Food for Thought

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What’s for dinner? The omnivore’s daily dilemma. 
“Omnivores, such as rats and humans, faced with an enormous number of potential foods, must choose wisely. They are always in danger of eating something harmful or eating too much of a good thing.” (Paul Rozin, 1976)

In his Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan reminds us of the pros and cons of being a generalist. On the plus side, it has allowed us to inhabit every continent on earth (even Antarctica) and enjoy the pleasures of variety. On the minus, a surfeit of choice (for the fortunate among us) brings stress and the need to divide food into The Good Things to Eat and The Bad.

These days, lacking what Pollan calls “a steadying culture of food”, many of us turn to experts for advice on what’s good to eat and what’s not. There’s an army of them (some more well-intentioned than others) out there ready and willing. In alphabetical order and offering varying levels of expertise and accuracy our advisers may include the following: academics • advertisers • bloggers and twitterers • chefs and cooks • commodity groups • diet companies • dietary guidelines committees • dietitians • doctors • family and friends • film makers • food companies (big and small) • foodies • government departments • gurus • health organisations • marketers • media (all of it) • nutritionists and naturopaths • researchers and PhD candidates • sales assistants (health/organic food stores) • sports and fitness coaches and trainers • trade organisations. We even had a taxi driver advise us to take up a gluten-free diet the other day. “Don’t bother to see a doctor,” he said, “just do it”.

No wonder people are confused and stressed about what’s for dinner. Perhaps it’s Back-to-the-Future time. “The human omnivore has, in addition to his senses and memory, the incalculable advantage of a culture, which stores the experience and accumulated wisdom of countless human tasters before us,” writes Pollan. “Our culture codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners and culinary traditions that keep us from having to re-enact the omnivore’s dilemma at every meal.”

“Good taste, good manners, and conviviality (not eating alone), food principles suggested by other cultures, are all more closely linked to health outcomes than are restrictive rules,” writes Prof Joanne Slavin in The Nutrition Elite. This year’s ground-breaking, draft dietary guidelines from Brazil enshrine this principle. “We need to protect and preserve the Brazilian tradition of enjoyment of meals as a central part of family, social and workplace life. The planning of meals, exchange of recipes with friends, and involvement of the whole family in preparing food to enjoy together, are all part of a healthy life” says Patricia Jaime, Ministry of Health coordinator of Food and Nutrition.

Over thousands of years, successful (and very different) dietary patterns that we now know are associated with a low risk of chronic disease have evolved in different parts of the world. For example, the traditional Mediterranean and Japanese diets are both associated with a long and healthy life, but the former is relatively high in fat whereas the latter, like most Asian diets, is very high in carbohydrate and low in fat. This suggests that our modern tendency to focus on a particular nutrient may not be a useful way to describe a “good diet” – a low fat diet is not necessarily ideal for everyone, and neither is a high carbohydrate diet.

When choosing what’s for dinner, cultural patterns need to be taken into account. And using our “swap it” guide, your recipes can be low GI, too. Get started with Yotam Ottolengi and Sami Tamimi’s Roasted chicken with Jerusalem artichoke and lemon from Jerusalem (Random House) in our new section – What’s for dinner? – featured in the GI News Kitchen.

Swap it