Before I discovered the best way of eating for myself, I’d tried most of the eating plans of the last twenty years – Fit for Life, Sugar Busters, Atkins, Paleo and even more that I’ve forgotten about. And for years before those, I was a vegetarian. In each case, the universe of edibles is divided into good food and bad food, the latter being something that must be restricted or eaten in a certain way to create the proper metabolic or digestive response. Some diet plans required removing the offending food entirely because the latest study discovered that it was bad for everyone (insert: meat, eggs, dairy, carbs, gluten, etc.). All of these eating schools have some basis in nutritional science and can, if right for your particular body, result in at least temporary weight loss and health improvements. But in many cases, these methods require a substitute eating mindset, one in which we acknowledge that we crave the restricted food, but must now find ways to replicate it using substitute ingredients. It’s an approach that is not only unsustainable, but just makes nutrition unnecessarily complicated.
Let’s take sugar first. I limit sugar in my diet and encourage my family to do the same. When I was more rigid about it, I baked with combinations of xylitol, erythritol and stevia. And I can honestly say that few of those baking experiences were very satisfying. I ended up making and consuming more food because I felt like I was being healthier, but the fact is, I wasn’t getting much from a single serving of these odd-tasting enterprises. So I’d have another! Some low-carb/sugar-free food plans encourage the use of unhealthy substitutes like aspartame and sucralose. Better to use a little less-refined sugar, raw honey, maple syrup or agave syrup, which I put in my morning coffee.
During the period when I was restricting carbs, I also decided to go gluten-free. From our in-home study, no one in my family has gluten sensitivity, but reading about the downsides of modern wheat, from the Round Up it may contain, to genetic modifications, made it seem like a good food to avoid. So I baked with coconut flour, almond flour, ground flax seed and a variety of other wheat substitutes. But nothing really satisfied. And so I’d eat more of everything-more fats, more meat (which I’m really not crazy about), more nuts-because I couldn’t scratch the one major food itch of mine that I was trying desperately to find a substitute for: I love bread. I mean a lot. Especially sourdough. I’m kind of a kook for it. So after admitting that going gluten-free and carb-restricted had done nothing to improve my health, energy or overall outlook on life, I started making my own sourdough using… plain old grocery store wheat flour! And I’d have a piece of toast in the morning and even (gasp) an occasional sandwich. It fixed everything. My appetite decreased, my food consumption lessened and I stopped obsessing about what was good and bad in my pantry. Food and I were friends again.
For vegetarians and vegans, life can be rife with substitutions for meat and dairy, which often result in eating large amounts of soy, a food we’re now learning has its own set of “handle with care” warnings attached. But here we come back to another conundrum. What if you like to eat tofu occasionally, as I do? Surely we don’t have to find a substitute for that too!?
What I’m urging here is for all of us to relax our notion of good food and bad food, so often based on the latest findings. As that old saw goes, “moderation is the key”. If you like a food, but you want to limit it because it makes you gain weight, feel sluggish or has other health impacts, universally (like sugar) or just for you, go ahead and have some, but not a lot. Don’t fear some foods or feel guilty for eating them. Stress is bad for your digestion, so love what you’re eating, even or especially if it’s an indulgence you don’t need all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice to eat in a world where you didn’t need to find substitutions for what you really want? In 2015, let’s focus on eating the real thing.