It’s hard to know where to turn for dietary advice. The U.S. government had its pyramid for a long time. Now it’s got that funky plate. Various self-proclaimed healthy living folk advocate for a wide variety of diets: low-fat, high-fat, low-carb, no-carb, high-carb, super-high-protein, meh-protein, etc. Is soy good or bad? Butter? Dairy? Red meat? Seafood? Legumes? Gluten?
I have dietary advice of my own to give. The diet I eat is mostly vegan, but I’ll write about that some other day. The point I want to make here is more important.
There’s an important continuity between how one ought to approach eating and how one ought to approach ethics. It’s tempting to look for a reliable authority and then to depend on that authority in every way. The trouble is this. Authorities give conflicting messages, and adjudicating properly between them essentially requires one to become an authority. And most of us simply don’t have the time (or the desire) to spend 20 years studying nutritional and biological science. Even the people who do aren’t always the most helpful.
As in ethics, so with eating: it is probably wise to listen to at least some authorities, and to inform oneself about the justification they claim for their views. Personally, I look to see if the claims of a self-declared culinary guru are grounded in social scientific studies that examine the long term outcomes of types of diets (Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, “Asian”, etc.). I’ve found it less helpful (and more confusing) to read about studies that isolate particular nutrients to observe their effects in artificial settings. The body’s response to food is more complex than that. (To use a buzzword, the reductive studies typically need to be counterbalanced by more “holistic” studies that take into account both the whole of an individual’s diet and that individual’s social setting.)
Ultimately however, we need to move beyond authority. Part of a healthy diet, for most of us, is eating a diet we approve of. That is, we have to own the diet. It does me no good to eat lots of red meat, for example, on the advice of some “health expert”, if I have strong ethical qualms about eating meat. The qualms are not the whole of the story, but they are a part of it. The point is to be experimental: find out what you like, what works for you, and what you feel good about. Self-monitor: how do you feel after a cup of coffee? Before? Can you tell how low blood sugar makes you irritable? Do you feel the need to nap in the early afternoon? After certain kinds of meals but not others? Learn how your body works and how it interacts with its food. Try new things. Keep the good, leave the bad.
What is the point of eating? Are you trying to lose weight? Gain weight? Get healthy? Healthy like who? Do you want to run a marathon? Or just not feel like crap when you get up in the morning? You have to decide what your goals are. The point is that you should take responsibility and think about your diet.
The days are gone, for most of us, when we had the option of not thinking about what we eat. The reality for most of us is that we have at least some choices. Microwave dinner? Popcorn? Pizza? Eating out? Carry out? Chinese? Thai? Crockpot? Lentils? Chili?
Try out a variety, see what works. It’s the only way.
Do the same for everything else in life.