Nutrition agnosticism.

by Michelle

On this blog, I talk a lot about the how of eating, with little attention to the what.

There are a few reasons for this.

One is my belief that, until you have a solid foundation for how to eat, it’s very, very difficult to make positive changes to the “what.” Before you can decide which food is best for you to eat, you need to be eating food, period.

Plenty of people who read this blog, and who I work with, have major trouble with this step. And this is why I’m here – this is the core of my job and my writing.

Another reason I don’t focus on “what” is because it is my opinion that nutrition is quite individual. Okay, it’s not just my opinion – it’s even tacitly admitted by the fact that such a thing as the Recommended Dietary Allowance for most micronutrients even exists – the RDA is based on a bell curve, which is a graph that says “some people need a tiny amount, some people need a lot, and most people need an amount somewhere in the very broad in-between.” Individuality is also the reason why the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range is a “range” instead of a single, prescribed number: people vary.

The idea that people vary is further confirmed for me by my education in clinical nutrition, which taught me that perfectly nutritious food for one person can constitute a major health crisis for another – because sometimes people have food allergies, food intolerances, as well as various diseases with a nutritional component (one big caveat here: not all diseases have a confirmed nutritional component or treatment – though we often talk about all disease as if it were caused and/or treated by diet. There simply isn’t evidence to support this.)

Different people seem to feel and function well by eating different things, and different amounts of things – this I’ve based on my own little observations about life and people and eating in general. You could also say that the existence of differences in cuisine by region and culture seems to fit this observation – especially in cases where a person suddenly stripped of their culture and its attendant foodways gets very ill. Which happens.

This leads into yet another reason not to focus on “what” – because health is more than just food, and food is more than just nutrients. And before you think I’m going there with this, I want to say that food is also much more than our hunches or culturally- or cognitively-biased definitions of “real food.”

“Real food” (a term I find almost as distasteful as “real women”) looks a lot different to different people. And here we revisit the Hierarchy of Food Needs again – and take a look at the second tier, which is “acceptable food.”

Hierarchy of food needs, in order: enough food, acceptable food, reliable ongoing access to food, good-tasting food, novel food, and instrumental food.

Food that would be perfectly acceptable to some people is abhorred by others, for lots of reasons. Heck, as a very mild microexample, my husband was put off when he learned that I made a regular habit of eating crayfish (I use the proper term “crawdads”, which is translated from the original Grandma-ese to mean “delicious tiny lobsters from the crick”), because to him they are bugs. And he doesn’t eat bugs.

On the other hand, I find his habit of putting ketchup into Kraft Dinner totally unappealing. Still. After living in this country and spelling things with extra u’s for well over a decade now. And neither of us is right or wrong.

Slight (very slight) cultural differences between central Canada and west coast USA, as well as different growing-up experiences, different families, different social norms, and different habits cultivated over years and years of living, play into these disagreements. So, imagine if you will, the much more extreme differences, on a much larger scale, that exist between various places and cultures all over the world.

Then you may get an inkling of how difficult it is to sum up (to borrow again from the original Grandma-ese) all good eatin’ in that one condescending term, “real food.”

It is similarly impossible, and I would argue undesirable, to divorce food-as-nutrients from food-as-identity and food-as-emotional-experience. All eating is emotional, remember? Even on a strictly biomedical level, isn’t it possible that the stress induced from being deprived of an emotionally meaningful, culturally significant food source might negatively impact your health? I think it might.

That’s not to say that sometimes the cost of some stress isn’t worth the health benefit someone may receive by cutting a particular food out of their diet, especially when that food is doing them direct and measurable harm – but it is to say that monkeying with food restrictions isn’t a purely benign practice. There are consequences to physical health, and to quality of life. Sometimes the consequences are overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes not.

(See how complicated this already is? Phew.)

And the last reason I’ve mostly neglected the “what” on this blog is this: despite having spent four school years allegedly learning what is the best, healthiest food to eat, I just don’t know.

I have a lot of learning to do in this area, and I have a funny feeling that it’s not just me who does. Nutrition is a young science, as fields of inquiry go, and it studies incredibly complicated systems – and I think we, as a species, still have a lot to learn about it.

So, I don’t know. And I caution you to be skeptical of anyone who claims, unequivocally, that they do.

My first foray into the world of figuring out what to eat was probably back in 1999 or 2000, when I did a Google search for “healthy eating” or “nutrition” or something equally vague. (I wouldn’t recommend trying this if you are struggling with disordered eating of any kind. Or if you just want to have a nice day.)

