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What's for dinner?

What's for dinner?

By Linda Emslie on 22 June 2016
What's for dinner?

I get asked this question with monotonous regularity and it often makes me cringe. This isn't just because food is the last thing on my mind at that particular point in time. It's because food has become such a contentious issue. Apart from meeting the nutritional needs of my fussy kids, the whole picture around food is cloudy, emotive and unsettling.

People are becoming so much more aware of what they are putting into their bodies and what impact those choices can have. And they are often quite passionate about their own "foodie" point of view. Particularly hot topics for debate in my world recently include:

  • Sugar
  • Grains
  • Vegan-ism
  • Sustainability
  • Political agendas

When I’m asked, “What’s for dinner?” there seems to be so much more to consider than what’s in the cupboard. As a massage therapist and a mother of four I have some understanding of the importance of food. I can see the effects of certain lifestyle choices in the bodies of my clients.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I’ve also experienced the effects of lifestyle choices in my own body, and witnessed (or should I say endured) the effects of certain foods in the reactions my kids have had to things. What I’m saying is, I’m not a nutritionist, but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on the above bullet points.

Sugar

There is way too much sugar in the Western diet. In an effort to increase market share and profits, food manufacturers are catering to our society’s sugar addiction and including it in larger amounts than necessary. As a result we are getting sick — obesity, diabetes — these are the familiar ones. Research has also shown that many cancers love sugar too. A diet high in sugar not only feeds our addiction, it is literally feeding our diseases.

I’m not saying sugar is evil. But I do believe that the continued oversupply and overuse of sugar is evil, and has major health implications.

Grains

This is another topic of hot debate. Why do grains occupy such a prominent place in our food pyramid? (Why do we even have a food pyramid? But that’s a thought for a whole other blog article … maybe).

I attended a seminar a couple of years ago, run by the now Vice President of my professional association, The Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS). He was very passionate, in fact I’d go so far as to say evangelical, about the need to ditch grains from our diet.

Stephen Eddey, the VP of ATMS, argues the case against grains along these lines:

  • Grains have only been a part of our diet for the last 10,000 years. We have not had sufficient time for our bodies to evolve to a point where we can properly metabolise grains.
  • When grains are digested and absorbed, the carbohydrate molecules are broken down to — sugar, which is then stored as fat. He likens eating 200g of pasta to eating 150g of sugar.
  • Our endocrine system (the hormone system) is put under stress by grain consumption, causing problems ranging from appetite and blood sugar regulation, to the balanced production of sex hormones.
  • Increasing grain (carbohydrate) consumption while reducing fat intake has been shown to increase the level of fat in the blood.
  • Overall, grain consumption, particularly when highly processed and combined with sugar, contributes to the increasing incidence of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

My take on this? Move grains to the top of your food pyramid; make them a small part of your diet. If you want to and you can, give them up. But don’t make yourself feel deprived in doing so. Check out how it feels in your body. Run a little experiment and give up grains for a period of time, say 2-3 months. Then reintroduce grains. Did it make any difference? Just remember, when you remove something from your diet it takes a little while to adjust. You may feel dreadful for a while.

If you’re thinking about making major changes in your diet, check in with your health practitioner first — just to be safe.

Veganism

A colleague of mine has recently become vegan, and I am a in awe of her passion and transformation. She appears to have made this change as a stance against cruelty to animals, as well as making more healthful eating choices.

I have to confess to feeling very mixed whenever the vegan-debate comes around. Yes I am 100% for stamping out animal cruelty. There are some insanely inhumane practices taking place around the globe. And not all of these are restricted to farming!

And yet, having spent time as a vegetarian in my early 20s I have learned the bitter truth that my body functions better with some animal protein on board. So I am walking that precarious tight-rope of being for animal rights and yet I still eat animals. Does this make me a hypocrite, or a realist? I like to think I’m a realist: that by making conscious choices about my food, that I’m doing my bit to instigate change.

For those of us who do choose to eat meat, the least we can do is be mindful of our sources. Has the animal had a decent life? Is it being “produced” in an ethical and sustainable manner? Do we need to eat as much meat as we currently do? I can’t guarantee to get it right 100% of the time, but I can strive to be informed, and educate my children and those around me to pay attention to what they choose to eat. To make decisions that support ethical, equitable and sustainable production of our food animals.

Sustainability

This is a biggie, and one I’m not overly qualified to talk too much on. All I know is the food industry (fast food, highly processed packaged food etc) is geared solely toward making us buy more. By setting profit-making as the number one goal, the food industry, and we as consumers, have lost sight of the fact that our appetites are too big for our planet.

Even the “experts” have had cause recently to reconsider our approach to eating. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) released a draft revision of the Australian Dietary Guidelines for public comment in late 2011. According to a review of this draft, published in the January 2012 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), these guidelines may be sound from a nutritional perspective, but are completely unsustainable from an environmental perspective.

Do we deplete the world’s fish stocks to meet the nutritional guideline of 2 fish meals a week? Do we continue to degrade the environment by insisting on eating red meat every day? The evidence is there that is as unhealthy for the environment as it is for our own bodies. Do we need to engage in nutritional practises that unnecessarily increase energy consumption? For instance drinking tap water uses less than 1% of the amount of energy needed to produce bottled water. Do we need to continuing drinking bottled water? It would probably be more sensible to invest in water filters where ever possible.

The MJA article is interesting and gives you plenty to think about.

The NH&MRC dietary guidelines are also an interesting read.

Political agendas

This is another area of the great food debate that makes my head spin. Over and above meeting our individual nutritional needs in the face of environmental destruction, is the agenda of big business and politics.

It’s sobering to think that the development of our collective palate has been driven by the money-making objective of the food industry. That is, the Western societies’ predilection for junk food is driven by greed (that of our own stomachs and the big pockets of the food makers). And it’s scary to think we mindlessly placed our health, and that of the Earth, at such risk because we are seduced by food that is cheap, convenient and sold via very clever marketing campaigns.

Deeper than that though, is the political agenda that allows public health policy to be driven by industry. Where did the standard food pyramid come from? Who said that grains are the foundation of our diet? Eye-opening documentaries such as the Men Who Made us Fat aired recently on the ABC, demonstrate that government and industry worked in tandem to produce today’s “Western diet”. And, although we can now look back and say, with some generosity, that these decisions were made in ignorance of the ultimate health and environment ramifications, that doesn’t account for why decisions made in the 40s and 50s still dictate global food choices today.

Reconnecting with the words of Michael Pollan¹ has convinced me we need to be much more aware of how we eat and what we eat. When you have some time to spare (1 hr 16 mins), watch this interview conducted at the Sydney Opera House, and see what you think.

To sum up, I think these quotes from Michael Pollan say it all.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”

“But that's the challenge -- to change the system more than it changes you.”


1. Michael Pollan is an American journalist who embarked on a journey of discovery about the “Western diet”. He explores the topic of what we eat from many different angles – politics, economics, environmental, as well as nutritional. His books include the Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules and Cooked. This professor of journalism at the UC Berkley Graduate School of Journalism has been referred to by one New York Times reviewer as a “liberal, foodie intellectual”.