Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What makes a healthy diet?

Am I the only one who's getting disgusted with nutritional advice? Sometimes I feel as if I'm the only one who's made the connection between the advent of nutrition science and the fact that we've only gotten fatter and sicker since scientists started telling people how to eat. Not that I want to bash science, or scientists, but I think that we don't have nearly a complete picture of what makes and keeps us healthy and trying to give nutritional advice based on science, which is necessarily reductionist in nature, is both absurd and harmful. The fact that people simply are not educated in science as well as they should be adds to the problem.
Add in the number of myths that are still circulating and our system of divining what's healthiest for us is perfectly designed to confuse, rather than educate and enlighten. Take eggs, for instance. It used to be gospel that eggs were bad for you because they'd raise your cholesterol. People said this simply because egg yolks have cholesterol in them. But you know what? There is not one scrap of scientific evidence that eggs actually increase your blood cholesterol. That didn't stop companies from jumping into the market (there's always a new market for "healthy" processed foods that replace "bad" natural foods when science says something is bad for us) with egg substitutes. I still read plenty of articles from nutritionists about eating only egg whites and I want to slap my forehead. People have been eating whole eggs for thousands of years and how many of them died from eating eggs? (Remember, it's only been a very recent phenomena in human history that we've died from diet-related diseases.)
I laugh at the ads I've seen for food products that tout their supposed healthiness. Margarine sold with omega-3 fortification, almond or soy milk with B12 fortification for vegans and vegetarians, "pro-biotic" yogurt, "Vitamin Water", sugar-bomb children's cereals shouting about the vitamins they've been fortified with, things proclaiming how healthy they are because they're no fat, low fat, or low in calories, low in sugar. "Lite" foods crack me up--they've started using fake words to market their fake foods.
None of those things makes a food inherently good. Adding into our diets one thing that's healthy doesn't negate all of the crap we feed ourselves with. The reason all these foods need to be fortified, or to have things added into them, is because they're inherently unhealthy. They have no nutritional value beyond what's been artificially put into them. Scary thought, right? Think of how many truly empty calories you've eaten in your life. Blech. Thinking of my own diet from childhood up until the past couple of years, it was really terrible.
The best diet advice that I know of is simply this: eat foods that don't need to be fortified, choose the least packaged foods (they tend to be less processed), go organic when possible, and stuff as many fruits and vegetables in yourself as you possibly can. When I see that something has been fortified, I drop the box and run for the produce aisle. (Ok, maybe I'm not quite that dramatic.) Whole fruits and vegetables don't need to be fortified because they have everything you need already in them. As long as you're not eating just one type of fruit or vegetable, you'll get the full range of nutrients you need to be healthy. It's simple, really.
There's been a lot of news over the last few years about lawmakers trying to ban people on food stamps from buying unhealthy foods like chips and soda. Yes, I can agree that chips and soda, and processed cookies, are bad for people. Do I think food stamps should be spent on them? Not really. But I also don't think that anyone should really be spending money on those items. Eating crap food is not, as so many would love to believe, simply done by poor people and I feel that this is just one more way to stigmatize being poor. It feels not so much like an effort to make poor people healthier so much as it is something new to show them, "You're poor and that makes you not as good as the rest of us, so we can take away your choices and rights." Not cool.
It also gets back to the realm of who decides what constitutes "healthy". Food corporations? Science? The government? They've clearly already done a great job with that. Hearing from other people about supplemental programs, it's crazy what's considered "good" and what's "bad". Someone who used WIC when she had young children said that sugary juice and Life cereal were on the ok to buy list, while fruit wasn't. I can't be the only one who wants to ask those in charge of WIC, "WTF?"
I don't need science to tell me what foods are healthy. The ones humans have been eating for all of history, up until the 20th century, are the ones I'd prefer to stick to. I'm very thankful that science can tell us why something is good for us, but I'm going to leave my decisions about what to eat to centuries of human knowledge.

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