What on Earth are we meant to eat?

Have you noticed there are so many dietary dogmas in the media that are often conflicting? Confused? – what is the right way to eat and what foods are actually good for us?

For sure none of these current diets are advocating vast quantities of highly processed junk food. But when it comes to the daily consumption of animal products, the jury is out. I have been eating a largely vegetarian diet for the last 15 years, and a plant-based (aka vegan) diet for the last 3 years. I have to admit that I am becoming more and more passionate about this way of eating and yes, more closed to changing my mind. I am aware there is also a large following for the Paleo diet (which includes plenty of animal products) and the Ketogenic (high fat, low carb) diet, with all their health claims. I suspect that most of us who explore a diet that we heard about and then come to really believe in, are in danger of feeling that ours is the one true best way to eat. And everybody else is wrong!

I recently heard an interesting podcast with Ari Whitten interviewing scientist Dr Alan Christianson about health myths. They discussed what happens when we come to believe that certain foods are bad, such as gluten or dairy. They said we have a kind of paradigm operating in our brains that reinforces our belief. When we eat those foods, it changes our experience and introduces a ‘nocebo’ phenomenon, (meaning that a negative placebo effect occurs, basically a placebo effect that creates harm). So then when we eat foods that could contain those things we are more attuned to our gut or our energy level and we say “Oh, I’m noticing a little more bloating than normal. Or I have a little more pain. It must be the gluten or whatever.” And so, the placebo and nocebo effects layer onto the effectiveness of that diet and our experience of that diet. We are learning more and more that ‘beliefs’ themselves actually shape our physiology. So, they’re completely self-fulfilling.

Some would say we are poor judges of our experience in the short term. We all have symptoms that ebb, and flow and some things are better, then worse. Then there are tonnes of articles and research documents that support whatever diet we want to believe in. On the other hand maybe we are the best experts on our unique body, mind and soul, and we need to learn to listen more closely to what our bodies are telling us.

What on Earth are we meant to eat?

Coming back to the title: ‘What on Earth are we meant to eat?’, I recently read an online Guardian article written by its Environment Editor: ‘New plant-focused diet that would transform the planet’s future, says scientists’’ describing a ‘Planetary Health Diet’. It describes how huge reductions in red meat consumption and hence livestock farming in western countries would not only save at least 11 million deaths per year caused by unhealthy food, but also address the climate change crisis we are facing. A Professor at a Belfast University, who is part of the industry-backed Meat Advisory Panel, warned that this move would have little impact on the environment and potentially damage people’s health.  Sadly this conflict of interest happens all too often. However it is encouraging to see a mainstream newspaper write about a diet for the planet’s health as well as ours.

I am reminded of Dan Buettner’s research on the 5 regions of the world where people live much longer than average. Buettner finds that in these areas, which include Sardinia and Okinowa, now know as The Blue Zones, local inhabitants eat a mainly but not exclusively, plant based diet. Of course other lifestyle factors such as physical exercise, low levels of stress, sense of community and hours of daily sunshine are also important factors influencing longevity.

The Guardian article quotes editors at the Lancet, saying global changes as set out by the Planetary Health Diet were essential: “Civilization is in crisis……If we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance will be restored.”

Am I cherry picking what articles I read and believe in? When the health of planet Earth is brought into the equation, not just my personal longevity, I think it changes everything.

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