Nutrition is not a word that makes me feel warm and happy. Eating, I love. Food and restaurants and lunch with the family and suppers with my husband I love. Cooking, even. But nutrition always makes me think of a friend of mine who can tell you the calorific value of six beansprouts and the fat content of three fluid ounces of semi-skimmed milk.
My friend sees food as fuel – which of course, at one level, it is. She exercises furiously and eats a fiercely controlled diet to maintain an ideal weight. All of which is very splendid. And quite boring.
I can see that it’s important to understand the chemical components of food. If I were sick or had a hormone imbalance I would want to know as much as possible about how to eat to feel better. I recently had to see a gastroenterologist, who told me that a majority of the population has some sort of wheat intolerance, which is unquestionably interesting and useful information.
Yet, while I want this knowledge, I also want to be able to retire it to the back of my brain, because the one thing I do not want to be about food is joyless. For my exercise and diet-conscious friend, salt and fat are enemies to be seen off. She can be very sanctimonious about anyone who eats, say, cream teas, or heavily seasons their pasta water.
She is not a nutritionist. I’m not either, but I do know that the general thinking is that not all fat is bad for us (and that opinions have changed about this in recent years). I also know that a diet high in salt is bad for people with high blood pressure, but that a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, monitoring more than 100,000 people in 18 countries, found that a low sodium diet isn’t good either.
We lay people have to be careful with our partial knowledge, which rarely takes into account the person eating or their circumstances. Not that science is really what my friend’s approach to food is really about. Like a lot of dieters, she imbues certain foods with moral values: lettuce good, butter bad. And once you do that, it’s easy to get things out of proportion. It’s just food, I quite often want to shout. It’s not the devil. It’s not out to get you and you are not, despite what you say, ‘being good’ if you don’t eat cake.
People who see food as either polluting or improving can very quickly acquire an air of superiority. If you are striving to be a better person through your food intake, you can quickly become judgmental about what other people eat. When you are on a punishing regime, it’s hard to be relaxed about other people with their fish and chips. They may believe they’re getting away with it, the dieter thinks – and surprisingly often, says – but they are going to suffer in the long run.
Nutrition is a serious subject. For some people, it is a matter of life and death. But it is perhaps best left to nutritionists. Modern nutritional science emerged with the isolation and identification of certain nutrients in food and discovery of their effects on the incidence of certain diseases. But the relationships can be more complicated than they first appear. Several studies show, for example, that eating large amounts of fruit and vegetables tends to protect against heart disease and certain cancers. But the results aren’t replicated if people take supplements containing those nutrients. Similarly, the famed superiority of the Mediterranean diet doesn’t seem to be about the foods that make up the diet so much as their overall quality and balance.
In the developed world, food is plentiful, a situation for which we are almost certainly not evolved. Our genetically-programmed greed undoubtedly requires some disciplining. So we do have to think about what we eat.
But we are also lucky to have access to rich cultures of good eating, developed over centuries, tried, tested, and honed to make people healthy and happy. Food is almost certainly best for us when it is cooked with care, shared with love, and eaten with people who cheer us up. So perhaps we also need not to think too much. My favourite nutritional guidelines come from the American author Michael Pollan. They require no weighing or counting: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.’