Michael Pollan, international bestselling author of “In defence of food” writes, “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” With the massive surge for meat free, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free, nut free, fat free, high protein, high fibre, low salt, low carbohydrate and ethically produced food; what we eat has become a chemistry experiment.
At first in the 1940’s to reduce fat and maintain flavour, the food industry increased sugar content. Then, in the 1960’s to 1990’s to reduce sugar content and maintain flavour they turned to artificial sweeteners. At the same time meat went out of fashion, culminating in the great vegan trend of the 2010’s as the food industry replaced the meat with artificial proteins and unknown weird things like Xanthan gum. Then came the dairy free substitutes with lactofree milk containing lactase enzymes, almond milk with Gellan Gum and stabilisers, coconut milk with Guar Gum and Oat milks containing sunflower oils and stabilisers. As sugar and salt are needed to preserve food and the consumer wants sugar free, low salt food that doesn’t go off in a week, the food industry brought in preservatives like monosodium glutamate. As the meat free and sugar free options tasted awful, the food chemists invented flavourings and so we all unknowingly entered the great big chemistry experiment that is eating in the western world in the twenty first century. As all the replacement ingredient alternatives are relatively new, we have not had time to scientifically research and examine what the long term effects of all this new nutritional ingredients will be on our bodies and brains. Trends keep coming and new is always better and yet we have not slowed down to ask ourselves. What is the effect of all this on our bodies. Are we replacing one problem with another? Was the “bad food” bad in the first place?
Every food group is essential. Without Carbohydrates (sugars) we cannot make energy, without protein (in meat, nuts, some legumes and dairy) we cannot grow and repair our tissues, muscles, enzymes and cells and without fat we cannot make hormones, absorb fat-soluble vitamins and minerals and insulate our nerve cells and organs. Our brains need carbohydrates, proteins and fat. We need fibre (in wholegrains and vegetables) for our digestive system and gut microbiota, minerals (including salts) for maintaining electrolyte and antioxidant levels and vitamins (in everything) for our immune systems (protecting against disease), focus and memory, energy levels and so much more. Every part of our diet plays an essential role. Our attempts at excluding things and replacing them have made things worse. Sweeteners are no solution to sugar free as they increase our sugar desire (they are thousands of times sweeter than sugar), so when you have “low-fat” or “sugar-free” you are replacing your sugar and fat short-term, but making yourself hungrier and have a bigger desire for sugary products and so more likely to over-eat in the long-term. Some sweeteners like Aspartame are also known to cause anxiety. Cholesterol can cause heart disease in high quantities (as it raises LDL levels). It is a fat, but is also not to be completely excluded. Eating only plants with “plant based diets” and completely excluding meat and dairy and eggs with veganism, can reduce cholesterol to an unhealthy level and we actually need cholesterol to make neurotransmitters (brain chemical) including Serotonin (regulates mood and stimulates joy) and so without it we are making the world a more anxious and depressed place. Cholesterol also makes our membranes. Every part of our diet is needed. There is no good or bad food, just food.
What we have to do is stop micro-managing our diets and excluding and experimenting. At the end of the day when you go to the supermarket and are questioning whether to buy a new produce, look at the ingredients. Is there weird stuff in the ingredient list you have never heard of? Are you prepared to be a chemistry experiment? Who cares about the calorie content, if you stick to a serving size (on label), you should be fine. It is not about calories here but nutritional mileage and flavour and the long term effects on your physical and mental health. Think simple. Think basics. Is this something that would have appeared in your grandmas kitchen? Will this ingredient or produce nourish your body and bring you pleasure? If not, don’t buy it! Eat food. Don’t over or under eat. Everything in moderation. Limit the processed stuff. Eat to nourish and most importantly, eat to enjoy as food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.