When I speak with clients, a theme that often comes up is the question of what is true and what is false in nutrition. Yesterday, an article about the demonization of fat made headlines, and along with it, whipped up that familiar confusion about nutrition and people asking a very familiar question: what is actually the truth?
It’s a good question, an important question, and one which will likely keep researchers and dietitians busy for decades. But the thing that always strikes me about this question is who asks it, and who seems to feel most tormented over the fact that there are, seemingly, very few answers: usually a person who is neither a researcher or a dietitian.
I’ve met many people who appear to be engaged in a one-person mission to discover the universal truth of human nutrition by conducting a series of uncontrolled experiments on themselves. It’s a very human, and very noble, undertaking, but one that always strikes me with its futility. It also carries with it a great deal of stress, and a great burden of effort with very little promise of reward for its champion.
I am fully supportive of people who enjoy conducting nutritional experimentation on themselves, though I’m not one of them, and it’s not a lifestyle I would recommend. Some people view it as a hobby, and come away with a few insights into their own body’s workings, largely unscathed. But this isn’t true for everyone, and my own clients (some of whom are people Ellyn Satter referred to as “Dieting Casualties”) are a great source of information on why this is.
When the foundational workings of your relationship with food are not yet in place (the lower tiers of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs), it can actually be destructive to that relationship to place the burden of experimentation on top of it. Nutritional experiments reside in the very top of the Hierarchy of Food Needs, under the label of “instrumental food,” which means eating in a way that gets you some symbolic or health-related outcome.
Certainly people can make instrumental food choices without damaging their relationship to food — but not before the lower-order needs are fulfilled and stable.
The unfortunate thing is, the way nutrition is communicated in our culture and even from our established health authorities, “instrumental” food choices are usually front and center, before (and often instead of) any of the lower-order needs. Thus, most people, when they start to think about nutrition, try to begin from this point rather than working their way up to it.
This results in people who haven’t already established, for example, feeding themselves regularly — or who don’t have quite enough money to buy more expensive “instrumental” groceries, or who feel guilty and ashamed for taking pleasure in food, or who only have a handful of foods that they know how to eat and like — attempting to impose upon their eating habits completely new and burdensome food rules.
Which usually ends in spectacular “failure” a little way down the road. (I put “failure” in scare-quotes because it’s hard for me to view it as an actual failure when an arbitrary set of diet rules falls by the wayside — your body probably views it as an unqualified success, but to the person making the attempt, it is demoralizing all the same.)
The bigger issue, of course, is this: it is literally not your job to figure out the universal truth of nutrition. Unless you’re a researcher who has been funded to do this, not only is your sample size too small, but you run the very real risk of hurting yourself and destroying your relationship with food. Please remind yourself of this when the temptation to conduct yet another uncontrolled experiment comes your way.
You are not obligated to uncover, all by yourself, with your mouth and your body, what holds true for all people with regard to nutrition. Your only job is to feed yourself faithfully, get comfortable with food and your enjoyment of it, and then to find out what is true for you. The only universal rule of nutrition that I’ve discovered in my many years of studying and practicing it, aside from eat or die, is that humans are massively omnivorous and nutrition is extremely individual. Your truth will be different than someone else’s.
That’s okay. Your truth counts too.