This is going to come off kind of weird, but:
I will now take the remainder of this post to qualify that statement.
Here’s what I mean: only in certain, limited contexts does WHAT a person eats play a direct role in their health. We’re talking deficiencies and diseases where the body’s storage and handling of nutrients changes radically.
In these situations, diet or nutrient supplementation needs to be controlled with varying degrees of precision, or, as we so often like to express it in this lovely fucked-up culture of ours, strictness.
I’m talking kidney disease. I’m talking diabetes. I’m talking recovery from cancer. I’m talking scurvy and beriberi and pernicious anemia — and plain old iron-deficiency anemia, too, for that matter. I’m talking inflammatory bowel disease, I’m talking recovery from trauma like surgery or burns or bad wounds or anything which renders you incapable of feeding yourself, thus requiring a tube and/or IV. I’m talking celiac disease and food allergies. I’m talking liver disease. I’m talking certain medications (like monoamine oxidase inhibitors) that don’t play well with certain foods.
And, as far as I’m concerned, these are the only types of situations in which WHAT a person eats takes primacy over HOW they eat it. And even then, in many cases, the WHAT is only just barely more important than the HOW.
Personally, though I’ve completed basic training in the WHAT at university, my interest has always been much stronger in the HOW.
The HOW we eat applies to all of us — disease or no disease, allergy or no allergy, nutritionist or pastry chef.
By way of explicit example: yesterday, I ate two cups of ice cream and a bunch of rainbow Twizzlers for lunch.
I wanted it, I had it, and I felt pretty good about it.
I functioned well physically for the rest of the day.
Later on, I had a bowl of bran cereal for dinner.
Was this balanced? Absolutely not. Was this “healthy” by popular standards? Not at all. Do I eat this way every day? Nope. Was it totally fine for me? Without reservation — yes.
Here’s what I believe: human diets (meaning in this case not “weight loss diets” but “everything one eats”) in their natural, un-fucked-up state are pretty chaotic. We eat a little one day, and a whole shit-ton another day. Using examples from my own life: we might eat a quart of strawberries per week in June, and then drink a quart of homemade Irish Cream in December.
The bottom line? If you’re not messed up around food in some way, it balances out over time.
This is part of the reason that dietetics is such an imprecise science. When you get a three-day food diary from a client and then analyze it for the nutritional breakdown, you’re only getting a snapshot of their entire diet.
Diets change seasonally and regionally by what’s available, they change by what’s on sale, by what you can afford, by what looks good to you on any given day. They change by your mood, since all human beings (since the beginning of time, probably) use food to comfort themselves or to celebrate.
And, lastly, yes — your diet also changes based on your changing physical requirements.
For the most part, a lot of our nutrition — which is to say, the molecules our cells use to work, and to produce the raw materials that comprise our bodies — is stored. And some of those stores last for decades. Or a lifetime.
For example, your skeleton? Yeah, it’s not just the handy-dandy coat rack that your organs hang from, and those chompers you use for donut-munching — it’s also your travelling calcium pantry for whenever your motor neurons need a bunch of calcium ions to work the chemical/electrical ju-ju that triggers a muscle contraction.
You know, so you can walk and talk and scratch your butt and stuff.
These uses for calcium are so effing important that your body is willing to raid that pantry — even weakening it to the point of physical collapse — so you can continue breathing at all costs, even if all your ribs crumble in the process. And that’s part of the reason we have such a GIANT FRIGGIN’ STORE OF CALCIUM in our bodies, enough that it would take years to use up entirely, even if you never ate another milligram of calcium again.
Now. I’m not suggesting that you should stop eating calcium and watch what happens, cause I can tell you right now — your bones are going to weaken as your body raids the pantry, and that’s not good for you. But I am saying that our bodies are pretty well set up to survive, even without food, for quite a while. (And, luckily, calcium is present in so many foods that it can be difficult to avoid.)
We’ve got failsafe upon failsafe upon idiot-proof failsafe working in our favour. And these’ve developed the hard way, by trial and error over hundreds of thousands of years.
So, if you’re like me and, I’m going to guess, like 99% of the people who:
- Have access to the computers and the internet and the basic literacy skills required to read this blog,
- AND if you have adequate access to clean drinking water and enough food so that you’re not constantly hungry,
- AND your food’s safety is regulated by an imperfect but basically functioning agency intended to prevent a huge and lucrative population of tax-payers and stuff-consumers from keeling over dead by the swath,
- AND you don’t have some disease or injury requiring direct and aggressive therapeutic nutrition intervention, then
YOU’RE GOING TO BE FINE.
You can stop obsessing about WHAT to eat now. You’re welcome.
Okay, so I know it isn’t that easy. Sure would be nice if it were, though, eh?
We’ll talk about the HOW next time.