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What's really good and bad for us, nutrition-wise?

Fri, 6 January, 2017

We’re living in very difficult times and I’m not talking about recent UK/US elections. Information has never been more accessible, but what’s the wheat and what’s the chaff? Easy, you might say, reputable sources and all that, but not always and not quite.

I’m specifically thinking of food and nutrition information - what’s good for you, what constitutes good diet and what’s a rejectable fad; how much fat/sugar/alcohol/red/meat/courgettes should we consume and what are the banes of the modern lifestyle?

The battle of good and evil over fat has gone on for years and only now research seems to be fairly definite that fat doesn’t make one fat. Should we trust it now and disregard the years of brainwashing us with carbs-good, fat-bad, while we were quietly getting obese? Red meat, the same story - the devil that causes bowel cancer according to some, who will still reluctantly admit that it’s one of the most nutritious foods one can eat, a source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various other nutrients. Go figure, as my dad used to say - go figure.

I am a big believer in the wisdom of our bodies - they know what’s good for us, we just most often drown out their whispered advice with a ‘LALALA I can’t hear you!’ call of another cream cake or the second bag of crisps. You’re full - stop eating. And don’t eat again until you’re hungry. One chocolate is enough for afters and you really CAN watch your box set without munching. Easy - well, yes, I know…

One point which everyone agrees on is processed food. Bad. The devil. If it doesn’t kill you it makes you fat. But what exactly do we mean by processed food - is it anything but raw, fresh produce? UK’s National Health Service advisory look to me to be a master of broad stroke generalisation: what are processed foods?
‘Processed foods aren't just microwave meals and other ready meals. The term 'processed food' applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience.’ Oh heck. Dear NHS, I’ll draw a line at raw unaltered potatoes and, however much I enjoy carpaccio, I like my beef cooked a little every now and then.

They do backtrack a little later on saying that if you cook at home, you know exactly what goes into your food, but still they wear a disdainful face at all of us irresponsible idiots putting butter on bread instead of munching raw wheat grain.

So those of us who have a brain will understand the advice correctly. Processed foods are all the foods that have been changed from their state as they appear in nature. That is not a good or bad thing - it’s just a fact. Processed foods in the negative nutritional sense are industry-produced, unnecessarily over-treated, often to disguise the shortage of quality; containing lots of salt, sugar and additives.

There, NHS - it could have been said like that, no?

Having agreed on the good and evil, here comes the final quandary: processing is essential if we want to minimise waste. That is clearly a subject for a separate post: the amount of food the first world wastes. But ‘how not to’ requires salt, possibly a little sugar and a lot of cooking a.k.a. processing. An average roast is too much for one meal - unless you habitually make your family go short. Another meal out of leftover, say, lamb will involve mincing or chopping it, mixing with cheese or onion and adding extra salt and spices - in order to obtain a couple of pastillas, croquettes or rissoles. Even the roast chicken carcass should not be just chucked in the bin as it will make the most impressive stock. Bubble and squeak, fried new potatoes, frittatas or tortillas - some of the best meals are actually processed to death. Does that mean that my leftover veg frittata is as bad as pot noodles or Alphabetti Spaghetti? Should I just eat the cold turkey until I’m sick of the sight of it instead of turning it into a stew?? Line up raw leeks and potatoes to have for lunch instead of cooking the soup???

Go figure. As I said: difficult times.


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