For starters I don’t rule out any food because of its nutrient makeup. It’s like saying I won’t look at a painting, because it has pink in it, and pink is not a good color. It’s absurd. “Non fat,” “No sugar,” “low cholesterol,” and other such “No” foods are just as absurd. (Like I said, though, I should be nuanced and relaxed in my choices. There are exceptions to the “no’s”, but I’ll get into that in a bit.) Our bodies are designed to function best on a whole range of foods that contain all those “no” things. In fact, we need all those things, and in large amounts for a normal active body. There is good reason why we enjoy fat, sugar, and salt after all.
There are differences between foods, though, don’t get me wrong. When food is “designed” to hit pleasure centers, instead of being grown, prepared and cooked, it is probably overloaded with fat, sugar, or salt, and probably all three. When that happens, we then have to start thinking about where those nutrients are coming from, and how they ended up in our food. Unfortunately, the gift of food science that saved so many people a hundred years ago has now become the basis for a historically new food manufacturing industry.
When “fast” food (my name for anything that comes from a food scientist instead of a farmer then chef,) is developed, it is pieced together from individual nutrients. The manufacturers have broken all the bonds between compounds that make them food, so they can manipulate them into some product that satisfies a person’s emotional state, and not act as food. Fast food is about triggering satiation and pleasure, not about the whole experience of eating food.
The “no’s” that I avoid are actually the nutrient ingredients of manufactured products; things like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, sodium benzoate, etc. Those ingredients tell me that the item in hand is not, in fact, food in the natural sense. It may satisfy my desire for food, but it won’t provide my body with all the effects and benefits of food.
When all the “no’s” come in the form of actual food, they will always carry with them a rich variety of compounds, both in the form of vitamins and minerals, and a whole host of other compounds we don’t know much about. First, all that food interacts with our saliva, releasing aromas and flavors that can’t be reproduced by nutritional substance manufacturers. Then food provides a sensation of substance we relate to texture and fullness, and we feel it all the way down to the stomach. During digestion, all those compounds set off a chain of events that are so complex that it is impossible to know the whole process. What we do know ( through the good science that comes out of medical centers, not the “food” industry,) is that everything down to the shape of those compounds can have an effect on what our body does in response.
For example, sugar comes in a few different varieties, but in many shapes and combinations. Some of those combinations that come to us in natural fruits can pass straight into the blood, giving us a boost of energy and brain power. Other forms are incredibly tough to digests, and require special enzymes to digest like lactose. Others still, like the artificially products coming from high-fructose corn syrup, can’t be metabolized at all until it gets well into our digestive system, and then it trigers a chemical switch that causes us to store it as raw fat calories regardless of whether we need the sugar boost or not.
Sugar is one of the best know compounds and simplest to understand, so now imagine all those other more complex things we eat like amino acids (the building blocks of protein) carotenoids, and alkaloids (think caffeine, and the thousands of compounds that are very similar, affecting the nervous system in a range of ways.) Never mind all the other celluloids, lipids and complex organic molecules out there. The list is endless, and the combinations even longer. Our bodies are designed for them as much they are for us, and no nutrient break down will compensate or explain much of it.
So the next time you catch yourself talking about, or considering the nutrients of your food or nutritional products, tell yourself that in reality, even the most informed “you” has no real idea what you are talking about. Even the highly trained college educated nutritionists, and food scientists out there don’t have a clue about the complex nature of most “good” foods either. (Obviously if you have a medical condition, there may be specific things you need to avoid to make sure your drugs work, but in general this holds.)
When we have problems with the things we eat, they can usually be traced to the non-food things we eat like junk food, supplements and industrialized products, not the actual food we eat. More likely, these problems are just a result of eating too much, period. Real foods like fruit, whole non-industrialized grains, vegetables, and properly raised meats and dairy affect us in more profound ways than simple nutrient reactions. They buffer the bad things, and let our metabolisms do their good work. They drive our biologies and let us feel it working. The complex nature of real food is what makes eating so rewarding for us.
As Pollen described so famously in Omnivore’s Dilema, we need some basis for what is good to eat, or we will eat anything that is food-like. It is our omnivore’s dilema to figure out what is good to eat. We fill in that need with nutrient info, and “expert scientific” advice, but traditionally we as people have had other ways to learn those lessons. From history, we’ve learned that when we eat and drink whole, or fermented foods in small amounts together in groups of loved ones we become healthier. When we are active in mind and body, and know how much food we need for that lifestyle, our lives become healthier. Well grown, well prepared, and well cooked food, generates well people.