We all want “the answer” don’t we?
What should I major in? Which jobs should I apply to? Should I take a few months off and travel the world?
Or a question I hear all the time: What should I eat? (or not eat?)
People want the quick fix, a one dimensional answer that will “just work.” It seems we all want to solve our latest problem, chalk it up as complete, then move on to the next one. We have an insatiable desire for simple answers.
Why is that?
I think it’s because all these questions are really just step ladder issues. We hope solving them will help us resolve a bigger concern we all have:
What will make me happy?
It’s a complicated question, and there’s no one right answer. Which makes trying to solve any problem through a black and white lens nearly impossible.
And this is especially true when it comes to food and health.
An Example From My Inbox
I recently received an email from a reader that illustrates this point:
“I read on your other blog posts that you practice the paleo diet. I’ve thought about trying it. I experiment a lot with my food since I get bored pretty fast with it. I went vegetarian for a year but I had such cravings for roast beef that it couldn’t be ignored anymore (I’ve weirdly always craved roast beef, even as a kid). Now I’m experimenting with going gluten-free. I definitely don’t have celiac disease but I found I ran better the three weeks I was gluten-free. Weird. I guess it’s all about experimenting until you find the right fit.”
This is someone who’s highly educated, relatively well-informed about food and nutrition, and wants to improve their health. By no means do I discourage her curiosity, or the willingness to ask for advice. But this email reflects a pattern I’m starting to notice among those who want to be healthy these days, especially people who are more informed than the general public, and willing to try out new things.
I’m talking about the tendency to think there’s a “proper way to eat.”
First, notice the labeling. In the first sentence she mentions I practice “the paleo diet.” Never mind that my Food Philosophy calls out the Paleo Framework as a guide to the way I eat, and I mostly talk about balance and the importance of a real food mindset. Her instinct to label indicates she’s immediately seeking a way to compartmentalize the way she thinks about food, looking for a protocol she can “try” for a period of time. She goes on to say she “went vegetarian,” and is experimenting with “going gluten-free.”
(As an aside, since when did food trends become travel destinations? Can I buy a plane ticket to “low-fat, high-carb” as well?)
Second, it’s unclear what her goals are. She mentions getting “bored pretty fast” with her food, but it’s unclear what that means, or why it matters. She doesn’t say why she tried vegetarianism to begin with, or what led her to consider paleo either. Other than her desire to experiment (which I’m all for, as long as there’s a purpose behind it), there’s no obvious thread linking her journey through vegetarianism, to calling herself gluten-free, and now exploring a paleo approach.
Well, the link isn’t obvious, but it’s there. Like many others, she’s fallen into the trap of believing there’s one approach to eating that will make her happy, so she’s chasing trend after trend, using dietary labels as a way to make sense of it all.
Don’t get me wrong, I assume good intent on her part. It’s not her fault she views food through this lens, with so many confusing messages out there. She’s probably like most of us, trying to find the best way to eat so she feels good, performs well, and is ultimately happier in the end.
I don’t mean to criticize her intent, or the journey she’s on. Because really, we’re all in this together.
But this example illustrates a lesson more people need to hear these days.
Don’t Follow Food Trends, Eat Real Food
If you’re trying to be healthy and happy, don’t follow food trends. In fact, don’t define yourself in terms of what you eat at all. And never, ever say you’re “on a diet.”
It’s not about being Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, or Paleo. Dietary labeling is what leads to conflict and confusion, which discredits the whole idea that eating real food is a viable alternative to the way most of society currently eats.
Many in the popular press have jumped on this idea lately, with the LA Times, for example, recently running an op-ed piece lamenting food trends.* At one point the author opines, “We too readily make radical changes to our bodies without really knowing why.”
That may be true. But we also too readily accept the status quo and conventional wisdom without really knowing why. And I’d say oversimplification is the cause for both. We divide everything into neat and tidy “Eat This, Not That” lists, and like to think there are drastic differences between what it means to eat lots of plants, learn from our dietary ancestry, and avoid common toxins in our food environment today.
The reality is, real food never fails. And though it’s hard to believe, given the way they’re marketed, real food is the foundational basis for all “pop-diet” approaches. Which is why they all seem to work to some degree, providing enough success stories for the simple-minded to become evangelical about their particular approach.
Yes, everyone is different. And yes, some people can tolerate more grains, dairy, and legumes than others. But that doesn’t mean there’s one right answer for everyone. Which is why labels are dangerous, and following diet trends dogmatically will ultimately get us nowhere.
Lose The Label
“Being gluten-free” is not a valid approach to food. The concept wouldn’t even make sense to our ancestors. If they saw you eat buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, sushi for lunch, and “GF” biscuits and gravy for dinner, they’d think your eating habits are just as weird and unhealthy as everyone else’s in the Western world. Because they are.
Here’s an alternative.
Instead of thinking in terms of a “diet,” think about eating real food as much as possible. This isn’t dietary dogma, it’s common freakin’ sense. Animals eat food; humans are animals. Food is found in nature, not in laboratories. We should eat vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, quality MEAT (there’s a reason my reader craved roast beef after a year of vegetarianism). Avoid things in packages of any kind, but if you really have to eat a packaged food, make sure there’s less than 5 ingredients.
Do that, and you won’t get bored, you’ll feel great, and you’ll perform better.
*Check out this excellent rebuttal to the LA Times article from the Slim Palate blog. To each his own, indeed.