Food sense is a bit like common sense – a rarer attribute than you might expect. Having been a prime example of food foolishness over the years (lurching from all out piggery to borderline eating disorder and back again), I’m not one to preach. However perhaps because I’ve made all the mistakes, I was especially susceptible to some enlightening and glaringly sensible advice about food I came across recently.
You can’t really be passionate about food and not care about nutrition. All of us enjoy a bit of decadence now and again (think chocolate cake, peanut butter biscuits, Barossa pudding and so on) but given that the primary purpose of eating is to sustain our bodies, being aware of how effectively our food is doing that is only common sense. But if you ingest even a fraction of the running commentary in the media about food, health, diet and nutrition, you’re probably totally bamboozled about what we should or shouldn’t be eating to stay healthy.
Apart from the fact that the message changes with relentless regularity, depending on whichever “expert” (self-styled or otherwise) is giving it, each week seems to herald a new super-food or ingredient that promises eternal life at the very least. And that’s not going anywhere near the diet industry where weight loss is portrayed as the ultimate nirvana. Getting leaner isn’t a bad idea and maintaining a weight within the recommended range for your age and body type generally reaps dividends. The key word here though is “maintaining”. It’s not that hard to lose weight. All you do is eat less – a lot less in some cases.
A prime example is the Alternate Day Fasting Diet, which I’ve been following for about eight weeks. I’ve lost six kilos and I feel decidedly fitter and better about myself than before I began. Although it’s involved some self-denial, this part though has been the easiest. If you’ve set yourself a “goal weight”, watching the little needle on the scales stop at an ever declining number each time you hop on is fun in a weird sort of way. But what happens when you reach the goal? What then? Do you return to your normal eating pattern and risk returning to the “old you”? Is there a way to eat and enjoy your life without referring to a calorie counter app every time you put something in your mouth? And is there a way you can eat lightly and nutritiously in winter when it’s freezing and you think you’ll die if you don’t get something hot and hearty inside yourself every few hours? Obsessing about food and weight is boring. Guilt and self-recrimination every time you eat something vaguely “fattening” is a waste of energy, and self-loathing because you’ve put on a few kilos is neurotic. All these behaviours are symptomatic of a dysfunctional relationship with food. There’s got to be a better way.
While not ready to shout hallelujah from the rooftops quite yet, some of the things I’ve been reading lately have inspired me to think the better way is just a matter of adopting some garden variety common sense.
Firstly, I took a look at the blog The Scoop on Nutrition, written by Emma Stirling. As an accredited practising dietitian, Emma knows her stuff. She also writes engagingly. Recently she featured a TED talk given by Dr Joanna McMillan, called “Eat for Real Change”. All I can say about this is watch it.
Dr Joanna McMillan clearly practises what she preaches, she’s dynamic and totally engaged with her subject. She quite rightly diagnoses us as a nation of confused eaters, lost in the wilderness of carbs, calories, fats, sugars, kilojoules and too often missing out on the enjoyment and pleasure that good food brings. Her recipe for staying on track is pretty straightforward. She’s come up with a recipe called “The Dr Joanna Plate” which should form the basis of every meal and is so simple, even I can manage it. It cuts through all the hype and makes good eating easy.
1 is for Plants (non-starchy vegetables and fruits)
2 is for Proteins (seafood, meat, eggs, legumes, tofu, dairy)
3 is for Smart Carbs (wholegrains, legumes, starchy vegetables)
4 is for Good Fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil)
You can find out more on her website.
Another of my favourite sources for helpful food advice is GI News, the Official Glycemic Index Newsletter. In the most recent newsletter an article called “Food For Thought” points out that rather than one single food source, it’s the balance of our diet over time that’s significant in promoting good health. Taking examples from various observational studies such as the “French paradox” is like grasping at straws. And of course when the results indicate, as they did in this one, that something nice such as red wine might be beneficial, the temptation is to go for broke. If findings aren’t based on reliable clinical trials, you may as well take them with a grain of salt (or a glug of red).
To balance out my meal of sensible food advice, I’m also heeding the wise words of the aptly named Food Sage (aka food writer Rachel Lebihan). Inspired by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s latest book, River Cottage Light & Easy, she’s refining what was already a fairly realistic approach to food by looking for ways of ramping up the plant portion of meals and cutting down the carbs, fats and proteins. Relying on pasta, rice or potatoes to go with the protein component is a habit that’s worth rethinking and there are some delicious and creative alternatives. As she points out, just because we’re eating home cooked dinners instead of scoffing takeaways every night doesn’t mean we’re totally virtuous. If those dinners revolve around carbs, fats and proteins, they could do with improvement. It’s not hard. You don’t need to shop or cook with a nutrition textbook constantly at hand (or a calorie counter for that matter). Like making all positive change, it’s about challenging old habits, trying new ideas and being adventurous.
What stands out in the above information is the importance of balance. Partly, it’s keeping the components of meals in a healthy balance – more of the highly nutritious stuff, less of the rest. You don’t have to necessarily excise something you like from your diet for ever more. Just eat less of it and compensate by eating more of the healthy stuff. It’s also keeping a balance between eating sensibly and eating foolishly. If you do the latter, just don’t make a habit of it. It’s not the end of the world if it happens, you don’t need to throw away the scales and reconcile yourself to a life of fattydom. You can compensate by eating more sensibly the next day.
This is all such good advice I hope that in writing it, I become sufficiently indoctrinated to follow it consistently myself.
by Anne Green