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Nutritional philosophy

February 4, 2008

Last week my nutrition professor gave us the following scenario:

It’s 7:30am and you’re running late for work/class. Your day is going to be very busy and you know you won’t get a break to eat anything until 1:00pm. The only food you have in your house that you can take on the road is an orange and a candybar. What should you eat in order to provide the best energy for the next 5 1/2 hours?

I don’t doubt that many of y’all probably have the answer, but in a class of about 30 people, only myself and one other girl had it.

You eat both, of course. The vast majority of the class guessed that you just eat the orange even after the professor told us that the average orange has less than 100 calories.

I seriously doubt that most of the people who voted for eating the orange would have made that choice were they in the same situation, but they probably thought it was the correct thing to say in a nutrition class. Most people associate ‘nutrition’ with a dualistic view of food. Food is good or bad. The only valid food choice is the one that maximizes vitamin and mineral intake while keeping calories to a minimum. Any other choice is the inferior one. So people in class assumed that avoiding the sugar and fat in a candy bar would be more important than any other consideration.

I was thinking about all of this while working on the billionth draft on a post about being a fat positive health nut. I kept finding myself swamped by disclaimers as I tried to explain how nutrition can go hand in hand with a joyful and guilt-free relationship with food. No, you don’t have to make the same choices as I do. No, it’s not all or nothing. No, this isn’t the only way to do it.

And I realized my problem was that I needed to go back to the basics. What is nutrition? Like health, it’s a word and a concept that has been co-opted by a fat-hating society. But just like health, it doesn’t actually belong only to those people who get the Papa Willet stamp of approval. So we need to redefine healthy eating and nutrition – define it for actual people in the real world and refuse to work from a baseline of an imaginary person who hates sugar, gets only the necessary amount of fat from whole food sources and loves nothing more than to snack on sprouted quinoa and raw vegetables (in between marathons, natch.)

And since nourishing and nutritive food choices include much more than just a consideration of the ratio of vitamins to calories, I’ll call this my nutritional philosophy. So here are the elements of nutrition

1. Energy

Food is energy. All food is energy and one of the things to consider when choosing what to eat is the energy content of that food. We often forget this simple fact in the face of society’s overwhelming need to categorize all food into good and bad choices, but like the example at the start of the post, choosing food based only on its vitamin and mineral content is pointless if the food doesn’t contain enough calories to support your body until you eat again.

2. Nutrients

People often either obsess over or totally ignore whatever latest food chemical is the one thing we must have more of in our diet because they rightfully perceive that nutritional information is constantly changing. Omega 3 fatty acids were almost unheard of in popular discussion 5 years ago and now every drug store has a prominent display for ‘fish oil’ capsules. Because as soon as we isolate any possible element in our food that might possibly contribute to health, we must start taking large doses of it in pill form – since if something = good, then a shitload of something = gooder.

Fuck that. It’s crazymaking and a lot of studies have shown that a lot of the beneficial elements in food stop being quite so beneficial when taken out of context. Our bodies evolved to use whole foods. We still have barely begun to unravel all the complexity of how all the elements of a food work together in our body. Also, while the RDAs can be a useful tool, they are hardly universal. As much as 50% of the population can meet their nutritional needs with less than the RDA of a given vit/mineral. So long as you’re not eating in a way which might completely eliminate an essential nutrient from your diet and you’re not showing symptoms of any kind of deficiency, you’re better off eating a variety of foods than spending a lot of money on supplements or spending extra money for foods that are supplemented out the wazoo in order to proclaim their nutritional value.

That’s it. Notice that there is no mention of the ‘correct’ food choices, nor a list of things to avoid. There are no rules to remember or ratios to strive for. Make sure you’re meeting your energy needs and eat a variety of whole foods (that is, foods closer to their natural state, not foods from Whole Paycheck.)

The whole foods thing might bother some people, I know. Again, I don’t mean one should forgo processed foods nor that one should only buy certified local organic produce (I’d be up shit creek here if I believed that.) Just that we evolved eating these foods and they are the best way for most people to get their essential and non-essential-but-still-good-for-your-body nutrients. And whole foods don’t have to be eaten raw and sans flavoring in order to be healthful.

*OT, but one of the reasons I’ll bring up subjects like gov’t subsidies for farmers a lot is that access to nutrients is something I’m pretty passionate about. The fact that a twinkie (which contains numerous ingredients and requires all kinds of processing) is cheaper than almost any veggie isn’t bad b/c it’ll ‘make people fat.’ It’s bad because everyone should have equal access to nutrient-dense food.*

So how do I combine being a ‘health nut’ with a healthy and joyous relationship with food?

I experiment with all kinds of food. I eat what my body is craving. I don’t put foods in good and bad categories. I eat to maximize energy and enjoyment. I find the foods that make me feel good and I eat them. That’s it.

And finally, I remember that nutrition is all well and good, but eating is about more than your body. It’s about taste and enjoyment. It can be comforting. It can evoke memories. It reflects our culture. It’s part of our hospitality. And that’s part of feeling good too.

