Some of my clients voice their initial surprise. “So, will you be sending me a complete list of all the foods I can eat?” “Nope”, I reply, “just some good suggestions”. “Hm, but my last nutritionist gave me four pages of all my good and bad foods” exclaimed one female client”. “Oh, they did?” I said smiling. I felt like saying “nah, they just gave you four pages of all their good and bad foods” but held out. “Then I am here to rescue you from the clutches of black and white nutrition” I said, smile still emblazoned.
Now don’t get me wrong, for some folk a comprehensive food list can be quite advantageous. For those with a more laissez-faire dietary attitude, decisive structure (an explicit “yes” or “no”) can be a comforting hand rail in an ocean of synthetically coloured consumables. But aside from the near universal distinction between “junk food” and all other (presumably normal) foods, the dividing line between “good” and “bad” foods represents in many ways a fairly arbitrary construct, an idiosyncratic expression of a given nutritionist’s stance on human (oh so human) diets. Rather than saying something very specific about each client's unique profile, most food lists say more about the one who initially drew the line of division - the dietary lens of the nutritional researcher.
The dividing line, that thin, absolute border between a “good” and “bad” food can bring entire banquets of sustenance into and out of focus, all at the flick of an ideological switch. It could be the steadfast paleo nutritionist drawing the line around the 10,000 year mark, where anything younger is demoted; perhaps a staunch raw-foodist drawing the line around the 45-65ºC mark, where anything heated beyond is refused; how about the anti-sugar advocate drawing the line around the 5-10% sugar band, where anything sweeter is rejected. Each time the line of dissection is reinterpreted, the culinary landscape changes, some "goodies" swap with "baddies", some "baddies" with "goodies", and a new set of rules must be learnt.
Over the years I’ve come to realise that many dietary consultants are riding auto-pilot with their nutritional suggestions. They’ve pretty much decided what they’re going to be advising before you’ve even walked through the door. There’s a tremendous amount of “whatever worked for me, will work for you” quietly underlining the advice they hand-out. In other cases, the nutritionist has simply assented to what they perceive to be the most intellectually-sound nutritional model, without having directly experienced any noteworthy benefits themselves. Large, correctly interpreted epidemiological studies are one thing, but the personal gospel of a solo nutritionist needs to be put into perspective. Get a sufficient number of them together, compile a venn diagram of their “yes” and “no” foods and very quickly you will find that, save for a few green plants, there is very little common ground to speak of.
Of course, I am not for one minute saying that the production of yes/no lists is hopeless or pointless. Clearly, there must exist for any given individual a set of foods, above and beyond all other species of food, that in this moment would provide one with the most optimal nutrition. It’s just that pinpointing them by standard analytical/isolationist means is so patently slim. But this should hardly be thought of as surprising. Even in general terms, one of the great bugbears of modern nutritional science is that the relationship between diet and optimal health is still a long way from being fully understood.
That aside, the main problem I have with food lists is not that they are so liable to be incorrect or misguided; it is their one-dimensionality. Black and white lists paint an unnatural, inflexible view of human nutrition and it all stems from an outdated scientific strategy: reductionism. Reductionism is the belief that something can be explained by (and is nothing more than) the sum of its parts. Now reductionism hasn’t just instructed the manner that most science (and therefore nutritional research) is carried out, it has profoundly shaped the way we tend to think about all sorts of everyday things, from sex to global warming. It has certainly shaped the way we (including most nutritionists) think about diet. One of the ways that we more colloquially perform an act of dietary reductionism is by placing individual food species abstractly into good and bad categories. And I say abstractly because such attempts are often disconnected from the wide-screen, high-resolution splendour of the actual person - her overall diet, her overall lifestyle and her unique profile. Here three points can be considered:
- Overall diet: The nature/format of our overall diet influences how any given individual food will be absorbed or tolerated.
