FROM GLUTEN-FREE TO LACTOSE INTOLERANT. TO TO PALEO, AND BACK AGAIN. WE ALL LIKE TO BELIEVE WE’RE NUTRITIONISTS, BUT CHANCES ARE WE SHOULD KEEP OUR DAY JOBS
each week, I seem to lose another friend to Paleo. Once my beer-guzzling, slap chip-scoffing allies, they arrive at drinks one day with a stern resolve on their faces, order three leaves and a hunk of meat, and start giving me that story about‘ our ancestors’. These ancestors apparently abhorred a croissant, hated a legume, just couldn’t for a toasted-cheese sarmie.It would be nice to report that, at this point, I accept their personal dietary decision with grace, and they mine, and that we swiftly move on to more pleasant or interesting subjects. But, alas: no. How can we? Perhaps eating was once an each-to-his-own affair, but nowadays it has become the primary terrain of passive-aggressive social warfare.The whole saga of whether or not you are winning at life seems to be foretold by what you put on your plate.
We presently occupy the food age. We laud chefs like they’re artists and celebrities, we page through their works in hushed salivation. There are more food writers than ever, more cooking shows, and every mouthful seems to have an accompanying Instagram or ode. What’s more, we’ve never had more information swirling around about where our food comes from (is that organic? Fair trade? Locally sourced?), or what our food does for our health (rich in omegas! Carcinogenic! Anti-ageing!). Amid the morass of options and implications, trying to make a decision about what to eat is a far cry from simply figuring out what you’re in the mood for.And if everything has become confounding in this information overload, it’s the questions about nutrition that seem to clash the most outlandishly.
Take the escalating war between carbs and protein. The Paleo camp, among others, contends that a high-protein diet is essential to our nutritional flourishing. Last year saw another addition to the protein canon with the release of Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, who argues that ‘carbohydrates are absolutely at the cornerstone of all of our major degenerative conditions… [including] Alzheimer’s,
heart disease, and even cancers’. Then, just a few months later, a major study by US and Italian researchers concluded that a diet high in animal proteins during middle age quadrupled mortality rates for cancer and diabetes; and that a diet high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful as smoking.
Glancing at the headlines in the nutrition sections of The New York Times or The Guardian – promising both that a miracle is on the horizon (will mushrooms cure cancer?) and that everything you’ve taken for granted is about to kill you – is enough to paralyse you mid-bite. Individual ingredients also swing from lauded cure-alls to stealth killers in the space between articles. Food blogger Melissa McEwen ran a piece called ‘Just Kale Me: How Your Kale Habit is Slowly Destroying Your Health and the World ’(‘Kaling Me Softly’seems like a missed opportunity) delineating the ease with which a couple of dubious studies, despite their limitations, can become the linchpin for a whole new food paradigm. She asked for a random food to target, and kale led the poll. ‘You can demonise anything with Pubmed [a medical literature database],’ she wrote.About the time of this spoof,an op-ed piece ran in The New York Times entitled, ‘Kale? Juicing? Trouble Ahead’, in which the author, Jennifer Berman, lamented the way her noble kale consumption landed her with a hyperthyroid condition.
‘The basic pattern was fixed decades earlier,’ Michael Pollen,author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote in The New York Times Magazine.‘New scientific research comes along to challenge the prevailing nutritional orthodoxy; some
‘It’s pleasant, after all, to think that if there were just a way to eat the right goji berry at the right time for our whole lives, there’d be no chance for Alzheimer’s or cancer or, heck, even death’
nutrient that Americans have been happily chomping for years is suddenly found to be lethal; another nutrient is elevated to the status of health food.’ A new book (by so-andso, MD), with a punning title, rises to the top of the bestseller lists, and the dog of the media industry begins its wagging. A few findings are transformed into a bold and confident header, and then become a recurring motif at dinner parties; and, buried somewhere towards the end, if we’re lucky, is the disclaimer that nutrition experts warn it’s too early to draw conclusions. Premature and hyperbolic reporting has to take some of the responsibility for the yo-yo confusion about the nutritional effects of the foods we eat. Perhaps with scepticism, extreme patience and a bit of training, we’d be able to work out what to believe and what to toss.But we also have to assess our willingness to believe in miracles and our tendency to be easily bored by the limitations of reality. It’s pleasant, after all, to think that if there was just a way to eat the right goji berry at the right time for our whole lives, there’d be no chance of Alzheimer’s or cancer or, heck, even death. We quickly lose interest in the qualifiers and caveats that turn a shiny, Dr Oz-like super-food into just one more recommendation to pursue a balanced diet and exercise regularly. I mean, yawn.
And when we’re not bored, we’re positively boorish.‘ Are you food rude? ’a recent piece in xo Jane asks.The symptoms of food rudeness are manifold, including launching into your food philosophy or new food faddism whenever you’re presented with the ‘wrong’ morsel. Apparently we need to stop this. ‘So what is the protocol when you are presented with food that, for whatever reason, you’d rather not eat? ’the post’s author, Sara Kaye, continues. ‘You just say “No, thank you.”’ But it’s easier said than done: food rudeness goes both ways. When you decline anything, the whole social gathering usually grinds to a halt, glares at you with their subpoena-eyes, and you have to start offering testimony. ‘Not for me, thanks.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, I just don’t feel like any right now.’ ‘Are you on a diet or something?’‘ Kind’ve.’ ‘Which one? Why?’
It can be exhausting. But is the ongoing conversation about food something we really want to silence? Despite the clamour and confusion, it’s probably a good thing that we’re interrogating diet as a route to health. (And it’s certainly a good thing that we’ve become more interested in how our food is sourced and what harm is done on the way to our plate.) ‘I hope people don’t give up on nutrition science,’ wrote The Atlantic’s health reporter, James Hamblin. ‘The scientific community on the whole is not as capricious as the bestseller list might make it seem.’ We are currently getting an abundance of information, and it can be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing when it provides you with what you need, and a curse when you gulp down everything you’re served.