What people obsessed with healthy eating are really trying to prove

by Jennifer Bowden / 11 June, 2018

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Healthy eating isn’t about counting the nutrients in your food or showing off with your diet.

QUESTION: I enjoyed your advice to go ahead and enjoy eating chocolate. Do you think some people are too obsessed with healthy eating?

ANSWER: Is food the sum of its individual nutrient parts? Vitamins, plus minerals, plus carbohydrates equals food. Now eat it.

If you ask me (and you did), this nutrient-centric view of our diet-obsessed world is due for an overhaul.

I never thought Life writer Bill Ralston and I would be on the same page when it comes to healthy eating advice. What with his self-confessed “lifelong diet of fags, booze and inactivity”, we were seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum. But from comments in many of his columns, I think we both agree that nutritionism creates an unhealthy relationship with food.

Nutritionism is an ideology that assumes it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine their value in our diet.

But as Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, explained to author Michael Pollan, there’s a catch: “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet, and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

Clearly, then, food is about more than nutrients. Is it simply the taste enjoyment of food we’re overlooking then? Yes and no. It’s more than that, says former MasterChef judge Ray McVinnie, who was also a gastronomy lecturer at AUT University.

“Food is not just about eating; it’s used for all sorts of things: sending messages, celebrating, for drawing attention to yourself. Basically, it’s really seen as a reflection of not only your culture, but your character. People have a lot of baggage when it comes to food.”

Marion Nestle and Ray McVinnie. Photos/Bill Hayes; supplied

What we eat can be a very visible display of wealth, says McVinnie. “If you were a poor person living in 14th-century Europe, you didn’t have a choice about drawing attention to yourself, or showing you were special by the food you ate. Rich people did, and that’s how they showed they were rich, by eating things like spices, which cost a lot of money.”

Our traditional roast meal is a fine example of societal aspirations, says McVinnie, who references Tony Simpson’s book A Distant Feast: the Origins of New Zealand’s Cuisine.

“You can work out immediately why the traditional New Zealand diet was meat-based: the big excitement on the plate was the hunk of meat.

“That came from the agricultural workers who settled in New Zealand and wanted an aspirational diet. The only time they’d ever seen rich people eat was at the local markets once a week, where provincial farmers ate what was called a ‘farmer’s ordinary’, which was a thick soup, a big piece of roasted joint with roasted vegetables – our roast, basically – and a heavy pudding.”

Colonial New Zealanders didn’t want to eat fish, and fish still isn’t popular in New Zealand. “Because poor people ate fish in Victorian England; poor people ate oysters. They didn’t want that here, they wanted meat,” says McVinnie.

Today, people show superiority through conspicuous competence, says McVinnie. That term, which was coined by anthropologist Margaret Visser, refers to a person’s need to show they’re smarter than other people.

In the 1980s, Visser pointed to the extravagant dinner parties thrown by young, upwardly mobile adults as a display of their competence.

McVinnie reckons our current obsession with nutritionism and theoretically healthier diet regimes is a display of conspicuous competence. “Clever, successful people show they are more intelligent by eating certain, often expensive, diets.”

The underlying cultural message is: if you are eating refined white bread and drinking soft drink you’re clearly not as clever as your friends who are on the paleo diet.

Ultimately, healthy eating is about having a sound relationship with food, enjoying what we eat at the same time as being mindful of its effect on us, and sharing meals rather than imposing dietary restrictions on ourselves that preclude social mealtimes. Relishing food traditions gives us a sense of belonging.

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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