Spirit bears, dental hygiene, and why our eating matters
by Rob Tiller
During my recent trip to the wilds of British Columbia, I didn’t have room for all my new photo files on my hard drive, so this past week I bought a massive (14 TB) new one. Once I got the new device running, I edited more of my wildlife photos. Those included shots of the very rare spirit bear, an osprey that had caught a salmon, and a humpback whale, some of which are here. It was a moving experience to share space for a little while with these creatures.
This week it was time for my six-month dental check up. I’m a big believer in good tooth care, since we each get only one set of teeth, and it’s much more difficult to eat without them. So I put some effort into rinsing, brushing, and flossing, since if I don’t, who will? Well, actually, it kind of takes a village. I’ve got a whole team giving advice, encouragement, and occasional repairs at Dr. Williams’s general dentistry practice.
Of course, my tooth health depends on a lot of others. I’m thinking of all the hardworking folks who make the dental floss, toothbrushes, and tooth paste, who wire the building and and keep the electric grid working, who put in the plumbing, who operate the water system, and trusted teachers from my childhood, especially my Mom.
But of those closest to my mouth now, I want to thank D, my latest dental hygienist, who pushed me hard to add a Waterpik to my routine, which I did a few months back. I used to think Waterpiks were silly and useless gadgets, but I’m now a believer. D says my Waterpiking has been very good for my gums.
I like that D is truly passionate about tooth care, and I always learn some interesting tooth facts in our cleaning sessions. She pointed out that TV and movie people all whiten their teeth nowadays, whereas in older movies teeth are grayer. She told me that drugstore whitening products use the same chemical as custom work (that is, peroxide) and generally work fine, but they likely won’t go on as evenly.
In moments of existential dread, I’ve sometimes wondered what’s the use of worrying about teeth, or any bodily maintenance issues. With all the enormous risks on our horizon, including nuclear weapons, asteroid strikes, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway superintelligent artificial intelligence, and of course the dire effects of global warming, it’s difficult to factor in individual bodily worries. The vastly different scale of the two sorts of problems prevents comparisons.
But we can’t help but feel that we as individuals have some significance, and our lives are worth taking some trouble over. Along this line, I’m reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Haaglund, a Swedish philosopher at Yale. Haaglund suggests that each individual carries various identities, such as parent, child, professional, church goer, and customer, which may be added to or fluctuate over time. Part of the essential work of living a life is choosing how to realize the goals associated with those identities and prioritizing when the identities conflict. Haaglund’s theory is thought-provoking, and I expect to have more to say about it in a future post.
But for now, I’m comfortable that having serviceable teeth is not inconsistent with trying to stop environmental degradation or prevent nuclear accidents. Our identity as caretakers of our bodies is entirely reconcilable with our identity as citizens trying to avoid catastrophe.
In fact, the issues of personal health, societal well being, and the environment are interconnected. One of the great ironies of modern first world life is how, with all our wealth and knowledge, and with the miracles of modern dentistry, we eat so poorly. Most of our deadliest health risks, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity, are closely related to our typical food choices.
In my nature photography travels over the last few weeks, I’ve shared meals with a lot of prosperous, well-educated, and gifted people, who have traveled widely and made some beautiful photographs. Much as I enjoyed our talks, I was really saddened to see how poorly a lot of them nourished themselves. Offered a choice between French fries and fruit, most always took the fries.
I’d have to be nuts to think of taking away anybody’s French fries (and I admit, I enjoy them from time to time), but I’m just saying, fruit is generally the better choice. Given how important eating is to our health, it’s remarkable how little most of us think about it, and how many of us do it unwisely. How well or poorly we nourish ourselves is a major determinant of the length and quality of our lives. It’s a really big deal.
So I was glad to see this was the subject of a recent op ed piece in the NY Times entitled Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us. The authors explained that our typical diet accounts for elevated death rates, and noted that this is a political issue that is not being discussed by politicians. They proposed thinking of how we eat as a medical issue, and encouraging healthy eating as a fundamental part of a healthy life. They had several practical ideas for new policies, including getting doctors to put an emphasis on nutrition and discouraging junk food with taxes. They suggest that improvements to our eating would simplify the problem of how we provide health care, since we wouldn’t have to provide so much of it.
All this seems sensible, but somehow our nutrition system is harder to talk about than our healthcare system (which is also hard). The food industry has done an amazingly effective job at conditioning us to think of food as primarily about fun, rather than survival. Even suggesting that we should eat more plant foods and less processed junk sounds kind of grumpy and unfun. At parties, insisting on talking about healthy eating is a good way to get some alone time.
But this mindset may be slowly changing. There was a report this week that the meat industry is fighting the growing popularity of plant-based meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. The industry is pushing for new state laws to outlaw using the word meat to describe these products. My first reaction to this was outrage, but then I realized, it’s kind of good news: leaders of possibly the cruelest business on the planet are worried about their continued profitability. They must view plant food as serious competition.
And there’s increasing awareness (though still not enough) that better diets are good not just for individual human bodies, but for the planet. For example, industrialized meat production is a significant contributor to global warming. As the Times noted this week, even reducing our meat consumption by 25% would significantly lower our collective carbon footprint.
But while I was organizing these thoughts, the Washington Post reported that in connection with the next version of the federal dietary guidelines, the Trump administration has prohibited the use of scientific studies likely to support eating less meat, dairy, sugar, and processed food. There is, of course, a lot of science that points in that direction, and it’s beyond irresponsible not to at least take a close look at it. If your objective were to destroy more of the natural world and maximize people’s likelihood of an early death, one way to get there is exactly this: suppress the science.