Until I was about 16, I wouldnt eat anything that resembled a vegetable unless it was deep-fried and came with a burger. Then I took a yoga class, saw all the flexible babes and at once decided to become vegetarian. Ive always been a man of principle.
I overcame my aversion to anything that grew out of the ground by burying everything in curry sauce and schooling myself to the health advantages of becoming vegetarian, macrobiotic I even tried being fruitarian at one stage.
I didnt achieve enlightenment or even get any dates but it did give me the moral high ground over the rest of my family and friends and, when youre an insecure teenager, youll grasp at any straw.
Food fads and special diets have a long history, going back to the days when Moses descended from Sinai with a whole rulebook of dietary laws handed down from God no pork, no mixing milk with the meat and a whole system for discerning which foods were kosher on the basis of scales (or lack of them) and cloven hooves.
Christianity decided to drop these restrictions pretty early on (bacon tastes good, after all) but Islam adopted similar food practices to those found in the Old Testament and today Halal butchers do a good business throughout the world and probably offer meat with the least E. coli risk going.
But for the greater part of human history most people were hard pressed to get enough of any kind of food at all. Poverty and starvation when crops failed were the norm for most societies across the world for the last millennia or so, making it tough for the likes of the South Beach Diet to really make an impact. People ate natural, unrefined foods and relied upon folklore, prayer and luck to stay healthy.
But then with the industrial revolution humans began to refine foods, pesticides entered the food chain in the 20th century and, soon after, the age of mass production and fast food chains spawned like bacteria across the globe.
Coincidentally enough, the generations in post-war boom America were the most prone to heart disease and obesity ever seen and science was called in to deliver some answers.
Congress to the Rescue
The Senate Select Committee on Nutrition in 1977, led by none other than Sen. George McGovern, decided that red meat and dairy products were to blame and recommended that both should be cut down drastically for a better American diet.
The meat and dairy lobbies immediately applied heavy pressure on the relevant senators (including South Dakota's McGovern) and the ruling was fudged to recommend a low-fat diet allowing lean meat and milk without the cream to stay firmly on Americans shopping lists.
There was only one problem with counting on the low-fat diet to solve the obesity crisis in America it didnt work.
While food companies reluctantly removed the lard from their products, they had to find something else to make their tasteless, processed food taste good. They hit upon chemical flavorings and refined corn syrup as good substitutes. Somehow it didnt occur to anyone that if wed been fattening up cows for centuries by feeding them carbohydrates, might it not do the same for us?
Navigating the low-fat/low-carb nutritional labyrinth is beyond the reach of most of us (as Ill explain later) but it would seem theres something wrong in the whole way we relate to food. More than a source of calories and nutrients, it takes on whole political, cultural, even psychological agendas.
Having lapsed from my earlier diet regimes, a girlfriend tried to get me back on the straight and narrow by taking me to Caf Gratitude in Berkeley a while ago. It was a raw food caf and on a cold day I wanted something hot to eat carrot flax crackers and wheat grass juice just werent going to hit the spot.
To be fair, the menu didnt help each item was titled something like I am Grace, I am Compassionate, I am Insightful and so on.
The waitress would call out whos Awakening? and a customer would call out I am! It was enough to put anyone off their food. After being stung for $20 and still feeling hungry all I could say was I am Skeptical.
The mainstream food industries havent had it all their own way in America. With the influx of Eastern traditions and counter-culture diets, there are plenty of groups around who profess to hold the secrets to eating well.
Macrobiotics was one such fashion, a diet that measured the yin-yang dynamic of each food and allegedly inhibited carcinogens from taking any hold in the body. That its still around after both the founders contracted cancer is one of the modern unsolved mysteries.
Now the raw food fad is in vogue in alternative circles, with figures like Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson giving it that necessary celebrity touch so essential for commercial success.
Proponents claim that the raw regime is guaranteed to deliver perfect health, prevent the murder of innocent animals and, you know, bring world peace. The Raw Fooders make various claims for giving up cooking forever, some of them based on reasonable observations and others based on wild fantasy.
On the bright side, people who eat lots of fruit, salad, nuts and seeds are going to be healthier than people who dont. Compared to someone who relies upon McDonalds to supply their daily nutrition, the smart money is on the muesli eaters in the longevity stakes.
But when it comes to searching for scientific and historical backing for their claims, the Raw Fooders are on far shakier ground. They claim that we all survived exclusively on raw food until around 10,000 years ago and that when we cook food, important digestive enzymes are destroyed.
Both claims are somewhat laughable.
Firstly, humans have been controlling fire for at least 700-800,000 years and possibly much longer. Theres no way to prove that tough roots or meats were ever thrown on the flames but its hard to imagine that it didnt ever happen by accident while our ancestors were having their raw meals by the fireside.
