For the most part, I’ve stopped talking to people about food and nutrition. Not just because these tend to be really tedious conversation (no one really wants to know what you ate, or what you dreamt), but it’s really because I’ve realized that the dialogue around food has turned into such a stressful affair, a minefield of ‘should’s’ and ‘shouldn’t’s,’ and also a mess of misinformation. So many of these anxieties converge around either a quest for the perfect diet, or some mythical superfood that is the palliative for all ills, or doing silly things like trying to subsist entirely on gallons of pureed produce. We’re obsessing about everything that we eat, but for those looking to change the way they eat, look, instead, at changing the way you approach eating.
Why we eat the way we eat
Our tastes tell a story about who we are, our own particular set of preferences and dislikes that we cart around with us. These tastes are shaped by our early experiences; the things that we eat regularly are the things that we ate when we were young, and as we grew up. The flavours we love tend also to be the ones that are familiar, that we learned to love, because these are the things we ate at home. Our tongues learn this language and we then express it every day through our food choices. Babies, for instance, have astonishingly diverse tastes. My sister’s (now) one-year-old will eat absolutely anything you wave near his mouth. He has, in his short time here, sampled everything from mashed sweet potato and fruit (loves it) through to little morsels of food served by Michelin starred chefs (loved it even more, of course). Parents train their babies not just to eat, but also what to eat, and how much of it. They teach them what foods to like, which ones to love, and which ones to hate (often learned biases: you see dad go ‘ick’ and you go ick as well). Of course our tastes will change over time, due in part to growing up, to trying new foods and flavours, to what’s available and around, and due to food trends and the tastemakers of the time, whoever they may be. But this is just evolution. When trying to make a sea change in the way you’ve always eaten, you can make as many attempts to change your diets as there are hairs on your head, but until you examine the reasons you eat the way you do, you are likely doomed to fail. You can try to eat more veggies, but unless you try and enjoy veggies more, you aren’t going to want to eat those veggies. I’ve met a few people who hold on to their food preferences like armour, holding them up close and tight and refusing to relinquish them for all they are worth, and they tend to be the ones who put themselves on stringent, tasteless regimes in the name of health, or losing weight. But this is a shame. Food is wonderful, and eating should be pleasurable. When you flip the conversation, and start to consider what food does to you, it might also change the decisions you make regarding what you’re eating.
Everything you thought you knew is wrong
If you’re interested in nutrition you’ll have read about that big, recent reveal, that in the 1950’s the American sugar industry paid scientists to play down the link between sugar and heart disease (a link that was then, and continues now to be, strong) and, instead, divert attention to saturated fat. If you’re wondering why this is significant, it was an eyewash that shaped five decades of nutrition research, and that impacted most of the dietary guidelines we’ve all grown up with, influencing how each and every one of us eat today. That food pyramid you might remember from primary school? That’s the product of Big Agriculture lobbying, and has next to nothing to do with actual nutrition. Unless you live in a cave, you now know that sugar is the enemy of good health. No-one outside of the fizzy drink or shitty chocolate industry would dare refute that bit of wisdom, but even today, it isn’t at all unusual for studies to be paid for by food and drink manufacturers. This is why a pro-sugar study did actually just come out, but it was (if you read the fine print) funded by funded by multinational food and agrochemical companies including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, and Monsanto, according to the New York Times. You don't have to be a nutrition nerd to know that's not good. Stay skeptical, and always use a little common sense.
The new food rules #1: Eat fat
In actual fact, eating fat does not make you fat, or ill. That bit of propaganda allowed sugar to sneak into everybody’s daily diet, as well as horrible products all labelled ‘low fat’, two moves that spawned a surfeit of processed foods filled with sugar or equally-awful sugar substitutes to compensate for the inevitable loss of taste when fat is removed. The anti-fat dogma opened the floodgates to misinformation and miseducation that led to swathes of the population cutting out real foods from their diet, those same foods that had nourished us without incident for centuries, only to replace with crappy additives, fillers, and low-nutrient products.
Forty years of bad advice also set off the biggest obesity and diabetes epidemic in history. For some it’s near impossible to grapple with the truth:
Fat makes you thin.
Fat will prevent heart disease.
Fat will reverse diabetes.
Does this mean you can eat bread pakoras and double-stuffed pizza and claim you’re eating healthy? No of course not, don’t be a ninny. You want whole foods, and lots of them. Eat veggies drizzled in olive oil, seeds, nuts, and oily fish. When in a place where they’re available and don’t cost the earth (I’m looking daggers at you, Food Hall), eat avocados. Eat cage-free organic eggs, and eat the frickin’ yolks for Christs sake, they’re the best bit (nutritionally speaking). Eat ghee. Drizzle it on things. It makes everything delicious. I even cook my eggs in it. An excess of red meat and lard is still unquestionably harmful, and there is a lot of data that will back that information up, but if you feel like you need a little bit of red meat, listen to your body and just eat the damn thing, just make sure it’s the good stuff. The health benefits of these fats is simple, is vital, and shouldn’t be lost in a murky history.
