When you hear, or see, the word ‘diet’ what immediately springs to mind? Probably a way of losing weight by depriving yourself of all the foods you love!
It’s the same with ‘healthy eating’ - your brain will picture lentils, brown rice and loads of vegetables.
It needn’t be like that. In fact, it shouldn’t be like that. But we have been brainwashed by so many fads, bonkers ideas, and assertions that we should all look a certain way, that we have forgotten WHY we actually eat in the first place…and that is to NOURISH our bodies and brains. The fact something tastes good is an added bonus.
A lot of the food promoted as ‘healthy’ in the UK (and US) gained the badge of ‘being good for us’ purely because that’s what the manufacturers want us to believe. Most of us want to feel that we are doing things to make us fit, strong, and healthy, so manufacturers and advertisers tell us that eating x,y,z will do so…and we fall for their clever images and campaigns.
One of the biggest fallacies of all, the one that says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, actually stems from the late 19th , early 20th century America and one John Harvey Kellogg - yes, the inventor of cornflakes began the morning breakfast myth! Up until then breakfast (literally break the fast) was a hit and miss affair consisting of whatever was available in the house - often (in pre. fridge days) that would mean whatever was left over from the previous day’s meals, eaten cold and before it could go off. Things that were preserved, like bacon, or available fresh on the day, bread, and eggs (from one’s own hens) were also popular. BUT there was no set idea of when and what you ate for the first meal of the day.
Along came Mr Kellogg (and one James Caleb Jackson, who actually created the first breakfast cereal) both religious health guru’s, Seventh Day Adventists who believed in a life of ‘hard work and Christian morality’. They sold the idea that a lighter breakfast, thus an emptier tummy, helped people work harder, be more efficient and productive, and the burgeoning manufacturing sector jumped on this idea. The western world’s love of cereals in the morning stems from then, there is no evidence to back up Kellogg’s claims at all.
Unfortunately for our waistbands, gut and general health, Kellogg’s became a hugely successful manufacturer of cereals with massive financial clout.
Which leads neatly onto the next myth we have all been led to believe - that of the food pyramid, you know, the triangle showing us what we’re supposed to eat for a healthy life.
The first food pyramid came from Sweden in the 1970s, designed in response to soaring food prices to show the country’s citizens how to make their food eke out for longer whilst still being healthy. At the bottom of that triangle were the cheaper basic foods, bread, grains, milk, potatoes - fillers if you like. Up a layer were fresh fruits and vegetables, then at the very top meats and fish. Looking at that first food pyramid though, what is striking is that everything is natural and unprocessed, even the bread it shows looks like a brown (wholemeal) unsliced, homemade loaf!
America got hold of this original idea and in 1992 produced their own version. BUT it looks substantially different. White bread, rice, cereals and pasta dominate the bottom row of the now four layer pyramid, with a recommended consumption of 6 to 11 portions per day (that is a LOT of carbohydrates!). Milk and dairy suddenly moves up to the second from top level, alongside protein rich foods such as meat and fish, making dairy appear to be an essential part of a healthy diet (it’s not). And at the apex is a new category labelled ‘fats, oils, sweets’.
One of the people involved in creating the US food pyramid, a nutritionist, is cited as saying, “When our version of the Food Guide came back to us revised, we were shocked to find that it was vastly different from the one we had developed.” She lays the blame for this squarely at the feet of the influential (i.e. wealthy) food industry. Wordings were changed to emphasise processed foods, and to keep the wheat growers happy, the recommended servings of cereals and grains vastly increased, and baked products made with white flour, sugar and fats were included in the bottom layer.
Much of our understanding (or not) of how to eat well, stems from that American food pyramid, and look how obesity and related diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes has soared since the 80s and 90s when processed food stuffs became a part of our day to day food intake.
The third myth, and one also supported by the food industry, is ‘fat makes us fat’. It doesn’t. Neither does it (by itself) cause cholesterol to rise…and there’s another fallacy, cholesterol isn’t bad, it’s a natural and required component in our bodies, we need it to build cells and make vitamins and hormones! It’s unbalanced levels of HDL and LDL (‘good and bad’) coupled with high levels of triglycerides that can cause problems, and there is no evidence that eating fat (even saturated fat) causes this unbalance.
Human’s need fat. Full stop. What we don’t need is sugar packed low fat versions of anything. Now that doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to gnaw on a pound of best butter, but using things like olive oil, other natural oils, and butter, in our meals is far more healthy than ultra-processed low fat spreads, yoghurts and the like.
If we want to improve our health and wellbeing through the foods we eat, we need to go back to basics…literally! We need to stop relying on processed shop bought foods and start learning to cook from scratch again. Cakes, sweets, chocolates and take outs need to become occasional treats not daily occurrences. We need to limit our alcohol, up our intake of fresh leafy green vegetables (at least half a plateful at every meal) and eat wholegrain breads instead of white sliced.
We need to have a food pyramid of our own, in our heads at least. At the bottom of that triangle should be vegetables; up a layer, lean meats, fish, other protein sources and unprocessed fat; up another layer wholegrain breads, rice, pasta etc, plus dairy, and at the very top, a tiny amount of ‘treat foods’.
Bottom line, enjoy your food but make sure it is giving your body what it needs - not what a manufacturer tells you it does!
On a personal note, my other half and I have followed this more Mediterranean approach to eating since September 2020 (with a small break over Christmas, which we both regretted) and I’ve lost over two stone, and him three without ever feeling deprived. In terms of health benefits he has reversed his Type 2 Diabetes, we both have masses more energy, and those aching creaking joints have stopped aching and creaking!