Rannoch Donald offers simple ways for people to stop perpetuating the harmful cycle of fad diets, and start taking the power back for their own health.
I am no Luddite. I never cease to be amazed that we can share our thoughts across the ether at the touch of a button. Were it not for the power of the Internet you wouldn’t be reading these words right now. But somewhere between the Antarctic and the Internet we have become disconnected from the very ground we walk upon.
We are here because we adapt. It’s not about the strongest or the fittest, it is because we adapt. From the icy North Pole to the sweltering Serengeti, we have evolved to survive in the most inhospitable places on the planet. The Maasai live mainly on a diet of fermented milk, blood, bark and honey. The Inuit meanwhile consume over fifty percent of their calories from fat in the form of seal, whale and cold water fish. Yet stick us in a city and we seem to head to the nearest fast food joint (I can’t bring myself to call them restaurants) and quickly become obese and Diabetic. Adapting to the current western industrial diet may just be too big an ask.
Simple daily rituals that make up the foundation of many cultures have been eroded over time. Acts of sharing and inclusion have become single-serving solo pursuits. Activities that should bring us together with a sense of joy, wellbeing and connection have become tasks to be completed. Lunch – check, gym – check, meditation – check…
Perhaps there was a time when we really believed we were time poor and cash rich. Now, in the current climate, so many of us seem resigned to just being poor: poor health, poor sleep, poor food choices. We need to take a step back a look at the lifestyle we’ve bought in to. In truth, health, wellness, diet, these are life skills, not commodities.
When people talk about health and fitness the same few issues consistently crop up. People want to lose weight, have more energy and feel less stressed. None of these are separate issues. The food you eat affects your energy levels which directly affect your mental well-being which in turn affects the food choices you make, and so cycle continues. You are your own ecosystem. And the best person to tend that particular system is you.
In our desire to hack health and outsource wellbeing we turn to the internet, a sprawling labyrinth of unfiltered information. It doesn’t have to be accurate to be out there. And like all the best team games, everyone gets a chance to play and all opinions are welcome. The fact is, if you know how string a sentence together and cut and paste, you can pretty much build an audience of admirers for whatever takes your fancy. Caveat Lector.
Nowhere is there more static than in the world of weight loss and diet. We have companies offering the fast track to weight loss, simply by replacing a couple of meals a day with their proprietary shakes, with marketing that even goes as far as to tell you that exercise is optional. Alternatively you can buy calorie-counted ready meals with lists of ingredients that would be more at home in a pharmacy. So you buy the products, lose the weight and then what? It’s a physiological sleight of hand. You could replace those two shakes with chocolate milk, those ready meals with smaller portions of your regular TV dinners and get pretty much the same results. But nothing has changed…your behaviour is the same.
In an effort to “eat right” we turn to the diet of the day. And if the current one does not work, don’t worry there will be another one along soon. There are a couple of contenders at present. In the blue corner we have the Paleo movement. It is no longer just a diet, it’s a movement. The premise is simple; eat as your ancestors ate. But since most of the produce you buy in the supermarket (or farmers market for that matter) has only been around a few thousand years, that is not really practical. But then they will tell you it’s the concept that matters. No grains, limited dairy, no legumes. So we can eat fruits which have only been around a couple of hundred years, vegetables that have been cross bred and created to be palatable and as much meat as we like? And yet I struggle to find Paleo fans singing the praises of liver, kidneys, heart and all the other organ meats that would have been considered choice cuts, let alone making nettle soup and eating dandelions.
In the red corner we have Intermittent Fasting. Which is simply not eating for the day. That’s it. In a nutshell. Yes, I know there are several books out telling you how to do it but you can save yourself the money. There is even a recipe book but forgive me if I can’t see the logic there. There is plenty of research that occasional fasting does indeed help people lose weight. It’s called not eating. The big hook here is the suggestion that when you are not fasting you can eat whatever you like. Great, another tick in the win column. Pass me another slice of pizza…
Personally, I fast a few times a month. I simply stop eating after an evening meal and skip breakfast and lunch the following day. I drink coffee, green tea and water, and if I am uncomfortably hungry I eat something. Fasting for me is nothing more than an opportunity for the body to rest. Since we live in a culture of convenience, taking the opportunity to listen to the body’s natural rhythms and needs is a great way to understand the difference between hunger, thirst and plain old boredom.
Think about this for a moment: Atkins, The Zone, The South Beach Diet, Weight Watchers, Dukan, Visalus, Raw Food, every diet out there works by exclusion. Remove the offending items from the menu and you will lose weight. So, replace two meals each day with Cuppa Soup or ramen noodles, or eat cereal for breakfast and lunch. Yeah, that works. You could eliminate all fruits and vegetables, that works too. The list of nutritional Nazism is endless. Yes you can lose weight, water, muscle and no doubt some fat. Whatever restriction you are on, you can rest assured that your body is doing everything in its power to preserve whatever energy you have. Once the weight falls off you can reward yourself with all the things you’ve been denied and as soon as you take your foot off the brake it will bounce back with a vengeance. But diets are like cabs, there will be another on along any minute.
Vested interests want you to believe there is some arcane knowledge wrapped up in all this but it’s three card monte, just when you think you have everything you need they switch the cards. But the solution to the “diet” issue is actually really simple. Don’t do it. Learn to cook your own meals from locally sourced, seasonal produce where possible. Or as Michael Pollan says “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much…and cook them”.
Cooking is not an imposition, it is a skill. Preparing food for the people you care about and equally for yourself is an act of respect and love. There is nothing you can buy in a packet or box, to be boiled in a bag or nuked in a microwave that can compare nutritionally, financially or emotionally with the food you make yourself.
Forget the food porn on TV, forget the cook books from celebrity chefs and Michelin restaurants, forget the lists of exclusions and superfoods. Get a decent cook book that doesn’t involve buying exotic ingredients that you can only use in one recipe (I recommend Fitter Foods for wonderfully simply recipes and Michael Pollan’s Cooked which looks at the history and social and cultural significance of cooking). Real cooking focuses on the best of ingredients, raw and local, prepared with the minimum of fuss. It is perfectly possible to make a meal with four ingredients (Excluding seasoning…gimme a break). Get a steamer, roast a chicken, try something different. Experiment. When you cook your own food even the worst kitchen disaster can taste surprisingly good.
All diets eventually become extinct. Yes, even Paleo. We evolve, we adapt. As long as we are cooking we are doing the best thing we can for our health. Cooking is a skill, eating mindfully is a pleasure, sharing a meal is a gift. Drop the dogma and pick up a kitchen knife.
Lead Photo: Flickr/ebruli