Maybe it’s time we drop the pitchforks when it comes to the food choices we make.
In my GI clinic I have seen all forms of diets: vegan, paleo, ketogenic, (s)low carb, 6 food elimination protocol, specific carbohydrate diet, low sugar, low salt, juices, detoxes, the Zone, and the Hollywood cookie diet (no, seriously). I receive questions about probiotics, vitamin D, protein intake, eliminating wheat, digestive supplements and the like regularly. Many of my patients have already started these regimens before seeing me and often feel frustrated that these changes have not worked as promised.
More of us than ever are struggling with weight related health complications including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Yet, we think more about what we eat than ever before in human history. Our current approach to diet is failing us and is inadequate to address the health challenges of a modern time.
We need to let go of simple categories. Unfortunately, dietary villains and heroes do not exist. Nutritional scapegoating is everywhere, especially on the Internet. Every few years, a new food group is made pariah, to be shunned at all costs. Its flip side is that we also regularly hail new saviors such as acai, alkaline water, or coconut oil. Having saints and sinners certainly makes our dietary choices easy, but may not be the basis for healthy living.
Indiscriminately banning an entire food category without context is not necessarily the way to healthy living and may, in fact, promote disordered eating among other complications (orthorexia, binge eating, metabolic yo-yo ing). Not to mention leaving us more confused, anxious and frustrated than before.
Sugar, for example, is the new devil. Current wellness experts suggest cutting out all sugar including fructose, assuming the body handles them all similarly. However, this ignores that the while sugar consumption has dropped by almost 25% in the last fifteen years the rates of obesity have dramatically increased during the same time. So blaming it as the source of all health evil is probably overstating things.
Is sugar bad? Well, refined sugars are not necessarily the healthiest option, but it depends. Eating M&M’s out of the office candy bowl on a random Tuesday is probably not the wisest choice. But what about bonding with your daughter on her birthday by making home made chocolate chip cookies using real sugar? Are these situations equivalent?
No doubt, there have been tremendous advances in nutritional science in the last half-century. However, like some of our friend’s relationship status on Facebook, it’s complicated. The field is still in its early infancy as opposed disciplines like biochemistry, engineering and physics. This explains why you read headlines stating coffee is bad for you one day and then seemingly healthy the next.
So far, two ideas stand out: human metabolism is incredibly complex and physiological response to food is incredibly varied between people. This should all give us some pause when we come across an article entitled “The top 6 foods you should eat to lose your belly” or watered down, vaguely scientific concepts such as “inflammation” being the root of every dietetic related problem.
We all want to believe in the potential to transform our lives. Every new so-called super food that comes about offers this implicit promise whether it’s apple cider vinegar or antioxidant rich juices. And banning other foods gives us a sense of purity and being whole. But gluten is not as dangerous as contraband and adding kale will not revolutionize your diet.
All foods exist on a spectrum of health. That spectrum is determined, in part, by your values and goals as a person and your medical history. Very few foods have no redeemable health value (trans fats may be an example). “Bad” and “good” food ignores this complexity.
Good health is incrementally accrued over time. When we want to be fit or healthy or look better, we want it yesterday. I can relate to that desire better than most, but as long as we continue to operate with this mindset, we will continue to fall for nutritional shortcuts that just shortchange us.