Diet is a dirty word. “I can’t have that, I’m on a diet” is a modern day incantation against the ‘evil’ of tasty foods. I hate diets. I hate the idea of counting calories, restricting grains, demonising fats, casting out sugar. I hate all the associated rubbish as well.. the ‘detoxes’ and the ‘fifty ways to burn ten calories’ and all the other palaver associated with strenuously trying to feel good enough about yourself to wear a swimsuit.
Food has become inextricably associated with weight, and that’s a problem.
D is for… diet
I’ve always loved food. Roast dinners, cheesecake, olives, excruciatingly bitter dark chocolate, lebanese coffee, fresh pasta, garlic infused butter dripping over a baguette, bacon sandwiches, seared tuna steaks, dark flecks of mushroom in a rissotto… I love it all. I would quite happily spend my life cooking and eating, except for the dreaded spectre of grease filled pans to wash up.
I’ve also been fascinated with what food does for us: the way ginger can stem nausea, mint can help digestion, parsley can freshen breath, hemp seeds contain essential omega-3. As a species, we are a long way from understanding the way we interact with a complex meal, the way some foods can aid the absorption of vitamins from other foods, the impact any of this has on insulin, weight gain and health.
Let’s be clear: you can be fat and fit. The health at every size movement makes it clear that weight is not the magic number that makes heart disease, diabetes and all those other ‘diseases of affluence’ spring up or vanish. You can be thin and tragically unhealthy. Eating disorders are one of the deadliest diseases – and something like 20% of people who suffer from one will die.
Over on tumblr and pinterest, unhealthy obsession with thinness reigns supreme. I spent a short period of time looking at ‘thinspiration’, shots of ribcages, thigh-gaps and sunken-cheeked waifs tagged with things like ‘pro-ana’ and ‘mia’. Even when not taken to these extremes, women — and increasingly men as well — spend far too much time struggling with food, hating themselves, alternatively ‘giving in’ to temptation or eating tiny slivers of steamed chicken and vegetables.
Food is intensely complicated. Let’s look at just a few of the things we gain from cooking and eating:
- Fuel. At the minimum level, food is required to keep our bodies going, to give us energy, to charge up our brains and muscles and to provide us with adequate energy to get stuff done.
- Pleasure. Yes, you’re allowed to enjoy food. A well cooked meal can be a sublime experience. I don’t know what types of food turn you on, but I bet there’s something. Life without pleasure? Who wants that?
- Social bonding. We celebrate weddings, birthdays and reunions with food. In the past, ‘breaking bread’ with someone was a sign of friendship, a promise that you wouldn’t kill them. The sharing of food is a deep expression of love: our mother’s roast dinner is always the best… because it is more than just the food, it’s about what the food symbolises. Sharing food is sharing love. Don’t exclude yourself from the group!
- Self-love. Sadly, all too often, food has become an expression of self-hate. Stuffing ourselves whilst secretly despising ourself for being so ‘weak’? Argh! Instead, viewing food as the ultimate act of self-nurture, of giving your body the things it needs to be healthy and happy.
- Medicine. Yes, food is medicine. See the aforementioned ginger and mint. Whilst you should in no way attempt to shun modern medicine in favour of some weird hippie idea that you can cure cancer with grapefruit, it is true that eating a wide variety of particular foods can boost our immune system and provide tangible benefits to our health. Green smoothies, vegetable juices, garlic, fresh herbs… the benefit goes far beyond hitting our RDA of vitamin-C.
Our relationship with food is one that will stay with us from birth to death. Yes, of course we comfort ourselves with food! The problem is not the comfort-eating… the problem is if we are so sad so much of the time that all we do is comfort eat.
There are things we can do to improve our relationship with food:
- Learn to cook. Alright, look. It is entirely possible to eat nothing but KFC and ramen noodles, and if that is really what you want then so be it. From my experience, however, learning how to cook opens up a whole new world of culinary experience.
- Eat slow and appreciate every bite. I’m a big fan of the slow food movement. Relegating food to the periphery of our lives just means we lose out on a lot of the benefits. Food is important – treat it as such. Okay, so I have snatched a sandwich from a train station when on the move from one meeting to another… and generally it’s been okay. Live your whole life eating nothing but snatched sandwiches and drive-thru? No. Again, you’re just limiting your experience.
- Eat vegetables. Look, you can eat everything else as well. But vegetables are fundamental to our health. Restricting any major food group is bad news, but vegetables are pretty much the king of the food kingdom in terms of improving our health. Don’t force yourself to eat things you hate, but can you honestly tell me you’ve tried every vegetable from amaranth to wakame?