© Kat Morgenstern March 2008, all rights reserved.
Are you eating wheatgrass, drinking Aloe Vera juice or maybe Noni, eating macrobiotic, or strictly fruitarian? The world is full of food fads. Every bookshop stocks at least a shelf full of diet books and popular women's magazines talk about little else. Diets, in their innumerable permutations occupy our minds and thought processes to quite an unbelievable extend. Elsewhere - in fact, in far too many places the world over - food is only thought of in connection with alleviating starvation. Food fads, nutrition and world food security are enormous issues laden with complexities.
Although there has been much talk recently about food shortages that will become a new threat in the near future, Supermarkets are bursting at the seems with food stuffs in all shapes and sizes. Only a relatively small section occupies fruits and vegetables from around the world, while the rest is dedicated to colourful packages that contain processed foods - inventions of a food industry that profits from our lack of time, lack of knowledge and lack of interest in the foods that sustain us.
Most of these processed foods have labels with long lists of scary sounding words and numbers, which few people take the time to decode. Thus, a simpler system has been devised to indicate the 'health index' of various food items. Foods are categorized as 'heart friendly' for example, or 'diet suitable'. Fat free, sugar free, cholesterol free, preservative free etc. - labels that make consumers think that these items must be good for them, because we have all been conditioned to believe that 'fat etc. is bad'. And in the 'thou shalt not eat fat/sugar/chocolate etc' circles this belief provides a great hook for guilt complex projections.... oh, it is so sweet to sin - feel the guilt and do it anyway...
But only a much more detailed investigation reveals what has been added to these foods to compensate - hydrogenated vegetable oils, aspartame and innumerable chemicals, custom made in a laboratory, designed to imitate the flavour of REAL good, wholesome food. (But generally falling far short of their promise.)
Whether the endless flow of articles on diets and food fads that fill just about every mainstream magazine reflects or fuels the national obsession may be a topic worth investigating, but the fact is that the 'diet industry' is booming to the tune of $40 billion a year. A shocking number of people are obsessed with their diet. One third of the US female population and one fifth of the male population are dieting at any one time, despite the fact that diets are often very confusing, contradictory and ineffective. Never mind that the weight (if lost at all) is back within a year, or even sooner. One can always try a different diet - there are enough of them to try, ad infinitum.
The fear of getting fat has become a major stress factor among young girls, leading to ridiculous self-negating diet regimes that are actually extremely harmful to their development. The average age of first time dieters has dropped from 14 to just 8 in the last 30 years! What is wrong with our food habits?
There are many factors that influence our food choices. One major factor is social conditioning. In the western world, food abounds - everywhere, at all times. The nearest hot dog or Burger, or ice cream or convenience store is never more than a few miles away, unless you live in the boonies. Yet, we eat as if we continuously feared that there will never be another meal: too much, too often, and worst of all, all the wrong stuff. Even if we spend 80% of our waking hours in a sedentary position, we eat as if we were planning on digging a tunnel through the Rockies singlehandedly.
In the US especially, good value is often equated with quantity, rather than quality. Thus a huge plate full of nutritionally empty food is perceived as a good value deal, whereas a smaller plate of organic food at a higher price would be considered 'a rip off'. Ironically, astronomical amounts of money are spent on various diet foods and formulae to get rid off the excess empty carbohydrates of such 'value meals'.
It seems as though we can no longer hear or feel even our own bodies' messages. We eat according to a set schedule, whether we are hungry or not, and if we center business or social meetings around food (as is so often the case) then chances are we eat much more than we actually need or want.
Ignoring the body's messages and subjecting it to the rules of the latest diet craze has become part of our culture. So, what lies at the bottom of this food fad/diet mystery? Is there such a thing as 'the best diet'? Authorities are in a constant squabble over what is right and what is wrong and that which was touted as the best, healthiest and scientifically correct diet just a few years ago inevitably is disproved a few years down the road - only to give rise to a new diet craze.
At the base of all these problems lies a fundamental misconception regarding the body itself. The scientific model regards the body as a machine and food as the fuel that is needed to run that machine. Likewise, food is broken down into constituent parts - carbohydrates, fat, protein etc. This suggests the erroneous idea that nutrition can be reduced to a simple formula based on average needs. But life is not that simple. We are not machines, but organisms and our bodies don't all work the same. One person can sustain themselves on a diet of fat without ever getting fat, while another only has to look at real butter to feel their waist size increase. Some people can't tolerate certain foods, even if these are deemed healthy while others can eat just about anything without any apparent ill effect.
Food allergies are a real and growing problem too, even though some still think 'it is all in the mind'. More than likely the causes are related to the proliferation of gene manipulated and transgenic organisms that now adulterate most of our staple foods and pollute the environment, as well as excessive use of pesticides and other agro- and petrochemicals. But blanket statements such as 'wheat or peanuts, or milk etc is bad for you', are nonsense. Some people can't tolerate them, and for them such 'allergenic' food items can be very bad, and even dangerous. Everybody's intolerances are different and each individual needs to become aware of their own limitations. Nor do food intolerances always stay the same. Sometimes people adapt and can suddenly tolerate foods they were previously allergic to, or, vice versa, develop sensitivity towards foods that never used to bother them.
The secrets of the perfect diet are simple: Listen to your body, enjoy your food, don't be tyrannized by social norms and food conventions and try to eat your food as unadulterated as possible - fresh, organically grown produce, rather than pre-cooked, processed or 'instant' meals. And, everything in moderation - even an occasional piece of chocolate cream cake doesn't do much harm - just don't make it a daily habit.
And finally - do make it a habit to include physical activity in your daily routine.
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