Food choices matter, but a poor understanding of the role food should play in our lives is leading many people astray.
This is an editorial for Issue 5 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan. He is not a qualified nutritional expert, but he does enjoy eating, if that counts for anything.
How do you choose what to eat? In the past, this would have boiled down to another, simpler question: What food do I have access to? These days, that's an almost laughable topic — if you live in a developed, wealthy country, you can eat basically whatever you like. Doesn't grow in your region? Ship it in from overseas.
This unrestrained access has led to a restructuring of the way we look at food; when you can eat anything, you start to wonder whether you should indeed be eating everything. Food now has a moral element attached — and sometimes it's justified, but sometimes it's not.
Food, of course, has a lot of power. As living things, we need it to survive, grow and reproduce. Furthermore, we have particular dietary requirements as human beings; molecules we need but can't make ourselves must be eaten instead, which is why an absence of fruit can lead to scurvy, and why eating carrots may prevent you from going blind. Unbalanced eating habits can drastically increase our risk of contracting life-threatening diseases. Biologically, we ignore our diet at our peril.
Decades of cumulative research into nutrition have opened our collective eyes to the necessity of eating with care. But certain sections of society have taken the wrong message from the science — or in a lot of cases ignored the science altogether. A lot of this comes down to viewing one's diet as a collection of individual choices, grading each choice as either 'good' or 'bad'. It's common to see certain foods lauded as 'superfoods', while others are consigned to the wasteland of pop-nutrition's disapproval.
Superfoods you may have seen in vogue over the last few years include blueberries, kale, salmon, goji berries and quinoa, but there are plenty of others. The claim is often that regular consumption of these foods will lead to general health benefits, perhaps even specific ones. Weight loss is promised, even happiness. Remarkable, right?
Basing a diet around so-called superfoods, however, is often expensive (and therefore out of reach of large portion of society) and has the potential to become nutritionally unbalanced. If your meal mindset is structured solely around the presence of certain foods, you're likely to forget to include a wide variety of food, which is what your body actually needs. Positioning individuals foods as cure-alls does nothing to promote sustainable, healthy eating.
On the flip side, certain foods — or more accurately, classes of foods — have become unfairly demonised. Some people claim gluten is our greatest enemy, but for others it's plain old sugar, in any form. Advocates of the 'paleo diet' go further, saying all food we didn't have access to before developing civilisation is inherently bad for us — so no grains, legumes or dairy.
These claims, where scientific justification is attempted, have never held up to scrutiny from experts, and often no real justification is given; some foods are supposedly just 'better' because they're 'natural' or eaten by cultures the West forgot, and others are 'toxic' for vague reasons.
An obsession with avoiding 'processed' food likewise can be more trouble than it's worth. Processing is a continuum; unless you're consuming plants or animals directly without modification, nearly all food you eat has been processed in some way or another. Much of what we eat can't even really be considered food before it's processed — who would eat wheat straight from the stalk or raw potatoes encrusted with dirt?
The larger problem with processing comes from the relative ease in which we can access and consume large quantities of highly-processed food (stereotypical 'fast food' is a classic example — burgers, fries and soft drink) without thought of its role in our diet. Obviously, eating an entire low-quality pizza for dinner every night will have health consequences — but the pizza isn't bad, just our relationship to it. These foods — through marketing, social or neurochemical means — often make us forget about portion control, and that's the real issue. A handful of fries is okay every once in a while, they're not going to give you cancer or impugn your moral character.
Of course, sometimes there are good medical reasons to avoid particular foods completely. Those with coeliac disease legitimately can't eat gluten without angering their intestines, phenylketonurics have to avoid the common amino acid phenylalanine for fear of brain damage, and favism prevents you from eating fava beans, unless you're fine with bleeding all the time. If your GP advises you to eat a certain way, it's best to listen to them.
The healthy way to approach your diet isn't to make a rigid checklist of 'dos' and 'don'ts,' but to think about your relationship to food somewhat holistically. Ask questions. What variety of foods should I eat to get enough of every nutrient my body needs, and how much of each food would I need to do this? How can I cook these foods into interesting meals so that I don't get bored of them? Read the recommendations of qualified and well-respected experts — they know what's what.
Other questions about the sourcing of food and the ethics involved are also relevant — and perhaps these are the things we should be most concerned about. But that's largely up to you. While you make up your mind, read more about the wonderful world of food in this issue of Lateral — there's a lot more to discuss.