Food isn’t poison.

by Michelle

One thing I dislike about nutrition is how often we discuss eating as though it’s something incredibly dangerous that people must do just right or risk INSTANT DEATH.

When society has become so risk-averse that we can’t even enjoy food, you know something is terribly out of whack.

Barring allergies, intolerances*, non-functioning organs, and foodborne illnesses, food isn’t going to hurt you.

Because food? Isn’t poison.

Even in those exceptional cases, it’s the microorganisms in the food, the immune response of the body, or the lack of some vital function that is to blame. Not the food itself.

The worst food-related thing that can happen to most people is not having enough of it. Or not being able to digest select types of it. Or somehow losing (through various bodily fluids I won’t itemize for you) what nutrients they do manage to take in.

That’s when people get very, very sick, because not only can not getting enough of a particular nutrient cause a deficiency, it can also cause you to get too much of another nutrient, since that’s the only one you’ve got handy.

Not having enough variety can make you sick. Not having clean, safe food can make you sick.

In fact, plenty of non-foodborne diseases kill you by taking nutrients away from you. Cancer is one. Diabetes is another. Then there’s cholera and typhoid fever and all kinds of lovely things.

But food itself? Not inherently sick-making.

What else isn’t food? It isn’t medicine.

Eating certain types of it, or taking certain isolated nutrients, probably isn’t going to cure anything except an underlying deficiency.

But when does food masquerade as medicine? When you selectively take some of it away.

Taking food away is inherently risky, because your safest bet, mathematically, is to always get enough food with as much variety as possible. Selectively reducing that variety can cause nutrient deficiencies and excesses.

Whether you do it because you don’t have enough money, or because you’re just a picky eater who only eats the same six foods over and over again, or because of ethical or religious reasons, or because your doctor told you to, or because you’re trying to lose weight — selectively reducing variety carries an inherent risk.**

Fucking around with restricting your food intake, despite being treated by many people as a casual pastime, is not a totally benign endeavour.

It’s treating food like medicine, and medicine generally comes with side-effects.

Despite what the media and some healthcare professionals and the culture at large seems to think, humans actually have a finite capacity for consuming food.

Which is why it’s pretty rare that harm ever comes directly from eating too much food — harm usually comes from eating a particular food in such quantities that, by physical necessity, it displaces other foods that you need.

Not because that food is poison, or because you broke the universal law of How Much Should Be Eaten. But because you missed out on something else.

One of the riskiest things a dietitian can ever do to a patient is to take food away. It starts at a minimally risky, generally tolerable level with a mild therapeutic diet, and goes all the way up into the red at intravenous nutrition.

You only use intravenous nutrition when shit is seriously fucked up, and the patient can’t eat and absorb nutrients from the gut anyway. Why? Because it’s dangerous.

And why is it dangerous?

Because the patient is getting no food, which comes neatly packaged with enough inherent variety to naturally balance things out. Which means a dietitian had better do her math correctly, and better run labs on that patient constantly, to make sure nothing goes terribly wrong.

Can you get too much of a particular vitamin or mineral? Yes. But that’s not the same thing as eating too much food. If you have access to a decent variety of foods in adequate quantities, and your internal organs are more-or-less functional, it’s pretty fucking hard to eat enough actual food to give you a nutrient overload.

That’s why food, in most circumstances, is safer than taking supplements. Because there are built-in safeguards (distribution of nutrients in the food; nutrient density of the food; capacity of your own stomach) to keep you from fucking it up too badly.

If your body wasn’t adequate at regulating your food intake, and if foodstuffs hadn’t evolved that were good for humans to eat, we wouldn’t be sitting here in front of our computers in the year 2010.

We wouldn’t be alive to be as neurotic about food as we are. If food were poison, humans wouldn’t exist.

And I, for one, wouldn’t want to.

So, if food isn’t poison, and if it isn’t medicine, what is it? It’s food. It’s sunlight and air and soil and water and love, in edible form. It’s every creature that’s gone before you, and the thing you’ll be to those who come after.

It tells us we belong here — that we deserve to live, that we’re still here when we die.***

In short, it’s good. Food is everything that’s good.

*Which are very real, and very important, and you shouldn’t go around questioning people’s health conditions because it’s fucking rude.

**Which is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t ever do it, but that you take the risk into account and compensate for it somehow.

***How’s that for using the first law of thermodynamics?

As usual, the garden party will be held in comments. BYOB.