  1. Jen permalink
    February 4, 2008 6:31 pm

    What a wonderful post. Thank you very much. 🙂 I’ve tried to explain that food=energy to live to some of my dieting friends and they haven’t quite caught on yet. I’m tryin’ though! 😉

  2. pennylane permalink
    February 4, 2008 7:38 pm

    Oh food can be good, gooder and goodest! If you can put it in powder form, especially. I’m totally grossed out by the Special K “protein water” crap. (Though I do confess I take a crapload of vitamins).

    I’ve felt a lot better once I started thinking about food and nutrition over the long term rather than just day by day. Rather than tallying up calories or whatever in a specific time period I prefer to think about eating a variety of foods that are interesting to me and figuring that in the long run my body will let me know what it needs.

  3. February 4, 2008 7:48 pm


    I meant to include something about approaching all of it with a longer view. The focus on ‘balancing’ all kinds of intakes on a day by day basis is so unnecessary.

    And trusting one’s body is also key although, for me, it goes hand in hand with continually expanding and experimenting with new foods. I refused to try sweet potatoes until a few years ago (I’d always had the super sweet marshmallow-topped variety) and after I found a bunch of awesome ways to prepare them, I craved them regularly.

  4. February 4, 2008 8:08 pm

    Awesome post, Attrice. I read somewhere (The Gospel of Food, I think) about a study where people were told they’d be stranded on a desert island with only one food, and they had to pick one from the following list: spinach, chocolate, oranges, bread, hot dogs. (That might not be exactly the list, but it’s close.)

    Out of those, of course hot dogs and chocolate are your most nutritionally complete choices. But almost everyone picked spinach or oranges, because they’re “good for you,” and hot dogs and chocolate are “bad.”

    It was probably in the same book that I read about an alarming number of American woman surveyed who believed an ideal diet (diet as in what you eat, not calorie restriction) would involve NO FAT WHATSOEVER. They had no clue that the body actually needs fat, because they’ve been so trained to see it as terrible for you.


  5. February 4, 2008 8:54 pm

    Totally and completely excellent.

    I am really appreciating these posts because you are really good at discussing nutrition without making me feel like a glutton for making food choices that are sometimes based solely on pleasure.

  6. fillyjonk permalink
    February 4, 2008 9:00 pm

    Wow, that story is a perfect illustration. Great post.

  7. jaed permalink
    February 5, 2008 12:38 am

    a twinkie (which contains numerous ingredients and requires all kinds of processing) is cheaper than almost any veggie

    Hmm. A 2-pack of Twinkies costs $1.49 at Safeway. 150 KCal per Twinkie, a smidge of protein but not much else other than the calories themselves. For that much I can get a pound bag of frozen corn (400 KCal) or “mixed Asian vegetables” (mostly broccoli) (150 KCal). Fresh veggies are more expensive, but then it’s midwinter, and I can still get a pound of zucchini or half a pound of mushrooms for that much.

    This is kind of off-topic (sorry about that), but it caught my eye because I keep seeing comments like this when food is discussed – the assumption that things like Twinkies or Hot Pockets or boxed cheese mac are cheaper than vegetables, meat, cheese, eggs, and beans. And that hasn’t been my experience at all.

  8. February 5, 2008 2:50 am

    Heh, I chose twinkies b/c they caught my eye at the store yesterday. 2 for .75 cents, but they might have been on sale.

    While it is possible to find affordable nutrient-dense foods, I think the general idea that highly processed, multiple ingredient food and foods that are supported by the most gov’t subsidies are more affordable per calorie than nutrient-dense foods stands up.

    This link contains a chart of different foods purchased in a Seattle grocery store and shows that relationship…where the fruit and veggies tend to cost the most per calorie. Unfortunately, the actual paper is all about how terrible obesity is, but the chart is still pretty useful.

    Like I said though, I agree it is possible to eat a variety of fruits and veg without breaking the bank, but it does take a bit of work. And it’s also highly dependent on location.

    Like here they don’t sell loose mushrooms, only packaged ones and they’re around two bucks for a quarter pound. And the salad greens are generally already a little wilted – so you can buy the pricey bagged salad or you can use up an entire head of lettuce quickly or it goes to waste. And the local little convenience/grocery store in the neighborhood I used to live in didn’t carry any veggies except potatoes and many of my neighbors didn’t have a car (this was not a place with great public transit either.) So if they needed something for dinner, they could hop two buses to the kroger and pick up some veggies too or they could walk to the corner store and get cheap ground chuck and hamburger helper which is the kind of situation I think a lot of people find themselves in.

    Although I should say that I don’t have a problem with subsidies in and of themselves. I just think they need to be shifted a bit.

  9. February 5, 2008 5:21 am

    Wow, this was REALLY good. 🙂

  10. February 12, 2008 1:19 am

    And finally, I remember that nutrition is all well and good, but eating is about more than your body. It’s about taste and enjoyment. It can be comforting. It can evoke memories. It reflects our culture. It’s part of our hospitality. And that’s part of feeling good too.

    You’ll make a great nutritionist. Food is more than calories, and your balanced view will do you well.


  1. i don’t even know what quinoa is, sprouted or otherwise « mmm, brains!

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