People get religious about food. They sing the praises of various foods or food groups and decry the dangers of others. They go so far as to claim their way of eating is “clean” or “the right way” and will proselytize about it. But of course, no one agrees on what is actually “the right way” to eat. Imagine the battle between a paleo and a vegan and a slow-local-food-sustainable-living-ite and your standard low-fat-er. “Battle” is not an exaggeration–people get indignant, defensive, and offensive when debating their food choices, and believe their own choices make them righteous. It’s like a religion.
But there are so many problems with thinking of food as good or bad, right or wrong, clean or dirty. First: bodies run on calories. Food is the source of calories that fuels our bodies. If something has calories and we can eat it, by definition it is food.
Second: everybody uses research to back up their “my food way is the right way” claims. That means exactly what I just said: there is research to back up everything. Some of that research conflicts. That is the nature of science. No single study can or even should address everything, every study is designed differently, and when you’re dealing with something as diverse as human health and behavior your study is inherently flawed anyway. Research trends change over time (margarine vs butter? Low fat? Low carb? Red meat bad? Red meat good? Who knows?). Data are just data. We can assign all sorts of meaning to it but our interpretations aren’t always correct. Cherry picking a subset of studies to support your claims about foods that are “right” or “wrong” is willfully ignorant.
Third: the arguments about food are classist. The “right” way to eat usually requires expensive or hard to access food. So grass fed beef is better for us, you say? Its $15 per pound at the supermarket and the farmers market vs. $3 per pound for standard chuck roast. Sure, the cost per pound is low if you buy a whole cow direct from a local farm and store it in your deep freeze. But you have to have access to the farmer, time and transport to get the cow from farm to your house, and of course a deep freeze. Not to mention the upfront capital to buy 500 ponds of beef at a time. I see so many false equivalencies: “it’s so much cheaper to prepare an organic vegetarian meal at home than it is to buy a meal for 4 at mcdonalds.” Maybe or maybe not, but there’s also the time cost to consider, plus most aren’t choosing between organic vegetables and mcdonalds they’re choosing between organic vegetables and frozen pizza, which is cheaper. And can probably be had at half price because there are coupons for packaged food and not for raw whole ingredients. People without a lot of money aren’t stupid. They know how to stretch a dollar because they have to do it all the time.
Fourth: it only makes people neurotic about food and leads to disordered eating.
Here is a fact about food and calories: consuming fewer calories than you burn will cause weight loss. Here’s another fact: consuming more calories than you burn will cause weight gain. Another fact: to perform at its optimum (remain alert throughout the day, not feel hunger pains, not feel stuffed or nauseated, and totally kill your workouts) your body needs enough calories–different for everyone.
To paleo proponents, 80/20 refers to eating “clean” according to paleo principles 80% of the time. I’m definitely not a paleo eater and will never be but 80/20 still applies, and I don’t even have to get religious about food! I try to make food choices that make my body feel good. But no one is perfect. Sometimes I eat too much or not enough or all my calories come from bread and butter. A bread and butter day doesn’t provide a lot of nutritional diversity and not enough protein to fuel muscle recovery so I don’t want to do it too often. But it’s not “dirty” or “wrong”. It’s still food. It still has calories. My body continues to function–sleeping, breathing, etc.
Food is not a religion. It’s just food. Eat what makes you feel good. Let other people eat what makes them feel good. The end.
Bonus PS: I am anti-fad-diet and I suppose I am a little religious about it. But my feelings are based primarily on sociocultural factors: the lie of success and “a better life waiting” perpetuated by the diet companies, the way the diets are used to make women feel bad about themselves and ashamed of their bodies, and the systematic deprivation inherent in fad diets that normalizes disordered eating. The end, for real.
9am: 2 eggs, 1 tsp butter, 1/4 avocado, 1 oz cheddar, 1 slice Dave’s killer bread, salsa
12pm: 1 chicken thigh, Brussels sprouts, apple with pb2
3pm: 1 kind bar, 2 string cheese
4.30: 1 cup Greek yogurt, 2 tbsp nuts/seeds
7.30: shrimp Caesar salad (lettuce, Parmesan, 4oz shrimp, 2 tbsp dressing)