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When did feeding ourselves become so complicated?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jess Ainscough - The Wellness Warrior

We need food to live. It’s pretty safe to say that this has always been the case. Way, way back in the day, even before the invention of sliced bread, our ancestors fed themselves to stay alive. They knew what to eat, when to eat and how to eat. They didn’t rely on nutritionists, dieticians, scientists, journalists or marketing hype to tell them what to chow down on; they just understood that certain things are made to be eaten and certain things aren’t. They used their common sense and intuition to guide them from the garden or the market to the kitchen. Then something strange happened. Food was no longer just food. Instead, food became the sum of all of its nutritional parts. Suddenly we needed a whole new vocabulary just to understand how to feed ourselves. We needed a science-type person to accompany us to the supermarket just so we could decipher between items that are fit to put in our gobs and items that aren’t. Whole food was out and antioxidant-, carbohydrate-, fibre-, protein-, phytochemical- and fat-content was in. We became a nation obsessed with nutrition. But did it make us any healthier? Funnily enough, no. Quite the opposite, actually. Puzzled? Turns out many of us are.

Michael Pollan, journalist and author of the best-selling In Defense of Food, describes the ideology around our thinking about food as ‘nutritionism’ – a pseudo-scientific way of looking at food. According to Pollan, nutritionism reduces food to its nutritional parts. We clever humans discover that a certain nutrient does wonders for our bodies and we try to isolate it, extract it and mass reproduce it. Take carrots, for example. Carrot is contains a highly beneficial nutrient called beta-carotene. Science guys got hold of this knowledge and decided to hunt down the beta-carotene in the humble carrot, extract it and make supplements out of it. They were a little bummed when they discovered that beta-carotene supplements were a poor-man’s nutrient in comparison to eating a whole carrot. Why? We haven’t yet figured out everything that goes on in a carrot. Vegetables in their whole form house a galaxy of nutrients, enzymes and other goodness that work together to deliver amazing benefits to your body.

Nutritionism also divides the world into good and evil, demonising certain nutrients while enshrining others. This would kind of make sense if the list of ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys weren’t forever changing on us. Remember the days when protein was considered ‘bad’ and carbohydrates were ‘good’? Now it is the opposite. Thanks to Dr Atkins and his classmates, carbs are often wrongly accused of being evil. We may be clever enough to figure out that some carbs are bad for us, but we often forget that not all carbohydrates are created equal. The same goes for fat. The low-fat campaign began in the early 1980s and is just starting to fade out now. You know what else started around the early 1980s? The obesity epidemic and the rise of type-2 diabetes! Clearly, the science around these nutrition claims was not very sound. As soon as we were told to avoid fat at all costs, we began gorging on anything that was labelled as ‘low-fat’ and ‘fat-free’. Never mind the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates that were taking its place and seeing us spiral into serious health decline.

Butter was another victim of the ‘low-fat’ campaign. Sure, butter is an animal fat and you should by no means use it as a condiment on everything, but it is a heck of a lot better than margarine. We now know that trans fats, as found in margarine, are lethal and responsible for many diseases. On the other hand, people have been successfully eating butter for around eight or 10 thousand years.

Cyndi O'Meara
Nutritionist Cyndi O’Meara is another voice I respect whole-heartedly. She wrote the brilliant book, Changing Habits Changing Lives. What I love about Cyndi is that she prescribes whole foods, and does everything she can to warn us about the ramifications of the modernised food system.

“When we put 80 additives into a prepared meal (just read the ingredients on a packaged food), how could we possibly know the ramifications on what it does to our body. The mind boggles at the stupidity of the food, science and sickness industry,” writes Cyndi. “Don’t be part of the experiment. Realise that nurturing your body with real foods free from chemicals and additives is the best thing you can do for your health and nuturing.”

Nutritionism undermines our instincts. This modern, western style of eating has made us forget that we have things like culture, tradition and in-built common sense to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be eating. As Michael Pollan puts it, “People have eaten very well for thousands of years before they even knew what an antioxidant was, and they can do it again.”

What are we to do? Forget all of the lingo and stick to the basics. Eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible and good health will follow. Weight loss will be a given. If it can sit in your pantry for years and not go bad, don’t eat it. If it contains ingredients that you can’t pronounce, don’t eat it. If you pick up something that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food, don’t eat it. It is that easy. By eating local, organic, fresh whole foods you can’t really go wrong. Your body is designed to eat food from the ground and if you feed it accordingly it will reward you by carrying you through a long, healthy and happy life.

What do you think about nutritionism? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Jess Ainscough is The Welness Warrior, in pursuit of perfect health, mind, body and spirit. Read more by following her on Facebook or Twitter.

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