The Unsteady Diet: The Perfect Formula for Maximizing Benefits While Minimizing Risks

May 15, 2009 by


Are you overwhelmed and confused by the endless stream of information on health in the media? New scientific evidence is continually unearthed about what we should and shouldn’t eat.

Perhaps one of the only facts about diet we can know for sure is that the experts always disagree, as has often been said. One expert condemns a certain food even as another praises its virtues.

We want answers, but the answers we get are clouded with the fact that researchers need to get funding. They need to make news.  Methods and conclusions can be colored by researchers’ own personal biases. Then there’s the inherent impossibility of getting much accurate data on what people eat and how it truly affects them. Contradictions, errors, oversimplifications, over- and understatements, half-truths and fallacies abound in diet research, according to Barry Glassner in The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.

So we end up going to extremes.  People hear about the current demon, whether it’s fat, salt, cholesterol, eggs, red meat, or carbs, and grab hold of eliminating it, as if to a lifeboat, as the hope for health. Others might hear that a certain fruit or fish is safe and beneficial, so they start eating it all the time.  We grasp at tidbits, looking for that miracle food or diet or cure, The Answer to What Ails Us, from flax seeds to goji berries. Others end up disregarding all recommendations, even the sound ones.

So all this information isn’t helping.  Whatever it is we know or don’t know, we seem to keep getting fatter and sicker.

What we need is a clear, unifying principle to be our guiding our star in navigating the fluctuations of “expert opinion” and the inconstancy of “facts.”

That guiding principle exists.  It is Strictly Everything under the sun. Instead of worrying about particular foods to eat or avoid, we need as many different whole foods (fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, grains) as possible.  Most experts seem to be able to agree on the point that whole foods are probably generally better for us than processed foods.

Variety is a great answer for everything we don’t know. As varied a diet as possible is “good insurance” in our position of “extraordinary ignorance” about diet, states medical writer Marcia Angell. Putting your eggs in as many different baskets as you can is the best way to dodge the risks and maximize gains, she explains.

Variety is an equally safe answer to problems we really are sure about. The evidence is good enough for me, for example, that many of our food sources are contaminated with some amount of toxins, carcinogens, pathogens, bacteria, coatings, colorings, flavorings, GMOs, chemicals and allergens.

I believe that hormones and antibiotics infect our meat, not to mention extreme cruelty and filth in industrial production. Fish is affected by polluted waters or harmful farming practices. Pesticides and herbicides contaminate vegetables and fruits. Cow’s milk may not be beneficial for most humans.  There is plenty worth worrying about and avoiding if we are so inclined. I’ve even heard that even the best of celery has its own natural poisons.  Even water can kill you if you drink too much at a time.

Thank goodness, even a child’s body can process a certain amount of toxins, and buying at least some organic produce may help.

Happily also, different foods come with different types of toxins. Shaking things up nonstop allows you to get as many different nutrients as possible while diluting the poisons.

It’s the steady diet of anything that present a great danger. Making variety the ultimate goal in meal planning throws up a solid roadblock against overdosing on any particular evil.

On the flip side, our need for a wide variety of nutrients gives us another reason to diversify.  While a steady diet of anything is bad, that doesn’t mean going without that thing is good. Suspect foods, at least among whole foods, are a mixed bag, also offering some good stuff. You may swallow some hormones and antibiotics, but you also get some protein and vitamins with it. Pesticides may be part of the package, but you get some fiber and minerals in the same bite. Pleasure is also worth something, as it helps us get the most good out of a meal.

For optimal nutrition, children need to eat 20 different foods per day, according to French Women Don’t Get Fat author Mireille Guiliano.  Eating the greatest possible variety of good foods is the best way to avoid nutritional deficiencies and not miss junk food too much, she adds.

In spite of all the disagreement on what we should or shouldn’t eat, we can bank on not only the principle of variety, but yet another big, broad answer to the question. I don’t think any researcher has ever come out and said, “After all, don’t eat vegetables and fruits, because we just found out they’re bad for you.”  So old news or not, fruits and vegetables, especially organic, may still be our safest bet, at least until further notice.

© Sacred Appetite  / Anna Migeon / 15 May 2009 / All rights reserved