Can eating doughnuts be healthy?

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Normalizing how we think about healthy diets can obscure truths about our bodies and spirits, argues the Rev. Martha Tatarnic. Photo: Master1305/Shutterstock

Beechwood Doughnuts has become one of St. Catharines’ most popular and best-known small businesses. I don’t normally eat doughnuts, but knowing I will have the opportunity to enjoy a Beechwood can fill me with a sense of expectation for days. Amazingly, these doughnuts are vegan. I was waxing enthusiastic about this fact recently to a group of out-of-town colleagues.

“Just because they’re vegan doesn’t mean they’re healthy,” one of my companions noted.

“It depends what you mean by healthy,” I responded.

I knew what was meant by “healthy,” of course. When we talk about a person being healthy, usually we refer to that person’s individual measurements—things like blood pressure, sugar levels, heart condition and inevitably their weight— falling within what is considered to be a normal range. The food that a person eats is understood to be a key component in how health is attained or maintained. Food, like health, gets reduced to a set of measurements: calorie, fat, carbohydrate, protein and vitamin content. Depending on how we currently think those numbers should relate to the individual body (for example: “Is this a good fat or bad fat?”), we assess the food choice as either healthy or unhealthy.

The problem with this very normalized way of thinking is that it omits a fundamental truth about our bodies and the food we put into them. The individual body does not actually exist as separate from the world around us. This truth is affirmed every time I eat. Whenever I eat, I am taking the world around me into my own body so that I may live. To imagine that my health can be considered as an isolated question, separate from the relationship that biologically exists between me and the air, earth, water and creatures around me is a lie. I suspect it is the lie that makes our collective relationship with food so dysfunctional, that sets most diets up for failure, and that causes so many people to feel relentless guilt and anxiety about the food that they eat. I am taught to eat as if my food choices are just about me. And they’re not.

This lie is also intimately connected to the environmental crisis to which we are finally waking up, caused by the notion that human prosperity could be sought, human desire can be satiated, without attention to the environmental relationships in which that prosperity and desire inextricably exist.

From the pages of Scripture, we receive an ancient wisdom that speaks to a long-standing dysfunction in how human beings eat. We learn that food is rarely shared equitably, that access to food is power and that such power can be manipulated, that rules around who is “clean” dictate who can eat together and who must eat alone. God comes to the people as manna, as bread, as living water, as the sacrificial lamb, offering another vision for how people are to eat and who people are to be. Isaiah 25 describes the fullness of human relationship with God as a mountaintop picnic of delicious food and drink. This picnic fills human bellies, and it also welcomes all of those previously left out. It lifts the shroud of death from human hearts, thereby healing us of our fear and grief. The sharing of that banquet mends our relationship with one another and reveals the closeness and love of the living God.

I come back to that question of whether Beechwood’s doughnuts are healthy. It is an undeniable fact that they have a lot of calories—but they are also very rich, and so they can only be enjoyed in small amounts. I don’t know what kind of oil is used to fry them and whether that oil is currently considered to be “good” or “bad” fat. Because they are vegan, though, every ingredient in those doughnuts is carefully selected with a sense of care and concern for our fellow creatures on this planet, which leads me to claim that the oil is, in a profound way, “good.” The doughnuts are made by a local business that has been so successful that there is often a line out the door to get these fresh and delicious treats—which also means that there is a hive of employees working good jobs around the clock. The bulletin board inside is hung with community notices around justice and artistic initiatives. All along the downtown, happy people can be seen carrying their black and white Beechwood boxes, likely because each of those boxes represents a special occasion that will be enjoyed later that day. There is no rule against eating these doughnuts alone, but I’ve never heard of this happening. It is a treat almost exclusively enjoyed with others.

Isaiah 25 doesn’t mention the presence of doughnuts on that mountaintop picnic, but that may have been an oversight. When food becomes a means by which our care for the world around us and our relationship with one another are strengthened, then it is also a means by which we become more aware of the presence and purpose of the living God.

And to answer the question with which we started, that most definitely makes these doughnuts healthy.

Martha Tatarnic is rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ont. Her new book The Living Diet is available through Amazon and Church Publishing.

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