How to achieve the perfect diet in one simple step - Change who you are
Beyond corporations, Syrians, or victims of sexual harassment, the group often getting the most attention on the news, is us Consumers. Apparently, our level of contentment or uncertainty can determine the success or failure of markets, and, so we are told, the wellbeing of nations.
But I think accepting this identity does us a great disservice, particularly when it comes to our relationship with what we eat. It implies we are passive entities receiving goods at the end of a ‘supply chain’ and our agency within the food system is limited to product selection. Although we are told our consumption choices can influence change by ‘sending a message to the market’, we cannot take part in curating the selection in the first place, which calls into question how much agency we really have.
But of much greater concern is the fact that as ‘consumers’ we’re encouraged to relinquish the responsibility of knowing about our food. We’re constantly reminded that modern life is demanding (true), we are extremely busy (probably less accurate than we believe), and that we don’t have time for the business of feeding ourselves (hm. Surely of all the things we need to do in a day, this is genuinely deserving of our attention.). Thankfully, there are plenty of friendly companies out there ready to relive us of that burden. We’re reassured that we can place our trust in those that regulate and supply markets, and that they will reliably provide us with good, healthy and convenient products.
This is true to a large extent, and the system that supplies the UK with vast amounts of food every day is something to be grateful for, respected and admired. But we must also bear in mind that that no company or individual producing food is operating as a charity, despite the pretty stories they might include on their packaging. As businesses, their first goal must be to make money, secondly to feed people.
The quest to minimize production costs very occasionally results in compromises to the health and integrity of what we eat. Since the industrial revolution there have been countless recorded cases of food fraud – bread flour being bulked out by chalk, whisked calves brains being used to thicken cream (the Victorians were particularly imaginative in this respect) and of course the infamous case of ‘Horsegate’ in 2013. And recently, high profile violations of animal welfare including the BSE outbreak of the early 1990’s which shook UK agriculture.
Accordingly, unsettling media reportage floods our screens, we grow more anxious about what we’re eating, less trustful of all actors within the food chain, and ultimately we’re left feeling pretty vulnerable. But what can we do? We’re busy consumers. We can’t all go back to the land and produce our own!
The next logical step is to seek guidance from someone trustworthy. There must be someone able to furnish us with simple guidelines that will help us navigate the treacherous supermarket aisles?
It is therefore no wonder that the ‘Wellness’ industry is flourishing. We are experiencing a veritable tidal-wave of recipe books promising the blueprint to ‘clean eating’ bliss, lifestyle blogs leading us to ultimate ‘gut health’, endless wellness apps and forums, all assuring us that happiness, inner peace and sculpted abs can be achieved if we just eat the “Right” food. And we are buying it, as evidenced by the plethora of hashtags assuring the “purity” of our #glutenfree #dairyfree #plantbased #cleaneating #vegan #veggie (#etc #adnauseam) lunch.
‘What’s so bad about that?’, you may well ask. Indeed, perhaps we should be celebrating the fact that vegetables have achieved Instagrammable status and that veganism is the biggest trending lifestyle choice. What could possibly be the harm in healthy eating craze?
Ostensibly, nothing. But some have found reason to question the conscience of this clear-complexioned industry. Most amusingly and infamously, the Angry Chef, using maximal expletives, highlights the lack of research and scientific underpinning behind health claims and trends that have boosted sales of previously obscure products such as acai berries and virgin coconut oil, often finding that data has been only partially understood or cherry picked. Yet, judging by the popularity of those whom he critiques, we don’t appear to think this is worth querying ourselves.
A great episode from the BBC Food Chain - “This Food Will Save Your Life*” – highlights this apparent gullibility, asking why we have so readily transferred our trust from one industry to another without applying a sensible level of criticality.
The programme relates how one con-artist was even able to convince millions that they had the key to curing terminal cancer through diet (‘and there’s an app for that, too’), and how unintended effects of the wellness industry have required creation of a new term - ‘orthorexia’ – to describe the increasingly common dysfunctional obsession with healthy eating.
In truth, I don’t think there is some conspiracy underlying the clean eating movement, nor that there is some nefarious mastermind trying to make us eat kale with an ulterior and sinister motive. Many of the contemporary health gurus probably do believe they are doing something of benefit for us.
What is problematic is the nutritionism that informs the whole movement – a reductionist approach that understands food simply as quantities of macro and micro-nutrients to be administered in optimum quantities to achieve specific results. Ben Goldacre is another famous critic of this approach in his book and blog, Bad Science.
The reality is that food is not a standardized, lifeless conduit of vitamins and minerals. It is a fascinating, complex and vital product of the natural and cultural world around us. Similarly, we are diverse beings whose biological, chemical, psychological and cultural complexities mean that no one diet could possibly be universally applied to any positive effect. The best diet for any human, is balanced and varied, responding to their sense of identity and culture, connecting them to where they are, and is ideally a positive and convivial part of an active, varied existence. However, this take on diet does not provide easily Tweetable nuggets of advice nor sell high-margin, novel products. This complexity is not easy to hold or sit with, but sit with it we must; because it is reality.
Willingness to uncritically adopt unsubstantiated dietary advice – no matter how well meaning that advice is - indicates we don’t feel food to be worth much thought. We are playing into the role of passive consumer perfectly - allowing ourselves to be seduced by vastly over-simplified approaches to the profoundly complex question of how to nourish ourselves. But we would do well to take care here, for as the old adage goes, we are what we eat. If we believe what we eat to be simply a reducible formula; pretty to Instagram, but not worth much thought, then we are only casting ourselves in the same light.
So, how can you achieve the perfect diet in one simple step?
Well, I would be disingenuous if I presented it as ‘simple’. But the first step in the right direction at least, is to refuse to be a consumer. Instead, as Julian Bagginni says, sapere aude - ‘dare to know’. Not only do you have an absolute right and a responsibility to know what you are eating, but you might also be pleasantly surprised by how fascinating and empowering it is to determine your own perfect diet.
Interested in exploring this more?
Come along to my workshop on Saturday 21st April and discuss recent research that suggests a new and fascinating way of thinking about healthy diets.