What is Healthy Food?
As the holiday season fades in a few weeks, and a new year faces us, many will set out, either through resolution, or just looks in the mirror, to cut back on calories, do more exercise, lose some weight, or more generally just get healthy. But what does “healthy” really mean when it comes to food and our behaviors?
For most of us, health is a rather elusive state that seems to shift out from under us every few months. This is because we don’t know what it is. As a result, media, marketers and our own psyches play tricks on us to make us feel we are lacking that missing ingredient in our health.
For people with chronic illness, lack of pain might be the ideal “healthy.” For the terminal patient, another few months of just being alive could be all the health he or she wants. In my twenties health was all about being able to play a full game of soccer, or climb up a rock gym. There is also a whole other way of thinking that describes health as a mental state of well being. In the end, health is a fairly relative term that varies from person to person, and moment to moment. I think we can all get a handle on it, though, if we do some philosophizing.
When it comes to food, I have built a philosophy around the idea that foods are neither good, nor bad, but nutritionalism and “fast” food are.
When is food healthy? When it has high nutritional numbers? Low in fat? Sugar? Salt? Low calories? Or some discovered health benefit? Is it healthy when it has a label of “natural,” “organic,” or even “healthy?”
For countless generations people ate food to survive, and enjoyed it whenever they could. Enjoyment usually meant the addition of fat, salt, or sugar, and often all three. People didn’t use to live very long, yet were very active physically and mentally. Food was an active part of their health, but only because they were eating it.
It is a misconception that contemporary people have a leg up on our great grandparent, pesant ancestors because of our “health knowledge.” The reality is that our ancestors did actually know every sign of health very well. Their lives depended on it. Strong bodies and sharp reasoning were needed every day to keep food on the table. Whether it was on the farm, at the shop, or in a factory, people knew their bodies well, how much they could do, and how much food they needed to do it. They saw health, with all its nuanced glory in their animals, themselves, and in each other.
True, they didn’t have the scientific knowledge to back it up, and superstitions were often wrong, but then again there wasn’t a need for more “knowledge,” because people were healthy as a matter of course; or at least didn’t live long enough to know the difference. Actual contagious diseases were the enemy then, not our self inflicted stress illnesses. Our ancestors had medical problems, not health problems. Those things are too very different, yet related things that often become conflated in our over-informed society.
When scientists began to understand the nature of nutrients in the mid-twentieth century, they were able to find ways to rid society of mal-nutrition, but it didn’t actually make the rest of us normally-nourished people any “healthier.” Mal-nutrition was a medical problem then, and not the health indicator it is now. In Western society, there is really no such thing as mal-nutrition anymore, even amongst the poorest of us. When compared to the dire conditions that true famine and starvation caused in the past, and still do in areas of the world like Sub-Saharan Africa, minor boughts of “not-in-perfect-health” are a mere shadow.
Taking all that into consideration, why are we so concerned with “nutrients” in our food? Unless a doctor has tested you and found that there is a medical problem, few are actually in danger of nutrient problems. I hear people talk about protein and vitamins all the time, I do it to, instead of food. We should be talking about the body’s reaction to that food, as in taste, vitalization, and satisfaction. Nutrients, and the corresponding nutritionalism, are small parts of the wrong puzzle for most of us.
Our bodies don’t react, or function on nutrients. In fact, they require, and function on food. So what is food, then? For one, it is not simply the carier of nutrients. Food is a conglomeration of emotions, sustenance, and a giant mix of compounds. On any given day or given meal, no one can be totally sure what food does nutritionally in the body. It is a short term stimulus, and a long term metabolic stabilizer. Food is the sum of everything beyond the air we breath that keeps us alive.
Food is so wondrous and complex, we need to relax about it, and with it, then build a nuanced approach to eating. A big part of my choices now revolve around being a vegetarian (with some fish once in a while), but there are a whole bunch of other considerations to eating healthy, too.