With more information than ever available about what should constitute a healthy diet, and much of it contradictory, it can feel impossibly complicated to make educated food choices. How do we absorb the headlines on healthy eating and turn them into practical reality?
We live in a world where more information is disseminated more quickly than ever before. There is simply no way to assimilate it all. This applies as much to the domain of nutrition as anywhere else. We are constantly bombarded with findings of supposedly scientific studies that tell us what we should and shouldn't be eating. Not only do these findings seem to change on a weekly basis, but often yesterday's poison is tomorrow's superfood – and vice versa. How are we to make sense of all this information and eat a balanced, healthy diet?!
Superfood or poison?
To illustrate the confusing and contradictory dietary advice that we receive on a daily basis, here are four examples of foods that have been hailed as nutritional heroes and condemned as dietary villains – often, it seems, in the same breath!
Red wine has been fêted as a key of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet. It is rich in anti-oxidants and health-boosting flavonoids and can help to regulate stress levels when consumed in moderation. But it is also undeniably an alcoholic drink. Alcohol, seen from the point of view of your nervous and digestive systems, is a toxin, pure and simple, and the insiduous effects of even moderate alcohol consumption are only just becoming clear.
Dried fruit is particularly rich in fibre, anti-oxidants and iron. Many of the “superfood” berries that have been fashionable over recent years are sold in dried form – think cranberries, acai berries and blueberries. Surely anyone would be well-advised to include dried fruit in their diet? No, not necessarily. Dried fruit is also extremely high in sugar. Yes, it's fruit sugar, but it's still sugar, and as such it can play havoc with insulin levels and contribute to tooth decay. It's not at all clear that eating dried fruit is any better than eating fresh fruit.
Brown rice and pasta, wholegrain bread, spelt, buckwheat and quinoa in relatively unprocessed forms – these are all the epitome of healthy eating, aren't they? Complex carbohydrates should be the staple of a healthy diet, shouldn't they? Not so, claims the anti-carbohydrate faction. We don't really need these starchy foods at all, they argue, and the fact that they're wholegrain makes only a marginal difference – they're basically processed in the same way as sugar by our digestive systems and are therefore best avoided.
The popular view of red meat these days is that it should be consumed in strict moderation, if at all. It's full of saturated fat that clogs up our arteries and contributes to heart disease, obesity and bowel cancer. Or is it? Again, things are not so simple. Highly processed red meat such as sausages and bacon certainly doesn't seem to have enormous health benefits. But you can't beat good quality, fresh meat as a source of protein and iron and a way of satisfying hunger without piling on the calories.
So how are we to find our way around supposedly scientific research, media scare-mongering and public prejudice? How do we decide what is and isn't healthy for us? First of all, it's important to take personal responsibility for what you're eating. There is no excuse for failing to inform yourself or blindly following accepted opinion. Once you've taken that mindset on board, there are three approaches you can take. These aren't mutually exclusive and you can mix and match according to your preferences:
Develop a scientific mind
If you have the curiosity and intellectual stamina, you could approach all government guidelines and reports of scientific studies as a scientist-detective yourself. Learn to be sceptical. Track down the original study and find out what relationship it bears to the media hype. How big was the sample of people being studied? What sort of effect was found – was there a clear causal link between a certain food and health outcome, or has too much been made of a correlation that might be spurious? How big is the effect – is it really significant enough to make you alter your own eating patterns? And so on. Of course few of us have the time to digest (pardon the pun) every media headline about this week's new superfood in such detail, but it's helpful simply to develop a generally questioning mindset.
Respect your inner caveman
One simple principle that can help you to decide whether it's a good idea to include a particular foodstuff in your diet is to consider our evolutionary heritage. Our digestive systems are not very different now to how they were 2.5 million years ago (evolution is a slow process!). So it's a sobering thought that agriculture is barely 10,000 years old. Fortunately for the survival of the human species, our guts are pretty adaptable. But it's worth bearing in mind that dairy and grain-based foods are relatively new additions to the repertoire of human nutrition. If you base a large proportion of your diet around the sort of foodstuffs that you can imagine your caveman self eating (meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and nuts), you can't go far wrong.
Everything in moderation
Finally, if it all seems too overwhelming, you could always go back to the trusted principle of “everything in moderation.” If today's food hero is tomorrow's food villain and vice versa, the best way of hedging your bets is to consume a little bit of everything. Obviously it's best to avoid the blatantly harmful stuff (no-one is advocating that you ingest mercury in moderation, for example), so this approach is best teamed with a healthy dose of common sense.
Deciding what we need to eat in order to live long, healthy lives shouldn't be rocket science. Don't let the sheer volume of media headlines on the subject fool you into thinking that nutrition is more complicated than it is. Be sceptical and use your common sense, and you can't go too far wrong.
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