Nutrition month in Canada was recognised in March this year and much to my excitement, the theme was Unlock the Potential of Food! This gives me a great opportunity to talk about how much we should just enjoy eating, my favourite thing to talk about! There is a deeply warped perception of “healthy food” in this modern day. Mostly fueled by the desire for monetary gain rather than any convictions about the purported recommendations. One should definitely err on the side of long standing broad truths about nutrition rather than new narrow definitive statements about nutrition that start with “studies show”.
The metabolic processes in the human body are complex and varied. Fad diets that study small populations in uncontrolled settings are hardly proof of anything and are usually debunked in time. We’ve been through paleo diets, keto diets, intermittent fasting, no carbs, low protein and each have been promoted and refuted vigorously. Attempting to constrain and “fix” metabolic processes by eliminating a food group or finding the magic proportions is ignorant. A few truths do however remain and these truths encourage us to think about the nutritious value of one food versus another rather than “good” or “healthy” and “bad” or “unhealthy”, words that have been severely corrupted.
- Carbohydrates are fuel. Your body needs fuel for energy. Just like cars need gas (or electricity), our body needs sugar. Glucose is our body’s fuel and it comes from carbohydrates. You may get this in different forms. Some forms are more nutritious because they either give energy quickly, or for a longer time, or have other benefits. For instance, fruits are sugar, they are simple sugars that we can quickly convert to use as energy, they also have added benefits of vitamins and fibre. Complex carbohydrates like those from ground provisions or root vegetables like yam or sweet potatoes provide long lasting energy and heavy fibre that stretches our stomach to keep us full for a longer time. Items such as soft drinks or candy have the same sugars that we may use for energy, the simple sugars will break down quickly, making us eat more and more, they don’t offer any fibre therefore they don’t distend the stomach to keep us full, they don’t offer any vitamins or other nutrients and therefore can best be referred to as ’empty calories’. It’s not really about bad or good but instead, such foods are not nutritious. Sugar is good. Too much sugar damages your blood vessels and organs.
- Fat is good. Just like sugar is good, so is fat. Some of our most important vitamins, A, D, E and K cannot be dissolved into our blood without fat. They are termed fat-soluble vitamins. These vitamins help with our eyes, bones, skin and ensuring that we can clot when we bleed. Fat also gives us the largest amount of energy. This is why chocolate is such a great snack. Natural fats for lots of energy and loaded with minerals like iron and magnesium which are important for healthy cells and processing. Taste however should always be a factor in eating, thus why sugar is added to natural chocolate. It is the extent of the sugar added and other processing that one should be aware of. Semi-sweet chocolate with no added chemicals are a fine fat choice. Next on the benefits of fat list is its essentiality for our brain. Our brain loves fat and develops and functions best with it. Plant fats such as those found in avocado and olive oil have begun feeling acceptable now by pop culture. Interesting then that the fat in pork is basically identical to that in olive oil. Animal fats such as those in red meats continue to be frowned upon and this is partially justified. Too much of these saturated fats may lead to clogged arteries. But a broad statement that animal fat is bad is wrong. Certain animal fats (DHA) found in fish, chicken, turkey and lamb are immensely important for higher brain functioning especially during the developmental stage. DHA is best gotten from animals. Moderation remains the key. Fat is a nutrient, eat it.
- There is nothing wrong with animal products. Yes, cows produce methane which is bad for the atmosphere but this speaks to the necessity for moderation, not for the abolition of beef. Yes, exaggerated amounts of saturated fats in beef products over the long term can clog arteries, again, moderation. Yes, there is some hormonal injection of animals that are being reared, which is frowned upon by the pop culturists, but most of the claimed negative consequences remain unsubstantiated! None of these mention the amazing nutritious value of animal products. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, they form the structure of cells, muscles, nerves, organs, everything. We can get proteins from both plants and animals but only animal protein allows for maximum extraction of haem iron which we need for our red blood cells, the ones that carry the oxygen, the oxygen that we need to live. Some animal products hit many nutrients at one time. Cheese gets us protein, fat, vitamins and minerals all in one go! I’m not against vegetables as their fibre and water content keep our intestines healthy and their micronutrients optimise the functioning of our bodies. They also serve to fill the plate to help us avoid over-eating of other food categories. I am against the pretense that vegetables and animal products are comparable. They are both good but have different roles. Eat your your meat and vegetables!
Constraining nutrition because we believe that we have some absolute notion of how to control our body’s complex use of nutrients is delusional. Erring on the side of broad understanding of nutritional truths, maximising on your nutrients, eating a diverse range of foods, practising moderation, and of course being consistently active and committed to a regular exercise routine is best. Food should be enjoyed!