Recently, I received an email from a young woman who told me that, although she was struggling with an eating disorder, she got great pleasure from reading my restaurant reviews. She said reading about, and enjoying, such enthusiasm for food made her feel normal. I’m sure it did. My reviews gave her the opportunity to engage with a conversation around what we eat, without having to do any actual eating, which is the bit she finds tricky. She’s not a one-off. I’ve had multiple emails like this over the years from people in the grips of eating disorders, who enjoy reading restaurant reviews.
It is literally pathological behaviour, but it does shine a light on the massive gulf that can open up between the act of writing about food and the extremely human business of eating it. That is most obvious at this time of year, when we are assailed by advice designed to help us find the new us. It doesn’t matter whether we are happy with the old us. We are promised we can create a new shiny version, one mouthful at a time.
It is easy sloganeering to point out how knuckle-dragging so much of this advice is; that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do so. Some advocates of plant-based diets like to gloss over the very real dangers of vitamin B12 deficiencies. Spoiler alert: it can lead to intellectual impairment. Meanwhile, the proponents of paleo and dairy-free diets claim that modern humans were not designed for their current diet, as if evolution was a cul de sac. We are literally designed, through evolution, to consume bovine milk. Many us adapted to do so because it was an available food supply, and most of those who couldn’t tolerate dairy, where it was a source of nutrition, died out leaving the lactose tolerant to pass on their genes.
The reverse argument is that you should simply relax, stop pathologising food, and eat what you want. Do that, and everything will be fine. In the US there’s even an encouraging Eat What You Want day. This year it’s 11 May. The problem is, while that’s easier advice to follow, it’s really no more helpful than being told to quit dairy, binge on soup or live solely on a diet of sautéed kitten.
Unless you have the metabolism of a small, hyperactive rodent, or what you really want happens to correspond to a perfectly balanced diet – in which case it’s definitely time to upgrade your desires – few of us can eat what we want without consequences. I certainly can’t. Because here’s the one piece of dietary advice worth paying attention to in January when everyone is telling you how to eat: there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all dietary advice, however much health professionals might wish it were otherwise. As the work on the gut biome by Professor Tim Spector has indicated, how our bodies process the food we eat differs from person to person. But there are so many other issues: how much money and time we have, for example, enabling us to hit the gym to mitigate impacts; what kind of jobs we do; the healthcare to which we have access.
Where does that leave us all? Muddling through. Diet books are written in crass slogans, but we live our lives in meandering prose. We pick and choose from the advice. We know sugar is the enemy but we have a biscuit occasionally. We understand the panic over alcohol consumption, but sometimes we open the bottle. We try to get to the gym and sometimes we don’t. It’s called being human. We try. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. Please, don’t beat yourself up about it.
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