Further fuel for my contemplations on the subject came on the weekend. Sunday morning radio on station RRR provides a range of interesting programs and when I tuned in it was just in time to hear a brief interview with Rosemary Stanton, respected Australian nutritionist. She was discussing the new star rating system for foods, and her overall assessment was a sort of glass half full view; good that there’s an easy to follow labelling system to help people make healthier choices when shopping, but without a qualified nutritionist on the panel that decides the allocation of stars, there are some very unhelpful inconsistencies.
For example, she said, fruit in its original state must be a healthier choice than processed and packaged fruit products and logically should have more stars, yet the reverse is true. Extra virgin olive oil, universally recognised by health authorities as containing multiple health-enhancing properties, has a lower rating than heavily advertised commercial muesli bars, universally recognised by authorities as junk.
She also mentioned the tendency to obsession about amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats and so on in food products, where the real issue is simply that too many adult Australians obtain 35 per cent of their daily caloric intake from junk food. The figure for children is even worse.
I’m always thinking of ways to help people think about food that helps them to cut through the fads and theories, and feed themselves and their loved ones in a way that enhances their wellbeing and doesn’t just provide the “right” amount of calories, protein, etc. Worrying too much about food is just as damaging, I would argue, as eating the “wrong” thing occasionally.
Here’s the way I assess food theories and advice and the food I choose myself.
First, consider what research tells us. Scientific research is not perfect; it is subject to human error, cannot allow for every contingency, and, like any human endeavour, is more often tainted by corruption than we would like to believe. Also, true science knows that it cannot provide absolute facts but only information that has a high probability of being reliable at that moment in time. It’s not perfect but it sure beats blind ignorance.
So when decades of research with many studies involving hundreds of thousands of people in different countries around the world indicates food habits associated with good health outcomes, it is probably worth adopting those habits. Australian health guidelines are based on such research.
Second, consider what various cultures have eaten traditionally for generations, with overall good health. This is worth keeping in mind, especially when you hear that “humans can’t digest” this or that food group. Consider how widespread the consumption of that food group or combination of foods has been; how many cultures, how many millions of people, for how many generations. It is probably fair to assume that these food traditions have been nourishing to those human cultures, and that, being human yourself, they might nourish you too.
Finally, consider your own experience. This does require you to pay attention. It requires you to make the effort to stop and reflect occasionally what signals your body may be sending. If your measurable wellbeing indicators are in the healthy range, you are comfortable in your own skin which is not stretched too tightly around your midriff, you can exercise with enjoyment, eat with pleasure and digest comfortably, and are not burdened with frequent minor illnesses, then probably you are following healthy enough food habits.
If that is not entirely true for you and you are not comfortable in some way, take an honest look at your current food habits and if you can’t see a problem, consult someone qualified to provide you with an unbiased assessment, or to help your body get more benefit from the food you are eating. And follow their advice, even if it takes some effort at first.
As a naturopath I understand that wellbeing depends on a complex interplay of influences. What we eat is just one part of the picture, but it’s a big part, and worth paying attention to. Keeping our food simple is a good start.