A new study just came out about salt. It seems that too little salt in your diet can actually kill you. Yet we’re also supposed to keep worrying about too much salt, because that, in turn, leads to stroke and heart attacks. The U.S. dietary guidelines last week also reversed course about cholesterol — the cholesterol in eggs, shrimps and liver has now been given the green light.
Great, I say, I’m happy to flush all those egg-white omelets down the toilet. But for those of us who follow this sort of thing, what’s going on here? Butter was bad, now it’s OK. Sugar is the very devil, but acceptable in moderation, and not nearly as bad for you as Saccharin or some of the other artificial sweeteners. Alcohol is a killer, except red wine, because that’s good for our hearts. Olive oil used to be good for you, but now a report comes out warning that it is less chemically stable than butter or lard, and can therefore be harmful when heated. After trying to follow the impossible recommendation to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, I’m told that too much water can lead to excessive perspiration, water intoxication and death!
I can’t help feeling I’m just a guinea pig in some giant uncontrolled experiment. What is it about all these studies that makes me take them seriously over and over again, in the face of all evidence that they’ll be debunked at some future date? In spite of the plentiful advice about what to eat and what to avoid, the sad truth is that obesity, eating disorders, diabetes and heart disease are on the rise. What does it say about us, that we are so ready to silence our own innate sense of what is good for us, and excoriate ourselves for not following the ups and downs of every contradictory guideline?
In the Berkshires it is rare for a group of friends to get together for a meal without having to take into account a host of restrictions. There’s the gluten debacle, lactose intolerance, the carbohydrate taboo; one doesn’t eat meat, the other won’t touch fish. Nuts are an increasingly deadly scourge. Pregnant women steer clear of potatoes, and the rest of us avoid raw eggs and rare beef because of the salmonella lurking in every bite.
In the interest of full disclosure, my problem is strawberries — they make my skin break out. Unlike mine, some of those conditions are extremely serious, and it is not my intention to make fun of them. Food allergies are on the rise, and the way our food is being processed is increasing the danger of toxins. But along with these real dangers comes an escalating fear of food that is, it seems to me, just as problematic. We are boxing ourselves into a corner when it comes to basic sustenance. It’s easy to start eating in an unnatural way —obsessing about certain ingredients, making yourself force down too much of one thing or too little of another, instead of following what is probably the best advice of all: everything in moderation.
I am no scientist. I’m no psychologist either. But if I can make a guess, what it all boils down to, in the end, is guilt. Isn’t it human nature to find something to beat yourself up about? Now that most sexual prohibitions are overturned, our carnal trespasses largely forgiven or condoned, food may be the most accessible and convenient target. By equating certain foods with sinning, the food-industrial-medical-scientific complex is doing us a quasi-religious favor by pinning the blame for all that ails us on what we eat.
I can’t help thinking that the time and money put into these food studies would be better spent on making healthy foods more widely available. Here in the Berkshires we are fortunate to have access to wonderfully fresh, local ingredients, thanks to the hard work of idealistic farmers and providers who know what’s good and what isn’t. Staying away from processed food is easier when you have such an array of healthy alternatives to choose from. Organizations like Berkshire Grown and Share the Bounty are on a mission to make sure our local farmers keep farming, and to help provide fresh, unadulterated produce to those struggling to make ends meet.
So — enough with the food-pyramids and the nutrition admonitions. Don’t tell me how many glasses of this or ounces of that I’m supposed to consume, or the dire consequences if I don’t. From now on I am going to listen to what my own body is telling me — which foods it finds satisfying, restorative, and palatable — and close my ears to the noise of the experts touting yet another life-changing breakthrough. Chances are it won’t be long before I turn on the news and find out they were only crying wolf.