Secondly, the whole enzyme argument is a good example of how people take one scientific fact and blow it completely out of context and proportion.
Yes, enzymes found in food do die when submitted to high temperatures. They also get dissolved in the acid of the stomach, however and in any case, the human body provides all the enzymes we need to digest food. Wouldnt you know it, its built that way.
The appeal to science to back up lifestyle claims is at the root of the whole diet problem in the U.S. today. At the mercy of scientists who analyze our foods to the point that we dont recognize them any more, who are we to say whats good for us to eat?
The history of nutrition goes all the way back to the days when the British Empire used to work Chinese laborers into the ground in the Far East. Noting that the Chinese were dying in large numbers of a disease called beri-beri, a bright researcher with the unlikely name Casamir Funk observed that it was because they ate white rice which lacked the wholesome husk of brown rice.
He called the missing ingredient vitamine and a whole new industry was born.
Today nutritionists hold the food industry at their mercy, alternatively declaring that a particular vitamin, mineral or fiber is the key to health and ought to be in all their main products. Walk down the aisles of a supermarket and few are the products that are not fortified with iron, enriched with vitamin c, with added fiber.
In fact, the only products that dont advertise their goodness are the cheap and healthy ones when was the last time you saw a nutritional breakdown of a tomato?
The problem with nutrition is that its really tough to understand. Yes, flax seeds may hold more omega 3 than fish but its far easier and more satisfying to eat 100 grams of the latter than a bowl of flax seeds. Salmon doesn't get stuck between your teeth, for starters. And what does omega 3 do for you anyway? Is it better than omega 6? Are the two friends?
Our helplessness plays right into the hands of nutritionists, as Ben Goldacre of www.badscience.net observes:
Nutritionists and their kin sell the idea that diet is somehow more complicated than that; something that requires access to arcane and detailed knowledge to which only they have access; knowledge of the breakdown of exactly what is in each food.
Not only that but it isnt enough to just identify mysterious chemical elements in foods and then draw conclusions that are valid for everyone. As Marion Nestle of New York University notes:
The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.
Some people have enzymes in their gut to absorb milk, some dont. It depends on their genes. The evidence really does suggest that were all different and that theres no one way to eat for everybody. For sure, a diet of refined, processed food with no fresh fruit or vegetables will be bad for almost everyone but do we really need nutritionists to tell us that?
And when they do get all excited about some life-saving nutrient, it often tends to work out quite differently in real life than in the laboratory.
Take beta-carotene, for instance, a nutrient found in carrots that was thought to have strong anti-carcinogenic properties. Scientists were so sure of their results that you could buy beta-carotene pills for a while, right up to the point that they realized that it might actually exacerbate certain forms of cancer. Oops.
Just chuck the supplements and you can safely go on eating carrots and enjoy good health. Your great grandparents were doing just that long before anyone told them why they should do so.
Gluttons for Punishment
The Onion, widely read in sophomore dorm rooms, recently reported that a shocking number of Americans had become too fat to commit suicide.
While this is something of an exaggeration, it's sadly apparent that Americans are in a terrible state of affairs today as far as eating habits go, with 4 of the top 10 causes of death linked to diet.
Youve only to look at how quickly immigrant populations to the U.S. increase in weight to see that something is wrong with the American diet. Yet we dont need a band of nutritionists or radical food fadders to tell us what to eat. We need some common sense.
Some years ago, I was still worrying a good deal about what foods were healthy for me. I learned that my Ayurvedic constitution meant that I should avoid beans while Chinese Medicine recommended beef for the strength of my kidneys. With vast amounts of contradictory information circling around in my head, an acupuncturist finally advised me:
Listen, 70% of diseases all start in the mind. If you worry about what you eat then your chances of getting sick are vastly increased. Just relax about it!
The Secret Revealed
So, after years of deliberation, neurotic research and trying various diets, Im finally in a position to tell you how to eat a good, healthy diet.
The secret is this: if it came out of the ground or the ocean, grew on a bush or a tree and doesnt come wrapped in plastic, its probably pretty good for you. You know, stuff like vegetables, bread and fruit that dont have PR teams working for them.
Its boring, I realize and maybe it wont sell but therein lies the rub, as Michael Pollan of the New York Times observed:
If youre concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that its not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
Science, it has been observed is in many ways the modern religion. We cede the ground of common sense to chemical breakdowns and we end up paying through the nose for it.
Ultimately, the whole cult of nutrition serves 3 groups: the people who produce the packaged food, the nutritionists who get consulted and, ah, the people who get paid to write about it all.
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.