- Overall lifestyle: Demands upon metabolism caused by physical and mental exertions are reflections of our lifestyle. Different lifestyles not only demand different dietary support, diets (and therefore individual foods) are metabolised/processed differently by virtue of the demands of our lifestyle.
- Unique profile: People have significant differences in digestive capacities, sensitivities (incl allergies), constitutional strengths/weaknesses (e.g. epigenetic, genetic, transgenic, nutrigenomic factors), even beliefs. These differences, either individually or in combination, necessitate different food choices.
Clearly, how any given food actually behaves in our body is not a straightforward, linear affair. It is a multi-dimensional activity, a collage of nested events, operating over countless different temporal scales (think nano-seconds all the way up to decades). The actual effects of any food, the story it leaves behind if you will, is dynamically defined through all these different "layers". Remember, you are a human being eating, not a robot receiving.
The collapsing down of foods or food constituents into good/bad categories can easily obscure our nutritional understanding whenever greater degrees of culinary complexity or variety are involved. It becomes all to easy to think along lines like these:
If wheat is bad, then anything with wheat in must also be bad. If sugar is bad then anything with sugar in must also be bad (and if sugarcane is bad, then sugarcane in any form must also be bad). If rye is bad then, any form of rye must also be bad. If saturated fats are bad, then any food rich in saturated fats must be bad. If soya is bad, then any form of soya must also be bad. And equally in the affirmative: If Vitamin C is good then any food rich in Vitamin C will also be good. If Omega 3 is good then any food rich in Omega 3 will also be good. Whenever we reduce complex foods down into one-dimensional morsels it stops us perceiving nutrition from a higher-level of organisation, that is to say, from the level of a food complex.
One of the most remarkable facets of human nutrition is the sheer diversity of ways we have learnt to play with our food. Individual food ingredients comprise a most malleable set of substances, and we have learnt to mould them like putty in our hands. Humans don’t, for the most part, eat whole spelt seeds, they eat sourdough bread, fresh pasta, chapatis, sprouted “Ezekiel” loaves, porridge, etc, etc. Dry, flat food columns simply can’t take this breadth of possibilities into consideration. And these are by no means insignificant considerations. The myriad ways that we have learnt to "re-contextualise" food: to pre-digest, prepare, process and cook foods can have a tremendous bearing upon the nutritional signature it leaves behind in our bodies. Consider the following examples:
- Spelt can be prepared in such a way that gluten is broken-down (sprouting).
- Milk can be prepared in such a way that lactose is present only in trace (fermentation).
- Bananas can be ripened to breakdown their amylose (time).
- Flours can be prepared so that iron availability is increased by upwards of 800% (water imbibation methods).
- Mature vegetables can be dried to make tough cellulose bonds more digestible (dehydration methods).
- Whole almonds can be peeled to remove the tannin and amylase-inhibiting rich skin (hand preparation).
- Eggs can be heated to destroy their avidin content (cooking).
All of these examples are significant in another respect; I found all of these foods languishing in avoid columns precisely because of the stated “undesirable”- the very thing we are able to remove or mitigate with a little bit of conscientious activity. You see, foods, far from being obstinately determined to unleash a specific effect within our bodies, are in actual fact exceedingly versatile. And, for that matter, so are we.
It may take a certain regularity of consumption, but over time we become better suited to the things that we eat. Foods that we may have initially tolerated poorly, we (can) in time warm towards. From the first few drops of mother's milk to a bowl of oligosacharride-rich beans or a plate of brassicas, our bodies typically learn to produce more efficient, exacting conditions for their digestion. Unlike dry, flat food columns, a human being is dynamic. Individual food species are also dynamic. We have at our disposal simple and intelligent ways to enhance the pros and mitigate the cons of all foods. In a one-dimensional understanding of nutrition, a seed is just a seed; an unflinching concept in time. But when it comes to the rich vibrancy of nutrition in the real world, a single seed is a complex of possibilities, each with its own signature, each with its own story to tell. An accurate philosophy of nutrition must (at the very least) take all of this into consideration.
Kyle Vialli (2014)