There has been more chatter than normal of late about whether diets are actually good for your soul, thanks to a recent book by Great British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh, Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want.
The marketing promises a ‘radical manifesto that takes the guilt out of eating and puts the pleasure back in’, while one celebrity reviewer claims it will ‘give you more nourishment and wellness - not to mention waffles - than any number of clean eating books.’
It does bring up the question: ”What should we be eating for health and happiness?“ As a nutritional therapist and health coach, I can answer that easily for you right now. Eat in a way that balances your blood sugar at least 80% of the time, focussing on whole foods like fish, meat, lentils and pulses, lots of veg and salad, a little fruit, and small amounts of rice, potatoes and pasta. BUT (and it is a big but) for any healthy lifestyle plan to work in the long term, it has to be sustainable, and that means not only easy to follow but enjoyable. And the truth is, cutting out entire food groups and never having the scope for a glass of wine or a piece of birthday cake is a recipe for disaster.
The sad truth is that we have fallen out of love with real food, and we no longer trust ourselves to know what to eat any more.
It all started when an American scientist called Ancel Keys had in mind to test a hypothesis that eating fat gave you heart disease. He looked at data from 22 countries, ditched three quarters of the countries’ data because it didn't fit with his theory and – ta, da! – that’s how that old chestnut came into being.
Then … a study on rabbits was published that showed when rabbits were given cholesterol, it furred up their arteries and they died. Of course they did. They were rabbits and they normally only ever ate plants (which do not contain cholesterol).
And that is how we got to fear fat. Fat was blamed for giving us heart disease and also for making us fat (not helped by the fact that in English, the word for the fat you eat and the unwanted body inches is the same). That Keys guy, by the way, quite some time ago announced that, whoops, the data didn't stack up.
The damage was done. Governments from around the world started making this fat hatred policy, leading to the big food manufacturers coming in to ‘save’ us with their fat free, ‘healthier’ versions of the food that we had likely been eating without undue problems for millennia. And once the money is involved, good luck with getting any government policy changed.
But there is something else going on, too. We are so time poor that rewarding ourselves with treat foods like cake and biscuits is the easiest way to show ourselves some self love. My experience in running a nutrition clinic is that so little of why we eat what we eat has to do with nourishing our body (regardless of whether we believe anti-fat propaganda or not). The far greater part is to do with how we feel about ourselves and about life in general. Eating half a packet of chocolate biscuits is much easier than figuring out – not to mention getting – what we really need, which might be a way to de-stress, feel loved, get attention, kick back our heels and even sleep. We are almost completely out of touch with our own bodies.
When I’m working with clients, we focus a great deal on lifestyle and mindset because it is a critical factor in deciding whether we make healthy food choices. Simple fact: if you feel stressed or miserable, the chocolate biscuits are always going to win – unless you have a plan in place for dealing with those things.
Pepper this with a heavy dose of guilt – because many people know what they should be eating (and don’t get me started on ‘should’) – and it’s easy to end up making food decisions based on a crazily long list of rationales. Eat the damn chocolate cake and move on! Choose the cake. Then stop the conversation you’re having in your head about it. Eating a slice of cake is not the end of the world. Do not get all ‘what the heck, I might as well eat the whole damn thing’.
My passion is to spread the word that eating real food to nourish the body and soul is both desirable and achievable. And you can have cake. Really you can. Just not as often as you might be having it now. Find other ways to feel what you need to feel. Consider ways to polish your self care. I guarantee you are not doing enough. Just as relationship gurus advocate not looking to another person for happiness, the chocolate biscuits won’t make you happy either and you know that. Enjoy the theatre and magic of cooking and eating foods you love and that love you back. Then read a book, go on a long walk via a country pub, swim, dance, sing … Whatever floats your boat.