It should come as no surprise that we put a lot of crap into our systems. Why wouldn’t we? When you can order food where a portion size is “bucket”, it’s very difficult not to think of our consumption as being likened to pigs.
To this end there are two competing markets – fast food and health food. Both bounce off our feelings of guilt and indulgence in an ever more damaging battle. They remain victors. The humble consumer always loses in the crossfire. Want a snack? You can go with your heart and buy chicken nuggets. You can go with your gut and buy high fiber bars. Though both end with toilet fatalities, your options on either end of the spectrum are limitless.
But what is healthy? While we peacefully sleep in our beds, a German dietician starts a one-man war against rice. A university in India tells us chocolate pudding is good for intestinal flora. A Professor in Cape Town wants us to eat strips of fat off the pig’s carcass because it’s more “natural”. A mother in Minnesota claims that bran destroyed her son’s feet. Tumblr starts banning use of the word “gravy” lest it make you live anything remotely resembling a heteronormative life.
The mood seems to fluctuate. All. The. Time. There does not appear to be an accessibly unified perception of what it means to be healthy. We are told that carbohydrates are no better than heroin. Eating sugar makes communism win. Bread should be treated on a parity with the Transformers franchise. Fat is good, but only if you get the super rare kind of fat using your Ultra Pokeball. Wait, no. Suddenly carbohydrates are good again. Yes, they are better than heroin and should be eaten instead of Stalin’s sugar. Hold on… sorry… I lie. Carbohydrates should be fired into deep space along with Earl Bradley.
I think at this point in the game if you are not willing to really sit down and do your research, you should just pick your poison and roll with it. Honestly, it’s probably anyone’s guess by now.
As a result, a few years of experimentation have taught me the things my body likes and does not. For example, I adore bread. I absolutely love bread. I love bread more than Dolly Parton and emotionally touching stories on Vice. However, when I eat bread, my body responds by swelling to twice its size and emitting painful amounts of wind. Honestly, unless it’s my father’s sourdough, I can’t touch the stuff safely. Does not stop me from trying though. The same can be said about beer. Beer and I go together about as well as BP and sea life.
I think there is one universal truth to health: eat less, move more. It is a sentiment previously echoed on my cold water swimming post. Enough research has been done that categorically proves the easiest way to lose weight is to tip the scales in favour of activity. Though what to eat remains the big question. To this end, I believe a little bit of logic should be used.
Now is a good time to point out that I am not a dietician. Everything that is about to follow is purely based on my own subjective experiences and research.
Humans are omnivores. There is no getting around this fact. We have teeth capable of both rending and grinding. Say what you want about the plight of nature but we are intrinsically designed to have meat factor into some aspect of our diet. However, there is no getting around the fact that we eat far too much meat. Our meat consumption is without a shadow of a doubt the reason the environment is collapsing around us. If we removed beef from our collective menus, we might actually get back Winter and Holland. Were one to look at our diet that we evolved into; Paleolithically we ate meat infrequently. It was necessary for our evolution to have the nutritive shortcut afforded to us from meat (that we are stereoscopically sighted proves we are predators and not grazers). Yet meat happened only when you were faster than it. The diet of our hunter-gatherer forebears was predominantly vegetarian. That was the diet that made us homo sapiens.
Therefore, using this astoundingly simple logic, I have cut back on my meat consumption. Again, I am not saying I am right or that my astoundingly naïve conclusion is a well grounded. I have just found that doing so has been good for me. I still eat meat. I definitely still eat meat more than my ancestors did. I just eat a lot less of it. I often have days where it doesn’t even cross my path. It is no longer a part of my diet twice a day, every day (or three times depending on which part of the Vaal Triangle you were raised in).
Authors note: I do love the Vaal Triangle, ya’ll just gotta learn cigarettes are not a food group.
Then there is the thorny issue of carbohydrates. I have stopped getting my carbs from bread. Its as simple as that. I have not abandoned them in a box in an alley in the rain, I have just transmuted them into the thing my body was designed to process. Again, this is a subjective thing. My carbs are predominantly from grains. Barley is something of a best friend in my house. It is there to fill me with flavor and keep my morning ritual short. Chickpeas are another. They peer at me as they soak in bottles on my kitchen counter. Thousands of happy yellow eyes. That is an awful image. Bread is not bad, it’s the mass-manufactured bread that is bad. Gluten intolerance would not be a thing if our doughs were fermented the way they should be. Sometimes the shortcut is not the answer you are looking for.
Which brings me to the final and oftentimes most harrowing subject for most: leafy greens. Eating more of them is honestly the best thing you can do. If you change one small facet of your diet, let it be a warm embrace for all things dark green. What a magical turn-around my body’s chemistry has had with the incorporation of hither to shunned Kale and spinach. Micro-leaf salads are my new micro-craze. Beetroot leaves brighten the mood on my plate alongside Swiss Chard and wild rocket. I cannot hammer my fist on a dining table more about this.
The triumvirate of my diet completed, is that the end of my philosophizing on health? No.
I think we do not approach food correctly. I think the starting point for most people when it comes to eating is to fill a void. I am hungry; therefore I eat. This can be taken further. I am in the mood for something; therefore I eat that particular thing. To this end it is easy to fall into the trap of quick fixes and immediate indulgence. If all food has become is a means of fulfilling an urge as supposed to addressing a need, its origin, nutritive value and wholesomeness are things we happily overlook.
The problem, as with a lot of issues in life, is context. What context do we give food in our lives? We are beyond needing it. We consume it. The difference is not subtle. To this end I think the concept of eating healthily and sustainably does not start with knowing what is good for your body or the environment. We need to teach ourselves what is good about food. “Why food?” is the question few of us ask. Why is it that some meals taste better than others? Why do we enjoy hocks of meat off the fire than out of foil bags? Why is grandma’s cooking so much better than a meal in a restaurant? Why are restaurant meals so much better than a take away? Why are takeaways with your friends illuminated by wine better than eating them by yourself after a tiresome day? We have become so focused on the “what” of food that we have stopped exploring the “why”.
Some say peace is the undiscovered country. In actuality there are many such places. The “why” of food beyond basic sustenance is one of them.
There are many exceptional authors who have dissected the anatomy of food philosophy. If you want to dive in and have your shoulders massaged in the process, there is nobody better than Michael Pollan. If the chore of reading is too much, you could do a lot worse than watch his Netflix series Cooked. In it, the notion of what it is to cook, what it is to eat is broken down. He explores the kernels of our civilization and how they revolve around food. At every nexus of our growth as a species food has had importance, not necessarily to sustain, but to force evolution – social, political, religious and consumerist.
It is not enough to understand nutrients and health, we need to explore the very nature of meals. Here is as good a place to start. Ask yourself why are you having a meal. Ask what that meal involved and what eating it says about you.
Perhaps your health has more to do with introspection than consumption.