I've spent 4 1/2 years studying Diet and Nutrition to come to the conclusion that the more intuitively we eat, the better. Western countries (mainly the UK, the US and Australia) have tended to try and quantify and calculate how much we should eat, how much exercise we should do, label food with how many calories or kilojoules is in a serve, and have ended up with populations that are increasingly overweight or obese, chronically unwell, and have an incredibly messed up relationship with food. Countless people have eating disorders of all kinds (whether diagnosed or not) - the Butterfly Foundation estimate that 1 million Australians have a diagnosed Eating Disorder, while my guess is a fair few more have a dysfunctional relationship with food. When around 35% of the population is obese, not all of it can be blamed on sedentary lifestyles, bad genes, too much sugar or just not knowing how to cook. But I digress...
It is complex - our food environment is appalling. A quick wander through any supermarket reveals a plethora of packaged foods that are energy dense and nutrient poor. Likewise, a stroll through most busy shopping centres/precincts or food courts shows a similar story - fast food that sells. I guess the market provides what the consumer demands.
But at the same time there is so much confusion about what one needs to do to be healthy. I find this really interesting now, as I was a really overweight child and teenager in the 80's and 90's, when it was quite uncommon to for kids to be overweight, and I was teased incessantly. So much so that I did everything to lose that extra weight, and in turn, have tried to understand why our culture has got it SO wrong. Because food is such a fundamental aspect of human functioning (without food we die), I believe that our cultures attitude to food underlies some of the serious social issues our society is facing today. We are becoming so fractured as a society, so self-absorbed, so anxious, operating at a pace that is frantic, frenetic, never stopping, eating on the run, grabbing a coffee and muffin on our way to work and eating at our desk. If we do think about diet we think we need to quantify and weigh food, add it up on a smart phone, count each calorie, go for a quick jog in our lunch break and log it and calculate each calorie to make sure we're expending more than we're taking in.
Then there's this whole movement of functional foods - margarines that help you absorb less cholesterol, broccoli sprout powder that might decrease your chances of developing cancer, acai berries and goji berries that possibly do something (I can't remember what...). You might be interested to know that margarine is grey before they dye it yellow, and perhaps the sulforaphane in broccoli requires all the other phytonutrients to work synergistically with it to be any use. But I digress again....
When thinking about cultures that have got it right, i.e. have lived long, healthy lives, have healthy relationships with food, and have strong family relationships, you can't look much further than the Mediterranean cultures. There are many, so defining "The Mediterranean Diet" could be difficult, but it really comes down to some broad principles.
- Lots of Seasonal Vegetables and Fruits,
- Lots of legumes and unprocessed grains (no white flour products allowed!!),
- A fair amount of fish,
- A moderate amount of poultry,
- A little bit of red meat (1-2 times per week)
- Low fat dairy - mainly fermented (i.e yoghurt)
- About 1L of Olive oil per week,
- Alcohol (as red wine mainly) consumed with meals
- Minimal sweets (if any - really only on special occasions)
But the thing that stands out about the Mediterranean Diet(s) is not so much the food, but the culture(s) around it. There is so much happiness, and enjoyment, and appreciation of food. The love for food and what it signifies - usually bringing together family - and the love they have for each other. Recipes are nearly always "family treasures". There is a "slowness" about Mediterranean cooking and eating, an earthiness that is lacking in the Australian approach to food. The Mediterraneans don't count calories or portion out their meals - they don't need to. Because they eat a huge amount of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables, with a minimal amount of processed food, they don't need to worry about counting calories. They are getting a huge amount of fibre and nutrients with a minimal amount of energy and able to eat intuitively, so have no need to worry about the energy content. Because they're not eating food out of tins, bottles or packets, they don't need to worry about sodium, trans fats or added sugars, so it's no wonder they have the lowest incidence of heart disease in the world. Yet they consume 1L of Olive oil a week.
When you think of Greek, Italian, and Turkish families eating, you also associate it with singing, dancing, and laughing. Often they have grown much of they are eating, and there is a sense that in these cultures there is a deep appreciation for nature, the land, and the environment. Nothing is ever wasted - what is not eaten now is preserved and bottled. In these cultures, food not only nourishes the body, it nourishes the soul, the mind, the family, and relationships.
As I said, after 4 1/2 years of studying Diet and Nutrition, I have come to the conclusion that Intuitive eating is the way to go. However, Intuitive eating needs to be based on a good model, with some good support structures in place to help you/us get started. I believe my own eating disorder grew out of a culture that is so at odds with itself when it comes to what is really important in life. I think we all know (deep down, somewhere) that our health and our relationships are the most important things to us, but we seem to do everything else but things to nurture our health and our relationships. From my observation (and experience), food is central to both - when my eating disorder has been at its' worst my health and relationships have suffered the most.
Catherine Itsiopoulos has written 2 great books - "The Mediterranean Diet" and "The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook" if you need somewhere to start. They only really give ideas as to recipes though.