Steering through the diet minefield
How can I know what diet is good for me?
The information on what you should or should not eat is VERY confusing.
Even the experts disagree!
Some reasons are:
- that each person has unique digestive needs
- research in this area is very difficult
- anyone can get away with selling fanciful theories to people who are worried
- diet stories sell newspapers and magazines: many people are desperate for anything!
When you come across a new diet theory or article the most useful first response is probably to say:
“I don’t believe it”!
It probably does not apply to you.
Only after close examination and it still looks relevant should you check further.
What you CAN believe
There are only a few diet principles widely supported by experts – and even these have exceptions.
- When you eat more calories than are burnt off you gain weight.
- Reducing salt will help reduce high blood pressure (in most people).
- You need a certain amount of essential vitamins and minerals (mostly obtained from a healthy diet although recommended levels are also argued over).
- It is better to have more fibre than in the average modern diet (though too much of the wrong fibre can upset some people).
- You should have plenty of vegetables and fruit (though ‘five portions a day’ was a guess rather than based on rational calculation – it may sometimes be too little!).
- Eating processed meat like bacon, ham, sausages, salami (that contain extra nitrites and nitrates) raises the risks of cancer. These risks are probably moderate and are likely to be reduced by higher fruit and vegetable consumption.
- It is better to have complex carbohydrates (like wholemeal bread, whole cereals, and vegetables) than simple sugars. Foods that generate rapid increases of sugar levels in the blood (refined carbohydrates and other ‘high glycaemic’ foods) stress insulin responses and contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart and circulatory diseases.
The enjoyment ingredient
Above all else food should be satisfying. Its main purpose has always been to keep hunger at bay, and humans have been good at eating almost anything that will do that. For most people, for most of time, the best food has been any that you can get!
So the first level of enjoyment is to satisfy hunger. For most people, even today, eating is a simple and honest necessity and the value of food is how well it fills up. As long as there is good physical activity and the food is not too processed or damaged this type of eating rarely causes problems.
A second level of satisfaction is to feed you emotionally. You can see this in most traditional communities and among country people. Here eating is almost a ritual, it may become a time to reflect on the bounty of nature, to ‘give grace’, to relish the tastes and textures in well-made food, to appreciate your efforts if you produce the food yourself, or to mark the stages of the day. It can even be a spiritual or sacramental affair. The Slow Food movement recaptures these approaches in modern times.
Thirdly eating is a great means of communication. The word ‘companion’ literally means one who shares bread, and the best eating is done in ‘company’. A cake or glass of wine taken with others is probably healthier than one grabbed in front of the TV.
For some however eating fills a gap somewhere else, a sadness, low mood or anxiety, loneliness or boredom. Here food tends to be faster, with more sugar and fat to give quick satisfaction. This enjoyment may not be so healthy.