Christmas is coming: Don’t Fear the Food
With Christmas just a few weeks away, all the people on special diets or living with food allergies approach this season with fear. In fact, instead of approaching food as a wonderful experience to be shared with friends and family, we actually think about food in the negative. What shouldn’t we eat that we will regret later: food is evil, dangerously tempting and unhealthy.
All of this fearful information happens under the guise of science. But a closer look at the research behind our food fears shows that many of our most demonized foods are actually good for us. Taken to extremes of course, dietary choices can be harmful, but that logic works both ways.
Consider salt. It’s true that, if people with high blood pressure consume a lot of salt, it will cause their bodies to retain water, increase their blood pressure and this leads to cardiovascular events like heart attacks. But the average person consumes just over three grams of salt per day which is the sweet spot for good health.
Eating too little salt may be just as dangerous as eating too much. This is especially true for the majority of people who do not have high blood pressure. In fact extra salt in your diet will help your body retain water and keep you from becoming dehydrated. But you will never hear the experts talk about the good values of salt.
Many of the doctors and nutritionists who recommend avoiding certain foods fail to properly explain the magnitude of the risks. We get a sound bite on the evening news and the fear sets in. In some studies, processed red meat in large amounts is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. The absolute risk, however, is often quite small. If you ate an extra serving of bacon a day, every day, your lifetime risk of colon cancer would go up less than one-half of 1 per cent. Even then, these statistics are debatable.
Nevertheless, we have become more and more susceptible to arguments that we must avoid certain foods completely. When one panic-du-jour fades away, we quickly find another one to focus on for our fears. We demonized fats. Then cholesterol. Then meat.
For some people in recent years, gluten has become the enemy, even though wheat accounts for about 20 per cent of the calories consumed world-wide, more than every other food. Yet less than 1 per cent of people in Canada have a wheat allergy, and less than 1 per cent have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that requires sufferers to abstain from gluten. Gluten sensitivity (the catchall disorder that leads many Canadians to abstain from gluten) is not well defined, and most people who self-diagnose do not meet the criteria.
Nonetheless, at least one in five Canadians regularly chooses gluten-free foods, according to a 2015 poll. Sales of products with gluten-free labels rose to $23 billion world-wide in 2014, up from 11.5 billion worldwide in 2010.
The hullabaloo over gluten echoes the panic over MSG that began roughly half a century ago, and which has yet to fully subside. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is nothing more than a single sodium atom attached to glutamic acid, an amino acid that is a key part of the mechanism by which our cells create energy. Without it, all oxygen-dependant life as we know it would die.
A 1968 letter in the New England Journal of Medicine started the frenzy; the writer reported feeling numbness, weakness and palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. A few limited studies followed, along with a small number of news articles. Before long, nutrition experts and consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader were calling for MSG to be banned. The Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada never had to step in; food companies saw the writing on the wall and dropped MSG voluntarily.
Many people still wrongly believe that MSG is poison. We certainly don’t need MSG in our diet, but we also don’t need to waste effort avoiding it. Our aversion shows how susceptible we are to misinterpreting scientific research and how slow we are to update our thinking when better research becomes available. There is no evidence that people suffer disproportionately from the afflictions, now ranging from headaches to asthma. In studies all over the world, the case against MSG does not hold up.
Too often, we fail to think critically about scientific evidence. Genetically modified organisms are perhaps the best example of this.
G.M.O.’s are, in theory, one of our best bets for feeding the planet’s growing population. When a 2015 PEW Poll asked Canadians whether they thought it was generally safe or unsafe to eat modified foods, almost 60 per cent said it was unsafe. The same poll asked scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science the same question. Only 11 per cent of them though G.M.O.’s were unsafe.
Most Canadians, at least according to this poll, don’t really care what scientists think. In fact, Canadians disagree with scientists on this issue more than just about any other, including a host of contentious topics such as vaccines, evolution and even global warming.
If people want to avoid foods, even if there is no valid reason, is that a problem?
The answer is yes. Because it makes food scary. And being afraid of food with no real reason is unscientific, part of the dangerous trend of anti-intellectualism that we confront in many places today. Moderation is the key to good health and these fears keep us away from a balanced diet.
Food should be a cause for pleasure not panic. For most people, it’s entirely possible to eat more healthfully without living in terror or struggling to avoid certain foods altogether. The Christmas season is upon us and that means going out a lot and many social dinners at friends and family. Instead of avoiding all the wonderful and delicious foods that are put before you, the one thing you should cut from your diet is fear. Bon appetit.
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