A grain of salt: Put your dogma on a leash

By Ammi Midstokke
Reader Columnist

“Are you paleo?” a client asks me as I hand over a cookbook filled mostly with recipes for bacon kale quiche variants. “Nope,” I respond as I reach for a vegan alternative. It probably has a flax meal and tofu quiche recipe, but I’ve been afraid to look.

Ammi Midstokke.

If religious conviction is seemingly less en vogue, then we’ve replaced it with a new kind of dogma: identifying ourselves with a set of food rules, subscribing to their #rawfood Instagram account and applying the appropriate tattoos to our forearms. That is, until we run into a new set of health problems and are reborn into a new set of disordered eating rules.

And just like with our Bible-thumping, door-to-dooring spreaders of the good word, we’re preaching our successes and salvation. This friend lost weight going keto, that friend intermittent fasts, another stopped eating red meat. And all of them have arrived.

The intention is, of course, good. When people find a path that makes them feel better or saves them from the sin of those espresso-laden milkshakes, they want to share the good news. They want others to experience the same kind of satisfaction and sense of well-being.

We need to take a moment to consider a little more carefully what we’re suggesting.

It is true that we all have (unless a dog has learned how to read my column) the same-ish human bodies. Genetically speaking, none of us are particularly exotic. But as science shows us time and time again, there is no ubiquitous, perfect diet. The set of rules that resolve one person’s issues may cause another person’s problems. Got hereditarily high cholesterol? Bacon is not a super food for you. 

I would argue that it is impossible for us to know everything about food, nutrition, genetics, epigenetics or a particular human’s medical history. Inasmuch, it is presumptuous for us to wander around hocking our latest diet affair to friends, coworkers and naked people at the gym (or clothed people for that matter).

The studies we have available to us — the kind that use placebo control, unbiased funding and are produced by people known as scientists — come up with pretty much the same data: eat a ton of vegetables and fruit, don’t take in more calories than you expend and don’t bleeping smoke. (The science also says, “Don’t drink alcohol,” but no one really wants to hear that one.)

There is also all kinds of science to back up particular aspects of particular diets, but we are a little more confused about why one person responds well to one diet and another may not. Which is exactly why eating for optimal health is quite a different approach than eating for weight loss. 

Most of us know the basics of what we should be eating, though there is often some confusion about what qualifies as a vegetable. Surprisingly, neither corn nor lasagna are in that category, and yes, I have actually had to tell people this. 

If you are trying to improve your health with diet, the real work happens when we start asking questions like, “If we know what is good for us, why don’t we do it?”

Ah.

So our diet scripture, even if it were scientifically valid for the innocent bystander we’re preaching to, may not apply to them at all because they simply cannot implement it. And for any of us who has “failed” on a diet, attempting to follow a new set of rules often just reaffirms beliefs that we can’t follow rules. This message comes in various forms:

“I am not good enough.”

“Screw the rules.”

“I’m fine with how I am, so long as it means I can eat this pie and then apply guilt and shame later.”

Much like religion or our relationship with the cosmos, our relationships with food are personal and unique to our value systems. Ask any vegan. Or hunter. 

The next time you’re eager to share your success with someone, try explaining why that solution worked so well for you in particular. In this way, people can learn from the lessons that do resonate with them and take their own steps toward a healthier life. And whatever steps they take, cheer like they are the winning homecoming team. We need all the affirmation we can get.

Ammi Midstokke is a nutritional therapist and author. When she isn’t saving people with vegetables, she is trying to get lost in the mountains. She can be contacted at [email protected]wobirdsnutrition.com 

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