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Dietary myths and delusions – the human race has always loved them.

Tue, 5 March, 2019

Aren’t we all obsessed with food these days? It probably matches in intensity human obsession with sex, and I get it: primary functions, life’s basic pleasures or sources of grief – basically we all have to eat which makes it even more important than sex. Disorders, fads, dieting, superfoods - these all seem such contemporary things.

I’m no historian but clearly it had always been so: ingesting things does not only keep you alive (provided they are not poisonous) but can affect your mood, mental health and even alter your mind, how fascinating. And we have always believed that some foods are better than others. Or the other way round.

The most recent U-turn was from staunchly believing low-fat was not only crucial for healthy weight but for general health and wellbeing; while carbs were goodness itself. Look at us now: we’ve seen the light and spread butter or drizzle olive oil over lunch, dinner and dessert. Of course, being humans, we have turned not only U but full 360 degrees: many people believe that eating huge amounts of fat and no carbs will make them skinny. Well, as I say again and again, even too much avocado will quickly make you fat as it’s really calorific.

But we’re not that different from our predecessors with their weirder beliefs. Gluten scare has historical precedents: raw fruit and vegetables were considered ‘malevolent poison’ from ancient times well into Middle Ages; perhaps not entirely wrongly as they were much skankier and grittier than what you find in your local Waitrose. Tomatoes were fiercely avoided by Europeans in 18th century, believed to be lethal, while in fact they could simply have often contributed to lead poisoning if they reacted with the lead content of commonly used pewter plates.

Bulimia is far from modern: there was a chewing-spitting craze as a weight loss method at the beginning of the 20th century. All very scientific, there were manuals prescribing the mastication rates for individual foods – though I am not entirely clear what happened if one accidentally swallowed a morsel. Licking and gargling might have been even more effective?

What puzzles me is that we still believe in food myths in spite of scientific achievements and weather-vane results of research reports. How is the 17th century belief in healing properties of ‘live worms, fox lungs (for asthma), spiders' webs, swallows' nests and the skulls of executed criminals’ different from the modern trust in chia, quinoa and kale? Too much sugar, fat, cholesterol, in fact too much of anything will make you ill but I heard someone recently declare all illnesses occur from bad diet. Eh? Tell it to the MS sufferers. And believing that you can halt disease, prolong your life and stave off frailty by taking supplements by a bucketful is not only stupid but may have adverse effects.

Copyright: Pat Hastings

There is no doubt about medicinal qualities of many plants and herbs, used to treat diseases to a degree of success from Ancient Chinese onwards; foxglove, St John’s wort and meadowsweet are the original cardiac drug, anti-depressant and aspirin. But don’t think eating large quantities of mould will fix your strep throat. And really, the first significant medical breakthrough was indisputably the discovery of vaccines, now lamentably the subject of conspiracy theories in certain backwards circles.

You are what you eat in the literal sense: nutrients from food build new cells in our bodies. Smoking, drinking, obesity and lack of exercise hugely contribute to the risk of cancer. But there aren’t any miracle potions. How many of us anecdotally quote this or that granny or great uncle who ate only eggs and chips and lived to be 98? Or conversely, don’t we all know someone who is extremely health conscious but always complaining of an ailment or another? Which means nothing else but that there isn’t one size that fits all. One man’s meat is another man’s peanut allergy.

If only we could be guided by common sense, if only more people HAD more common sense. Balance. Variety. Moderation. Adequacy. How difficult is it to grasp those basic commandments of dietary nutrition? Add to that calorie control and all the money-spinning diet gurus would go belly up.

But it isn’t going to happen. We want to believe that one side will make us grow taller and the other grow shorter. We want magic elixirs and we fall victim to all the snake oil salesmen out there. We want to be the modern day hermits, mortifying the flesh for eternal reward. And above all, we want to think we’re in control of our health and lifespan. Seriously?


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