The Common Principles of Slow Food and Slow Medicine

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on October 27, 2014

Across the world, we are realizing — both individually and collectively — that our obsession with speed is wearing us down, undermining the quality of our lives, and otherwise making us sick. The Slow Food movement has been at the forefront of the global cry for a desperately-needed paradigm shift, with the injunctive not to throw away modern comforts, but rather, to use them consciously and wisely. I was delighted to speak with Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA, about the common principles of Slow Food and Slow Medicine. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Michael Finkelstein, MD: How did we end up going from thousands of years of eating whole and hearty food from the earth, to eating pre-packaged, processed, and fast food?

Richard McCarthy: There is so much to celebrate with the rise of modernity: a social contract that delivers remarkable comfort, hygiene, personal safety and social stability in exchange for trade-offs. Some of these are reasonable: We juggle personal liberty in exchange for community good. However, when taken to ultimate, if not extreme, conclusions, it leads to an unstoppable desire for convenience.

As a result, we construct systems that obscure the costs of the benefits of safety and convenience: ecological, health, economic and social. Here in the heart of the fast world, it is no longer possible to hide the once hidden effects of ecological degradation, chronic diseases, loneliness, and stress.

MF: How is the fast food craze related to our obsession with fast cars, medical quick fixes, and other forms of immediate gratification?

RM: Much of this refers to our primordial desire to gain control over our environment. Early in the 20th century, bicycles earned the nickname of “scorchers,” because they were so fast. Today, they are symbols of living life in the slow lane. We tend to marvel at our extraordinary feats of defying the laws of gravity and the rhythm of our planet. All of it is based upon a belief that all innovation is good. If you don’t like it, get out of the way. Otherwise, the forces of change will run you over. All change is good. It’s a peculiar world-view that makes fetish of all things new and young.

However, appeals to the past — when things were simpler and happier — always yield new and often strange interpretations of the past. We must find ways to celebrate traditional knowledge, in gastronomy and medicine, and blend them with the marvelous achievements of today: pluralism, the rights of those who in the past were pushed to the margins, and so forth.

MF: How have our bodies and minds adapted to the fast food reality, to the point that we crave empty calories and chemicals that actually break down our systems?

RM: We crave empty calories that yield immediate perks, in part, because we do not have confidence in the long-term. The immediate satisfaction of cigarettes on frontlines during wartime is itself a recognition that there may be no tomorrow. Similarly, we have become a society that delivers less and less long-term stability and security, so we eat accordingly.

I am not aware of any evidence that we have adapted to this fast life of eating empty calories. On the contrary, chronic diseases seem to be catching up with us. We may have believed that we could manage and thrive beneath the tyranny of food that is cheap and fast. Alice Waters describes our situation as though we live in captivity. We are addicted to our empty calories, and even though we know deep down this is not good, we cannot loosen its grip on our lives.

MF: A Slow Medicine model connects the dots between our physical symptoms and our food choices, relationship dynamics, spiritual practices, air quality, work environments, and so on. What do you see as the link between food, workers, animals, community, planet, economy, and individual health or disease?

RM: In nearly every television advertisement I notice these days, we consumers, ie patients, are encouraged to ask our doctors to consider prescribing brand medicines that they have not had the wisdom to prescribe. This strange consumer-driven, or pharma-driven, medicine utilizes our desire to gain control and choice but does so in a cynical and manipulative manner. With choice, we gain control. Right?

This impulse is understandable and is reinforced by the prevailing world-view: that we consumers should have the opportunity to choose among a prescribed menu of options. However, what happens when we choose an item that’s “off the menu”? What if we choose preventative methods, as opposed to the interventions available from large pharmaceutical companies?

In our mad dash towards instant gratification and easy comfort, we continue to consume empty calories that yield chronic diseases that we address pharmaceutical interventions. This cycle of illness, whereby we treat symptoms instead of root causes, places us as families and individuals in positions of weakness and dependency — a far cry from the control and choice we desire and that we are told that we are enjoying. If instead, we resist the predictable and “fast” path and begin to take control over our lives — disengage from eating out at the drop of a hat, pick up old recipes and prepare meals with others, purchase fresh ingredients, grow gardens — something amazing starts to happen. You begin to see the world differently.

Instead of living in a perpetual state of crisis management, whereby each immediate problem is related only to an immediate action, you start to draw connections between individual, incremental steps and the larger whole. Is this easy? No. Our lives are out of control. Financial pressures, time pressures and fear overwhelm us. And yet, I meet individuals, families and communities that are showing signs of abandoning this dominant way of living and are beginning to embrace something new. It’s based on old ideas of community, balance, and common sense.

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