Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Religion of Nutrition

If I have to tell the truth, I would admit that I haven't always been the healthiest eater. I was a picky eater as a kid, and although I grew up to be a much more adventurous eater, that hasn't always resulted in healthy choices -- like when I opted for the 10-scoop Colossal sundae at the Kellerhaus one summer vacation, or the many trips to Stuff yer Face in New Jersey for strombolis (they had two sizes, large and huge), or my college diet of buffalo wings and other college staples.

But the other day I looked in my refrigerator the other day and didn't recognize nearly half of the items in there. That's not that unusual. We've often played the, Name that Leftover game. The oddity this time wasn't the colors of the leftovers turned modern art inside Tupperware containers; it was the labels on the containers. It said things like "date paste" and sesame tahini. 

What's going on here?

About a year ago, I started working on posting this presentation on SlideShare for work. Around that time, I also discovered the website, the 100-day real food challenge. The idea behind that site is simply to pledge to eat nothing but real, unprocessed food for 100 days. I didn't take the pledge but between the advice offered there and the presentation, well, some of it sunk in. I didn't become a vegan, or make any categorical changes to my diet... yet, but I did became more attuned to what was in the food I was eating. And, I started to:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables, aiming for more than 5 servings per day.
  2. Eat less sugary foods. 
  3. Eat less processed food.  
We had some success there. Except for kale. I know kale is great for you, and that some of you may actually like the rancid stuff  but here's how the kale conversation usually goes.  

Stacy: You want some of my smoothie? 
Me: Um, is there kale in it? 
Stacy: It's really good. 
Me: You didn't answer the question. 
Stacy: You can't even taste it. 
Me: No thanks.  

 But kale (and shredded coconut) aside, I'll eat just about anything. Of late, largely through Stacy's efforts, that "anything" has been increasingly healthy.  Which takes us back to our refrigerator.  Most of the containers of unrecognizable food are of Stacy's doing. She's continued to embrace more of the whole food and plant-based eating philosophy, which has involved a lot of new foods, and a lot of reading. And here (the reading, not the whole food/plant-based eating) is where the problems begin. 

As you dive deep into the jungle of nutrition and diet books, you find that, as Stacy says, nutrition is a lot like religion. Many people faithfully follow their nutritional philosophy - vegans, vegetarians, whole fooders, eat loaclites, carb haters -- and leave the rest of us Twinkie-eating, soda drinking carnivores alone. (For the record, I don't eat Twinkies... anymore, or drink soda for that matter.) But some people believe in their nutrition with a zeal that often borders on fanaticism. And as they proselytize their nutritional philosophy, and then convert their beliefs into a marketable book with a catchy title, they often boil down complicated issues and inconclusive science into absolutes: Cheese will give you cancer; Blueberries will prevent it; Wine is good; Wine is bad.  

It ain't that easy. 

A simple web search on most food topics will almost always turn up evidence on both sides of any nutritional argument. And the more you dig, often, the more opinions you'll find. It's enough to make you feel guilty if your diet is anything but kale and water. (I haven't found any research saying either of those are bad for you.) 

Enter thoughtful eating.  For me, the trick is to walk the line between thoughtful eating and guilt-driven choices. There's enough guilt surrounding cancer (and eating, for that matter)  that I don't want to be dissecting the science every time I reach into the fridge. I love to eat, and I want to be conscious of what I'm eating, without obsessing about every bite, every meal. Sometimes a salad full of leafy green vegetables is perfect, but sometimes I need to enjoy a hot fudge sundae... maybe just not 10 scoops of it.