Food fads show interest in health but a little knowledge can be dangerous


Last Sunday morning I sat in a café in Galway, looking forward to a good breakfast. But when I picked up the menu I was met by an array of symbols and letters after every item. V I know. That one means vegetarian. C, I could guess, was coeliac. But P?

Paleo. Flipping paleo. If you gave me a real pancake for every time I’ve sees a recipe for “tasty paleo pancakes” pop up on my Facebook timeline, I’d be happy and probably quite full. As for the “tasty paleo pancake” you won’t convince me that a slurry of egg whites and mashed banana is a pancake. That’s like comparing holy communion to a crusty loaf.

PALEO PIC

Paleo is everywhere. Based on the notion that we should eat what cavement eat (conveniently ignoring evolutionary changes in our digestive systems since then), it involves advice such as avoiding processed food and sugar and eating more vegetables. Lean meat is also welcome. Avoiding grains appears to be its USP.

While I do have a beef with the pancakes, a lot of paleo recipes are clever and innovative. There are creative recipes and substitutions, although cauliflower masquerading as rice is a step too far for me. For people who have yo yo dieted over the years, going from sugary cereal bars branded by one weight loss company to dubious milkshakes flogged by another, neither of which resemble real food, perhaps it is revelatory.

At the core of the paleo philosophy are basic, sensible ideas about food. Processed food can’t be good for you. Vegetables and lean meat are very good for you. Fruit is a treat because it’s sugary.

The new obsession with food involves ordinary people armed with a bit of jumbled information from “experts” trying to sell books or weight loss plans, convincing themselves that it’s normal to ingest protein supplements instead of protein-based food, that you can start the day on juice Popeye’d be proud of , ‘masticated’ by an expensive machine, and, the latest one, putting butter in coffee.
The “bulletproof coffee” phenomenon suggests that blending butter into your coffee rather than using milk will make you lose weight. While science can indeed be counter-intuitive, this one is not only hard to believe, but hard to stomach.

Try that greasy coffee mix for breakfast along with the banana and egg travesty outlined above, washed down with mushed up kale and celery, and tell me it’s worth the indigestion. You might lose weight, because you’ll feel so queasy you won’t eat again all day.

The problem is that the latest snake oil solution (bulletproof coffee) is reported equally seriously along with longitudinal studies (the kind of thing that results in the advice that an egg a day is ok). We see it reported side by side with headlines like “red wine improves your brain function so much your children will be in Mensa”, in a PR survey that asked four parents of Oxbridge graduates whether they drink red wine, to “go back to eating butter instead of marge” from huge studies on trans fats conducted by universities.

People want to learn but it’s impossible to pick the wheat from the chaff in terms of information.
However irritating the alphabetised notations on menus are, growth of awareness around food can only be a good thing, because we need now, more than ever, to understand what is in our food and how it is made. Most of us know less processed food is better, but as a new book by journalist Joanna Blythman ‘Swallow This: Serving up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets’ highlights, a lot of the time, we have no idea how processed it is. Pharma spends millions creating chemicals to preserve our food that aren’t listed on labels, so your healthy salad could be weeks old and coated in god-knows-what.

With the information overload and the difficulty of reading packaging, there’s one simple way to ensure you’re eating real food. Stay local, stay fresh, and stick to food someone your granny’s age would recognise – be she Mexican, Chinese or Irish!

I’m taking a leaf out of the paleo gang’s cabbage, as it were; sometimes the old ways are the best.

Published in The Herald 28.02.15

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