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
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.
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.