be toxic. All omnivores feel these twin pressures, but none more acutely than humans. If it weren’t for the small chance of death lurking behind every food choice and every dietary ideology, choosing what to eat from a crowded marketplace wouldn’t be considered a dilemma. Instead, we would call it “the omnivore’s fun time at the supermarket,” and people wouldn’t repost so many Facebook memes about the necessity of drinking a gallon of water daily, or the magical properties of apple cider vinegar and coconut oil. Everyone would be just a little bit calmer about food.