The rules of nutrition.

by Michelle

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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First rule of nutrition: eat or die.

Second rule of nutrition: there are no other rules.

This is not something you are likely ever to hear from someone in my field, since we make our living by thinking up rules and then pretending they have been whispered in our ears by God himself, but nevertheless — it’s the truth, and I’m saying it.

Except for those of us who observe religious and/or ethical restrictions on the foods we eat, there really are no rules about what to eat.

I know this is disquieting, perhaps even frightening to you.

But, in fact, there is no stone tablet on which Jenny Craig or Dr. Atkins or Michael Pollan or who-the-hell-ever has etched any immutable Laws of Diet.

There are no Laws of Diet.

There is only one Law, which is this — eat or die.

That’s it; that’s all.

I could stop there, but I know that would upset people. We will now proceed to the hand-holding and handkerchief-wringing.

The words “rule” and “law” imply a directive that is established by a supreme, governing body (or deity), and which is imposed, sometimes violently, upon a population of lesser subjects.

Or, in the case of physics, a natural inevitability which occurs predictably under a given set of conditions.

And, except for eat or die, nutrition simply doesn’t work that way.

Here’s where I state the obvious: it doesn’t work that way because people are different.

Do we have ideas about what type of food is good for people with certain conditions?

Yes.

Do we have ideas about what type of food is good for the general population without said conditions?

Yes.

Do we know that over- or under-consumption of dietary components (vitamins, minerals, water, carb, fats, and proteins) can cause certain health problems?

Yes.

Can we treat or ameliorate some physical conditions through the application or restriction of dietary components?

Yes.

Do we have certain social norms and cultural preferences about what types of food to eat and how?

Yes.

Do any of these constitute authoritative, immutable, unchangeable, and inarguable rules governing what each individual must eat, think, and do, forever and ever, amen?

No.

No, they don’t — especially not among people for whom eat or die never enters once into daily thought. (I’m referring to you there, person in front of your computer wearing your favourite sweater, with a nice warm mug of preferred beverage at your elbow, and at least a vague plan of what’s for dinner? that doesn’t involve begging, a food bank, or hunting and gathering.)

If you choose not to abide by any of these rather rough and exception-pockmarked guidelines of how might be a good idea to eat if you’re a certain person in a certain situation, do the Food Police arrive at your door to arrest you?

No. (Not yet, anyway.)

Do you die instantly? Highly unlikely, severe food allergies excepted.

Because? There are no rules. Sing it with me now:

    there are no rules

    there are no rules

    there are no rules

    there are no rules

    there are no rules

Now then.

Are there ways to eat which will (potentially) optimize your functioning while minimizing (your immediate and long-term risks of) certain diseases?

Probably.

Are there ways to eat which will (possibly) undermine your functioning while increasing (your risk of) disease?

Probably.

And why do I say probably instead of striking out with a sexy, definitive Yes?

Because, while these are likely results, they are not inevitabilities. They are not laws. This is not a2 + b2 = c2.

It’s more like a2 + b2 = c probably, maybe, if x, y, and z are also present.

Because — let’s go back to being obvious again — people are different.

If you’re shopping for laws, try here. Take a good look. Notice there’s not one piece of dietary advice among them.

Why am I telling you all this? So you’ll have absolutely no idea now what to do with your eating, and throw your hands up in despair and head for the nearest Cinnabon, because, screw it, there are no rules?

No.

(Though if you’re tempted to do just that, I’ll totally understand.)

I’m telling you this because it is crucial that you be the one to decide.

I’m telling you this because you are in charge of this particular voyage, cap’n.

I’m telling you this because it is critical that humans operate on the basis of autonomy.

And I’m telling you this because you make the rules.

That Ultimate Authority? That guru, or nutritionist, or Oprah-certified megalomaniac you’ve been searching for all this time? Because you’re that desperate for someone to tell you what to do?


It’s you.

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

You’re either bouncing with delight, or sweatily clutching the sides of your chair right about now.

And here’s why: either you’ve accepted the idea that both your desires and your ability to appropriately respond to those desires are inherent, internal fixtures of yourself…

…or else you’re convinced that, deep down inside, you’re all id, and that you absolutely rely on some form of external superego to rein you in.

Because you believe you are bound, fated, to go too far if left to your own devices.

Because you believe you are absolutely, inherently, unreservedly, out of control.

And I’m here to tell you that you’re not.

I’m here to tell you that, as an adult person of the human persuasion, you’re inherently responsible, reasonable, and (basically) rational. If you’re alive, breathing, reading and processing this information, your body is (basically) functional.

You are not broken.

You are capable of this. You are capable of choosing what and how to eat.

You can do it on your own (or, if you have a history of disordered eating or certain health conditions, you can do it with just a little guidance that will teach you how to do it on your own.)

And if, right now, you feel like you just can’t, that is not your fault. You live steeped in a culture that tells you, over and over again, that you’re out of control and cannot be trusted. That your desires are bad, bad, bad, that your tastes are suspect. That you require rules, which, of course, often come oh-so-conveniently attached to someone selling you something.

You have become confused, which is only natural.

In fact, it’s entirely reasonable. Because you, and I, and all of us, have been targeted.

There are entire industries profiting from our belief that we are out of control and must be led by the nose. These industries collect massive amounts of money by making up rules that don’t exist and selling them to people who don’t need them.

Obviously, the propaganda works. And if it works on you, you needn’t feel alone — it works on all of us, myself included. A sustained, positive effort is necessary to work against it.

This is where normal, dare-I-say-it, healthy eating starts. Not with rules. Not with food guides.

But with media literacy.

With skeptical inquiry and critical thinking.

And, lastly, with this whole self-determination thing.

These are the fundamentals of navigating nutrition in a world where people (sadly, not of the charitably disinterested variety) are telling you what to do with your body 24/7.

Because when it comes to nutrition, there are as many rules as there are people, which is to say: there are no rules, only exceptions; there are no laws, only choices — all of which we are condemned to make for ourselves.

And I know that’s kind of scary.

But it’s also kind of awesome.

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I recognize this is a pretty radical way to talk about nutrition, and likely to spark a lot of discussion, disagreement, and possibly confusion. There are caveats and important distinctions to be made — and, as always, I’m totally willing to hash all that out in comments.