The Confusing World of Food

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that a good diet is essential to maintain health. Unfortunately, there are about a thousand definitions of what a “good diet” entails, and many of them are in direct contradiction with each other. Even the standard scientific recommendations have been undergoing a shift, moving away from demonising fat and towards demonising sugar (a massive improvement if you ask me). So, how do you navigate your way to a healthy diet in such a storm of disagreement? Here are four basic principles that I use to make decisions about what to eat.

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Eat Real Food

Here’s the one thing that pretty much any diet plan, scientific recommendation, or traditional approach to food encourages: eat home-cooked food with a big focus on vegetables. In other words, eat mostly plants that haven’t been overly processed. Eating a wide variety of veggies will give you a broad nutritional base and provide lots of antioxidants, which help prevent many diseases. Making the switch from processed food to real food is the big reason that people tend to feel better when following any kind of diet plan. Pre-packaged food tends to contain far more sugar and salt than anyone would add when they cooked a meal, along with a long list of ingredients that you need a masters degree to pronounce. A quick trick is to scan the ingredients of anything you’re thinking about buying – if it’s so long you can’t be bothered to read it, or if there are several things you can’t identify as actual food – skip it.

Eat As Your Ancestors Ate

This means a couple of things to me – and it doesn’t mean paleo. While paleo can be a good choice, we’ve changed our digestive capacities since Paleolithic times, and almost all the plants and animals we eat have changed significantly too, mostly as a result of human intervention. So, firstly, look at what dietary systems have worked for humans over the long range. This is why I personally use Chinese Medicine dietary principles, because they’ve been field-tested for a couple of thousand years at least. When new diets get popular, especially if they’re very restrictive or emphasise one type of food at the expense of others (such as high protein, low carb) we actually have no idea what the impact is over a lifetime, or multi-generationally. Most diets feel good at first because you’re paying more attention to what you eat and avoiding junk food, but if it’s significantly different to what people have been eating for thousands of years, we don’t know if it will have a negative effect on reproductive capacity or nerve function over the course of decades. I’d rather stick to an approach that’s been proven to work over many generations, and if you want to follow a specific diet, I strongly recommend choosing one that’s been around a long time rather than this month’s best-seller.

Secondly, your ancestry matters when it comes to food. If you’re Inuit, you have enzymes to digest raw meat that I don’t. As someone of Northern European ancestry, I can gorge on dairy with far fewer consequences than most East Asians, because my forebears have been using dairy animals for a long time, but I find many tropical fruits are not my friend, as tasty as they are. So when you’re considering what to eat, ask yourself if your grandmother or great-grandmother would have thought it was a good idea. (I especially love this concept because for me it means sugar cubes and giant bowls of whipped cream. People go nuts when they’ve lived through rationing).

Check In With Your Gut

I often notice people making dietary choices based on what’s trendy right now. I’ve done it myself. Everyone’s giving up gluten, and you want to feel better, so you give up gluten too. But this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t usually work. Instead, I recommend paying attention to what your body does and doesn’t like. What meals make you bloated or drowsy? What foods give you energy that lasts for hours? Developing this kind of relationship with your body is better than reading a hundred books about other people’s dietary choices, because it gives you information that’s directly applicable to you.

And Lastly, Don’t Worry About It!

In the developed world, we have better nutrition and less risk of nutritional deficiencies than at most times in history. We really don’t need to stress about it as much as we do. Avoid junk food most of the time, eat real meals with lots of veggies, and you’re doing just fine. Worrying and over-thinking is one of the worst things you can do for your digestive system (I wrote a whole post about it). This is one of the reasons why I’m not a fan of strict diets or ones that tell us that many foods are bad for us and that we should never eat them. Guilt and anxiety are probably worse for our health than a doughnut, so cut yourself a break and let go of the fear around food.

Moss
Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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