Jim Duffy: Beware the men in white coats – and take a chance on butter

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Discursive formations may restore one’s faith in sociology, while questions of diet are imponderable, writes Jim Duffy

Sometime ago, I did a bit of sociology and I recall a few people scoffing at me. What use is that, they asked me? I couldn’t give them a definitive answer at the time as I was a novice, a Padawan, a rookie.

But, recently the old memory banks have fired up on some of that sociology stuff and it is beginning to make some sense. It appears that the men in white coats just cannot get anything right! And maybe Michel Foucault was on to something when he introduced discursive formations.

For years, I tolerated margarine. I hated margarine. It had no real taste and was pretty bland. But the learned scientists in white coats announced that butter was bad for us and that margarine got the thumbs up as a healthy replacement.

Now let’s be honest here folks. Hot buttered toast is just awesome. I bet you can see it and taste it right now. Yummy. But margarine covered toast does not hit the spot. It doesn’t even look right. It’s manufactured fat that sits on top of the toast, while it fails to satisfy on taste.

Yet, for decades, we were under the impression butter was the bad boy of fats, while margarine products were good for our arteries and overall health. But, that’s no longer the case as new “studies” suggest that margarine is in fact not great for us and that butter is a natural, healthy fat. Oh dear… Looking on the bright side, I really loved my buttered toast this morning.

And what now? Coffee is heart healthy and if we drink a couple of cups a day it can lead to a longer healthier life. The experts believe that antioxidant plant compounds found in coffee are the little chappies that are responsible for the life-extending effects.

This I find really strange as for years we have been told to cut back on coffee and caffeine. It got to the stage that I felt guilty making a coffee. But hey, now I can have a few cups a day and all is good. If I think about the role reversal in my mind’s psychology, I can now enjoy what I really want for breakfast – coffee and buttered toast, instead of yoghurt and muesli with lemon tea.

So, why do the men in white coats get it so wrong? Are they indeed a bit like politicians and poke their head around the door to see which way the wind is blowing? Or has “science” become better and more informed? Which brings me back to my sociology studies.

Michel Foucault, as you may know, was a post-modernist French sociologist who had a focus on power dynamics, language and knowledge production. He labelled them discourses and one of the most poignant discursive formations he wrote about was that of men in white coats.

Foucault focused on questions of how some discourses shaped and created meaning systems that gained status and currency in what was the “truth”. Whether he liked men in white coats and it was primarily men then (maybe that was the problem), I have no idea, but he certainly was on to sometime. He coined it the “medical gaze”.

For him, the gaze was a relationship rather than something that one did. It explained how the power dynamics evolved between patients – you and me – and doctors – men in white coats. In short, the white coat came to signify hegemonic power, where the patient was 100 per cent in the hands of the man in the white coat.

This makes me question a lot of what I hear from scientists and doctors who tell us this is good for us and this is bad for us. Of course, one has to be careful in where one reads these tales of good foods and bad foods as some of these studies are sponsored or funded by big food groups. But, on the whole I am now left with no real confidence in what is true, what will indeed keep my ticker going for an additional ten years or what will lead me to an early grave.

If Michel Foucault had been alive today, I’m sure he would be quietly gloating in an “I told you so” fashion.

Food is key part of our lives. One only has to hit the supermarkets to see trends and changes in what we want to consume. The freezer sections have been reduced in size. The healthy, fresh food aisles have increased in size and consequently so have the prices.

Blueberries are now a luxury since being classed as a superfood, avocadoes are now sold by the bucketful and salmon costs a small fortune, despite being farmed in this country. But, I’m still hugely sceptical as I walk around the aisles on what is or is not actually good for my body and my well-being.

So being told some form of truth in what is healthy would a bonus. My question to you is – do you even believe what is printed on the back of food packaging these days? As the men in white coats play with their chemistry sets and advise on what we should and should not eat, where does it leave us in this decade right now?

In the meantime, I’ll try and eat a “balanced” diet, which probably means I’ll have a bit of everything and hope for the best.

Good luck!