The new food rules #2: Definitely don’t eat sugar
Sugar is, it has been found, more addictive than cocaine (I knew it!), and it is also a chronic liver toxin. What that basically means is that sustained ingestion of sugar will cause, among other things, obesity, hypertension, and fatty-liver disease, i.e. will turn you into human foie gras. (Not delicious at all.) For something so poisonous, it is completely bananas that it is also so ubiquitous. For much of our evolutionary history, these sugary foods were rare treats. Not so much anymore. Processed sugar is actually the hardest food habit to kick for this exact reason. The best way to get rid of the white stuff is to replace it with nutritionally dense and naturally sweet whole foods like carrots, beets, and berries, as well as soaked almonds, apples, and coconut. It’s no bar of chocolate, I’ll admit, and if you try and use it as a replacement you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a bag of mini Mars bars in no time at all, but if you treat it as a stopgap Band-Aid, these foods will stabilize your blood sugar and give your tastebuds enough sweetness to help tide you over the worst of it (fingers crossed).
The new food rules #3: Stop counting calories
Calories don’t matter. Stop counting them, it is not the ’80’s. Your body sees 100 calories of Coke or croissant differently than it sees 100 calories of egg or sweet potato. Food is more than calories. It is made up of macronutrients, vitamins and minerals in different combinations, all of which provide your body with information that it processes differently. Think about what you’re eating instead.
The new food rules #4: Consume dairy in moderation.
Dairy is nature’s perfect food — but only if you’re a calf. You do need calcium, but it shouldn’t come from milk. There’s more than enough calcium found in a well-rounded diet. Choose plant mylks instead of the real stuff. That’s an easy one. But the food-as-drug analogy is real, and if the sugar example wasn’t enough (feel free to sigh heavily here), the casein in cheese actually triggers your brain’s opioid receptors, which means that you’re not imagining it when you feel powerless in the face of a cheese craving. The good news is that cheese cravings are often caused by a deficiency in calcium and fatty acids, so you can take a little step toward combating these by adding in flax seeds to your diet that’ll replenish these vital nutrients and help stave off this particular craving. Plus it goes without saying (one hopes) that when you do decide to indulge, indulge in the good stuff. Processed cheese and Kraft slices are indefensible in general and have no place in anyone’s diet. If you fancy that lovely bit of real cheese though, eat it. But make it a bit, and not an entire wedge.
The new food rules #5: Organic matters, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise
Whatever it is, just make sure it is organic, because if it isn’t, you are also eating alarmingly high levels of antibiotics and other bits that will make you very, very ill indeed, and that is not hippie woo woo nonsense, it is just fact. A major new study has found that organic foods contain higher levels of antioxidants and less harmful chemicals than conventionally farmed produce. It is particularly important that any animal or dairy products you consume be organic, because most synthetic veterinary drugs - including antibiotics and growth hormones - are prohibited under organic regulations. Better for the animals, better for the soil, and definitely better for you.
The new food rules #6: Eat more vegetables
70 to 80 percent of your diet should be plants. Not only is eating less meat better for your health, but it is also better for the planet. And contrary to what you might’ve heard, you can get all the protein you need even on an entirely plant-based diet. Food writer Michael Pollan says it best: “eat food, mainly plants, not too much”. That’s really all the wisdom you need. Plus if you think it’s boring, you haven’t really looked around. There is an obscene amount on offer in the plant kingdom – a huge range of veggies and fruits, roots and tubers, as well as grains, pulses, nuts, seeds… there are more than 30,000 edible plants globally, it’s just us who decided to limit ourselves to a mere handful. Change that.
The new food rules #7: Use your head, and don’t be neurotic
It is not about how much you eat. It’s about what you eat. You will struggle to eat too much of anything that is good for you. This is not because, as some will scoff, it tastes like shit. This is just because when you’re eating whole foods your body and your brain have a satiety signal that works, and your smart, long-suffering body will tell you it’s done, thank you very much. If it’s in a packet, skip it. If it won’t go bad after a week, skip it. If it contains the words ‘diet’, ‘light’, or ‘something-free’, skip it. If the ingredient list is longer than five things, skip it. If you can’t pronounce an ingredient in it, skip it. Get as much of your nutrition as possible from completely unprocessed foods. And when choosing foods that must be processed in some way (i.e.) rice, choose the less-processed kind. Brown rice instead of white rice. Whole grains instead of refined grains. Two real apples instead of bottled apple juice. If you focus on the quality of what you eat, lovely found-in-nature things that haven’t been tampered with, then quantity will take care of itself.
That said, sometimes you just really want a bit of cake. Every so often, just eat it. Nope, not every day, this is where that ‘use your head’ counsel comes in. But as a treat, eat it. Just one slice won’t kill you.
FYI: This feature is for informational purposes only. The Tonic does not provide any medical advice, and readers should consult medical professionals when required.