Marie Claire (South Africa) - - MENU - WORDS ANNA HARTFORD

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.

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