The results of that search, as you can probably guess, were bewildering and slightly terrifying. Guess what? They still are in 2012 — maybe moreso.

Of course a random Google search cannot represent Our Current Scientific Understanding of Human Nutrition, but it tells me a few things. It tells me people are interested in nutrition. It also tells me people are scared. Plenty of them are zealous, vociferous, and sometimes obsessive – and I believe this is because they are scared. It tells me that there is a lot of confusion, and a lot of mistrust of official guidelines on health and eating. It tells me there is a lot of dichotomous, black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good-against-evil thinking and discourse.

I can sympathize with all of this. I have, at various points, been guilty of all these things, and I probably still am, and I probably will continue to be. Because I am just muddling my way through this, like everybody else. My brain takes lots of the same shortcuts, and thereby makes a lot of the same mistakes, that all brains do in their attempt to find patterns and make sense of the penultimate human fear – the unknown.

If the unknown were a place, it would be a scary place to hang out. A dark closet, the place just beyond the circle of campfire light, the mouth of a black cave. The lack of light is really just imagery for a lack of information. A lack of information makes it more likely you’ll get into very bad trouble. Something might kill you, which is, in my opinion, the ultimate human fear. The unknown is death’s handmaiden.

Being in the unknown is like being out to sea. You very badly want something to grab onto, some solid sense of security instead of just endlessly shifting, changing, inscrutable depths of water – depths that probably contain something dangerous and deadly.

This means it is tempting, intellectually, to grab onto a theory, any theory, and there cling.

I don’t think people pick nutrition theories at random – but they pick ones that feel suited to their particular beliefs (ethical, observational, aesthetic) and that complement their worldviews. These are actually very good reasons, not some kind of humanoid silliness to be scoffed at from on high. It’s only logical that you’d be more inclined to align yourself with something that makes sense to you on multiple levels – but here’s where our sometimes-clunky habit of pattern-finding intrudes.

You generalize the theory to everyone else.

The one that seems custom-tailored for, uniquely-suited to, and perfectly paired with your life – which was the reason you chose it in the first place.

I want to stop for a moment and clarify something: I don’t think we always choose a way to eat that is best for us, physically or emotionally. I think we mess it up fairly often, but I also think having the freedom to mess it up is part of what being an autonomous human is all about.

Thankfully, in the absence of disordered eating, we can usually learn from feedback of various kinds whether or not the food we’re eating is doing us harm, and then we get to decide what to do about it. And I actually trust that most people have the capacity to do that, to make their own choices, provided they have some supports to help them (a safe and varied food supply, access to appropriate and respectful health care, shelter and enough food to eat, and the skills and facilities to prepare it, in the first place.)

So — back to generalizing. I think we do it because it makes the world seem like a less scary place. Taking that one thing to cling to and then extrapolating that everyone else can be saved if they will only cling to it, too, feels very reassuring. It feels like making sense of an incredibly complicated and counter-intuitive world. Unfortunately, in practice, it can also make that world a more miserable, divisive place, because it almost invariably results in judging other people’s choices, which are based on factors so diverse and complex that it might be impossible to truly understand them.

I also think that, in our current state of nutritional understanding, it’s inaccurate to generalize from one theory to one whole population, let alone the entire species. We simply don’t know enough yet.

So, at this time, I consider myself mostly agnostic on the subject of what to eat. Even my dearly-held theories about how are, I recognize, probably limited to certain people in certain circumstances — though many of them are readers of this blog. And I’m okay with that.

Tolerating ambiguity and not-knowing, I believe, is also part of the human condition. Floating in the water, accepting what can’t be seen, and making sense of our own experiences without assuming that those experiences are shared by everyone else, is about the best we, as individuals, can do.

One of my peculiar beliefs is that no one should need a degree in science or nutrition in order to figure out what to eat. No one should need to spend their day reading and analyzing studies in order to make a reasonable choice about what to have for dinner. (If you have the time, resources, and inclination to do that, then Godspeed and good luck.)

We might, at some point, have a better answer about what everyone should be eating for optimal biomedical health — and even then, this might not overlay neatly onto what type of food provides meaningful social and hedonic experiences, which makes it an incomplete answer, at best — but until then, we can guess that variety and not too much or too little of any one thing is probably a good idea.

Until then, we can take comfort that our life expectancy, at least in certain parts of the world, is the best it’s ever been. That we have cures and treatments for many diseases that once ravaged entire populations.

And until then, we still need to eat, which means we all need to tread water and make our own choices as best we can.

Consider this my official announcement that the spring groups of the Learn to Eat program are open for sign-ups until early April. If you want to work on the “how,” that’s the place to be.