The intolerable truth

I was 10 years old when I stopped eating sugar. From that day forward I was forever intrigued by “diets”*, not just from a health standpoint but anthropology wise. I wondered: was an excessive yearning for sugar a rite of passage in childhood, only to be abandoned when we realise that our metabolism and physique aren’t quite what they used to be? Also, to what extent was sugar influencing my character? Was it to blame for the hyperactive persona I’d developed, or was this behaviour unequivocally quintessential to pre-pubescent existence?

 

It was after the usual Oreo and Ribena-fuelled afternoon of flailing and frolicking in the playground that I began having these age-relevant ruminations. Minutes later I made the split decision to go cold turkey. Up until I was 16 I avoided soft drink, candy and fruit, treating sweet potato as my dessert.

 

I also had the inkling that sugar was more toxic on the body than we had suspected circa 2003. This suspicion trumped all care in the world (i.e. zero) of what other people thought of me. So, instead of politely accepting birthday cake at parties, I snacked on the broccoli I had brought. To parents, my peers and the broader community, I became known as “the girl that didn’t eat sugar”.

 

Roughly a decade later business savvy Sarah Wilson beat me to the post and made this diet a brand; “I Quit Sugar” is now yet another trendy, Instagrammable lifestyle (and movement) with its own hashtag, #IQS.

 

The era of allergies

More broadly, eliminating a single ingredient from our diet now seems to be the norm. It surprises me just how many children don’t eat gluten, lactose, fructose or other specific ingredients. Though, unlike my 10-year-old self, I doubt such restrictions would be the child’s choosing – which makes me wonder, why statistically have allergy instances increased? Are we weaker, simply more irked by a common stomachache or more greatly phased by an unexpected death at the dinner table (because wouldn’t that have happened pre the discovery of celiac disease)?

What perplexes me most about restrictive diets is that one school of thought often directly contradicts the other. Despite the almighty “all in moderation” diffusing these distinctions a little, we still seem to pigeonhole particular foods (in regards to nutrition) as inherently good or bad.

 

The good, the bad and the ugly

I’m sure many of you have heard some of the following via popular media:

“Kale is good. Actually, no, it has too much thallium.”

“Eggs are good. Actually, no, they heighten your cholesterol. Wait, we were wrong.”

“Drink more milk, it’s full of calcium. Scrap that, dairy don’t do shit.”

“Tofu is a good protein alternative to meat. Eat more! Actually, no, soy is bad for you and will give you breasts.”

And so on and so on.

 

Butter: hero and villain

What prompted me to blog about this confusion and amusement I have with Western society’s ever-changing opinion on particular food items and diets was the advice my new doctor gave me last month.

He prescribed me lashings and lashings of organic, 100% fat, eat-as-much-as-you-like butter. Prior to this conversation, I had strongly believed dairy products to be inherently bad: more carcinogenic than car fumes and smoking.

I probably wasn’t half wrong though. Substantial research has shown that milk and cheese don’t deliver the nutritional bone-building benefits that decades-old advertising claimed. Other factors come into play, too, however. Like the fact that food today is far more processed and nowhere as near to its natural state as it was when harvested and produced 50 years ago.

 

Ketogenic

Or more colloquially, “keto”, is the name of the diet I’ve now embarked on a new experiment with. Not because I want to lose weight or even change my exercise and energy performance (Christ, I like to eat everything in sight). No, apparently these dietary changes will influence seemingly unrelated systems in my body, such as the endocrine and immune systems.

 

Keto is essentially the same diet that body builders go on in their “cutting” phase but with a higher concentration on fat than protein. Fat burns fat – eating more of it reprograms the body into consistent ketosis (fat burning).

 

Stay away from godforsaken carbs and fructose; instead drip feed yourself coconut oil, avocado (PHEW), seeds and all the good fats imaginable. Bread your butter, not butter your bread (if it’s a low carb alternative, which I’ve discovered does indeed exist).

 

The guise of gluten free

My doctor’s advice to go on a low-carb diet was actually first handed to me in the guise of a gluten-free diet. I was immediately worried because a) no smashed avo is complete without toast and what is life without smashed avo, and b) for so long I had made fun of those that use their self-diagnosed gluten intolerance as an excuse to avoid carbs. Now I HAD BECOME ONE OF THEM.

 

“Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Gluten Intolerant.”

The thing is, though, there is some credibility in going gluten free. It often diverts people away from processed foods like white breads and sweets (where the problem more often lies, rather than the gluten itself), towards more healthy choices like quinoa or sweet potato.

In regards to food binaries (good vs. bad) – well, of course there’s no party that encourages a higher intake of gluten for the sake of eating gluten because it’s good for you. Here are some instances that I think are a little bit laughable.

 

Bi-polar food

Raw vs Cooked

The raw diet is based on the belief that cooking vegetables destroys their nutritional value and vital enzymes. Ayuvedic tradition, on the other hand, recognises that what may be good for one person’s mind-body physiology will not always be beneficial to the next. Unlike raw living, Ayurveda generally recommends cooking foods to strengthen the digestive power of “Agni” and to optimise nutrient absorption

Hunting vs gathering

While grains and most legumes often act as the main source of sustenance for vegans, paleo people reference the caveman era as the most nutritionally rich way of life, therefore avoiding grains like the plague and very unveganly piling meat upon their plates.

Fruit vs. fear of fructose

Juice cleanses and plant-based diets focused on a higher fruit intake go entirely against the ketogenic diet, which shuns fructose consumption. One considers fruit to have detoxifying powers, whereas the other considers them toxifying, like straight sugar.

The soy stigma

While there are non-vegan soy-sipping coffee snobs (me) who believe that dairy is dodgy and nutritionally void, some ketogenic people have a propensity to eat a seemingly artery-clogging amount of of butter and cream cheese. Soy products are given a bad wrap for their effect on estrogen levels (for keto people soy milk is also considered high in carbs). However, what if you’re estrogen deficient? Some naturopaths are of the belief that this can be solved through eating more soy products.

 

Keto: yay or nay?

So, am I following the ketogenic diet? Yes, but not to the extreme. I actually tried it two years ago (in combination with veganism) and almost died, because with keto focusing on dairy, lean meat and egg consumption, what did that leave me to eat?

 

I haven’t cut out my routine Sunday brunch of fructose-filled (yet gluten free, tick) granola and my four-daily soy lattes because I may as well just end life now (#foodislife).

 

I’d rather live an allegedly shorter life eating granola and ordering coffee just the way I like it than carrying chicken-and-broccoli tupperware and opting for purportedly healthier (yet gag-inducing) almond lattes only to get hit by a bus the very next day.

 

Life is short. Sure, I love a good experiment, but at the same time I’d rather not waste my energy rallying against particular foods, personifying them like a villain. Obviously be smart and don’t go overboard with indulgence (and butter), but ask yourself – how much is this restrictive diet actually restricting your life? Having said this, I wonder how different a person I’d be today if I hadn’t (hypercritically, given the grounds of this blog post) brought broccoli to birthday parties…

 

*Simply: “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats”

Mim Kempson