I was reading an article in Elle magazine the other day, and I came across an article that pitted two experts on obesity against each other in their opinions as to why this epidemic is so challenging to alter. The dispute between these particular experts was not so much about obesity as it was the use of data to explain obesity.
But that's not what struck me. The author reflects on experts' frustration with confusing information that paralyzes people into doing nothing. With popular diets, pseudo-experts and actual science, it's enough to make you crazy. And the author sums it up beautifully with this:
In the beginning there was the low-fat dictum, which was revised to cut out saturated fats but encourage vegetable fats -- unless your vegetable fats are trans fats, in which case they're killing you. Oh, while you're eliminating butter, make sure you don't add in too many refined carbs-toss out those Snackwells! Sugar will kill you. Actually, maybe all carbs are the problem, including fruit. Double up on your breakfast sausage, but drop the Wheaties. After all, humans were never designed to eat agricultural products. We're hunter-gatherers. We should be eating wild game and greens. Nothing processed! What would possess you to eat sausage?!??! Fill up your plate with dandelion greens and elk. But wait! Scratch the elk. Cut out meat. Meat will kill you. Except for fish. No, wait, fish is too high in mercury and the seas are overfished. Okay, okay, you can eat small stinky fish like anchovies and maybe a little chicken and eggs (as long as they are humanely raised by a local farmer with whom you are on a first-name basis), but you'd better chuck dairy. It's full of growth hormones that are giving seven-year-olds pubic hair. Unless you get organic, grass-fed, raw milk. But just know that raw milk can kill you. Actually, you know what? Go vegan. Go raw vegan. Go on a detox fast. Juice all your food. No wait -- juice is too high in sugar. Get a Vitamix and make a breaksfast smoothie out of avocado, foraged mushrooms and kale. Gwyneth Paltrow's kids love it. Wait! Stop! Put that down! Liquid calories are causing the diabetes epidemic. So just eat vegetables, fruits, beans, olive oil, anchovies, chicken, eggs, plain yogurt, sea vegetables and whole grains. Except brown rice. There's arsenic in it. Arsenic will kill you. And obviously, don't eat gluten. Have a little wine with dinner, unless you care about getting breast cancer -- in which case stop boozing and become vegan (you know we already told you to go vegan -- pay attention!). But go easy on the soy. Because it can kill you. Got that?" -- Rachael Combe, Elle, June 2014
This brilliant take-down about the confusion that our information age has created about healthy eating is funny, clever and sadly... spot on.
How many times has this kind of diatribe played in your head? I am considered an expert in this field, and it plays in mine more often than I would care to admit.
This kind of thinking has become so common that people either jump onto the next big ginko/goji/kale/avocado/wild mushroom drink or they do nothing at all, simply throwing up their hands and ordering fries. How did we get so far removed from our food that we do not know what to eat? How did we become so disconnected from this most natural of all human necessities? Our very link to life itself?
Marketing has made us all culinarily insane, not to put too fine a point on it.
Manufacturers know all too well how to seduce us away from real food. They spend a lot of money working with flavor houses to tweak the flavors in their foods to be more intense and more addictive. As a result, they manufacture cherry treats that taste more like cherries than Mother Nature's version... and they can make anything taste like chicken. Between flavor houses and masterful uses of fat, sugar and salt, we are lost to them from the moment we buy our first package of processed food.
Along comes the healthy eating movement with a parade of experts (me included) telling everyone to abandon their addiction to intense flavors for the taste of real food. And then it gets sticky. Everyone has an opinion as to what healthy eating is and so we experience information overload, contradiction, disagreement and dissent like you read in the above diatribe.
Here's the thing. No matter whether you decide to eat a Paleo diet, a vegan diet, a raw diet or juice your way to health, there is a common denominator among even the most diametrically opposed approaches to healthy eating (think Paleo vs. vegan). All of them rely on real food -- food that is minimally processed if processed at all. All of them rely on us preparing our food at home, by our own hand and not leaving that most important activity to some lab kitchen inside of a monolithic corporation. All of them agree that processed foods will rob you of your health and wellness.
The disagreements turn out to be simply opinion, borne from fact, myth, science, idea and experience mashed together to create an approach that might help us to become collectively healthier. Where we get lost is when experts tell us that theirs is the only way to wellness. With an almost religious fervor, other ideas are denigrated as silly and false, harmful to human health even though, in the end, they are just another approach to wellness.
And in the middle of the experts you'll find us... confused and paralyzed that we will do the wrong thing and fall ill.
But will we?
As a committed plant-based eater, I have strong feelings about not eating animal food... from a health standpoint (no good news about saturated fat and heart health, in my view), from a karmic standpoint (the loss of an animal's life for a burger), from an environmental standpoint (it takes so much of our precious resources to produce meat). With plant-based sources of protein, I find animal food unnecessary.
Am I any better or smarter than my Paleo-eating friends at the gym who feel as strongly about eating minimally-processed, grass-fed, humanely-raised animals with lots of vegetables? Only time (and their heart and prostate health) will tell. I believe in my heart that a style of eating that does no harm can nourish us completely, keep us healthy and make a lighter footprint on the planet is the best choice. But it's my choice, based on my experience, resulting wisdom and extensive study.
I hold the belief that a Mediterranean approach to eating that includes whole grains, beans, lots of vegetables and good quality fats like olive oil, avocadoes, nuts and seeds serves humanity best, keeping us vital and well and living long, productive lives. Other people believe differently.
As long as their approach to wellness includes whole foods, who is to say one approach is completely correct and appropriate for all humans and more important, that everyone else is wrong?
In the end, life itself is a terminal condition. None of us are getting out of this alive. But wouldn't it be nice to eat a delicious diet of health-creating foods and enjoy each minute we have in wellness? Skip junk food in any form and concentrate on whole, unprocessed foods and I am pretty sure you'll experience your own personal nirvana of wellness.