My colleague, a hard core carnivore from Brazil, felt the need to reassure me that he had not become a vegan in spite of surviving for several days, against all the odds, on gallons of luminous green juice, meat free salads and other chlorophyl rich meals. Forensic testing failed to reveal any traces of animal protein in his diet, authenticating his remarkable display of self control. What had motivated my colleague? It transpired that he had been influenced by a documentary about the horrors of the meat production industry.
In contrast to earlier times, when apparently nobody cared about the health or ethical consequences of what they ate, the media bombard us with advice from so-called experts about what we should eat, delivered in the form of books, television programmes and commercials, websites and newspaper articles. Nutrition has become a behemoth of an industry, driven far more by commercial forces than sound science. It continues to be one of the most popular topics of conversation in the workplace, the pub and at home.
Those who express guilty pleasure when shovelling down sugar rich cakes covered in deadly icing or filled with choux creme apparently embrace the new “principles” of nutrition. At the same time they often struggle to apply them, complaining that healthy eating is virtuous but boring and lies beyond the formidable barrier of temptation. “I’m so bad” they say, half believing it.
Having been fascinated with human anatomy and physiology from the age of eight and taking a keen interest in nutrition in later years, I find that I am shifting emphasis from the science of nutrition to the experience of eating. This has come about not through any rejection of the validity of scientific method, which I wholeheartedly support, but from realising that the physiology of nutrition is a field of infinite complexity, especially when viewed in the context of the diversity of individuals. Instead of trying to maintain a complicated system of nutrition, prone to change with every new research study, I have simplified my approach to a set of four basic guiding principles grouped around a single philosophical tenet.
Here are my gastronomic guidelines. Eat high quality, natural food that has undergone the least processing and contains the fewest additives. Include small amounts of organically raised meat and fish on special occasions, having given earnest consideration to animal welfare and the sustainability of marine life. Consume plenty of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit, with a fair proportion eaten raw. Supplement your food with moderate amounts of natural fats like butter, organic coconut oil, and cold pressed virgin olive and rapeseed oils. As a central principle, take your time over the preparation and consumption of meals, sharing the occasion with family and friends.
When deciding what to eat and in what quantity, throw the calorie calculator in the bin, ignore the self-professed experts and listen, very carefully, to your body. The Knot Garden tells us that eating should always be a guilt-free pleasure and that meals are best enjoyed with others as a celebration of life. Approach your dinner with a feeling of gratitude. And, above all, ask your body about the type of food you should eat. It is the only true expert on nutrition.