Folmsbee: There are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy you

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Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

I love science, but I love food so much more. So naturally, I am disturbed that my two loves have been pitted against one another, with the rise of pseudoscience draining all the joy out of the simple act of eating. The consumption of food should be a universal source of pleasure — the distillation of pure happiness shared across all cultures and continents. But with the obesity epidemic now rising to global proportions, we have descended into a culture of hyper-intellectualization and food-shaming. Instead of turning to the scientific evidence, we hide behind pseudoscientific trends, which only serve to introduce unnecessary guilt into our eating habits.

For instance, our obsession with antioxidants in foods continues to grow, despite strong scientific evidence against their benefits. The scientific concept of antioxidants is well established, as they eliminate reactive chemical compounds which can alter the biochemical workings of the cell. But we are not single cells; we are complex and dynamic systems, maintaining a delicate balance throughout our entire bodies. The alteration of only one small aspect of that system, such as consuming an excessive amount of antioxidants, can disturb that equilibrium — and not always for the better. The best scientific studies have shown no benefit to eating antioxidants, and some data show high doses of antioxidants can increase the risk of stroke and many types of cancer. Here, our obsession with food pseudoscience has blinded us to medical reality.

This manipulation of science extends to fad diets as well, a popular recent example being the Paleolithic, or “caveman diet.” According to its supporters, this plan is based on the eating habits ancient humans had early in our evolution as hunter-gatherers, before agriculture and processed foods revolutionized our diets. This diet consists mostly of meats and vegetables, with few grains and carbohydrates. Their position is that human genetics have been perfected over millions of years of evolution to be best adapted to this diet. From this, they argue that the diseases of modern society, from heart disease and diabetes to cancer and depression, can be attributed to our collective deviation from this diet.

However, this thinking overlooks the keystone principle of evolutionary biology: All organisms on earth have evolved to optimize reproduction, not necessarily health. Natural selection only affects our health insofar as it has allowed us to reach reproductive age, and the most deadly diseases in the United States, including heart disease and cancer, manifest after we have far passed our prime reproductive years. As important as evolution has been in humanity’s biological makeup, it is also partially to blame for our weaknesses. We crave fatty, sugary, salty foods because they were scarce during our evolution, and they never were eaten in excess because they were never available in excess. The Paleolithic diet does have some good principles, such as an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, but it also creates arbitrary restrictions on entire categories of food. Is all bread truly “unhealthy”?

No, because we should not be labeling foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Doing that sets up a false dichotomy, as most food cannot simply be sorted into panacea or poison. Any one thing in excess can lead to adverse health effects, but this isn’t a problem with our food — it’s a problem with us. Foods are not unhealthy. Our eating behaviors can be. And unfortunately, this labeling of foods specifically as unhealthy creates an atmosphere of shame, a malicious air of sin that robs us all of pleasure, particularly when many of these foods can be safely consumed in moderation.

Ultimately, unless you have specific dietary restrictions, the best diet is not one at all. Temporary changes to our eating habits tend to reverse quickly, evident in the frequent recurrences in weight gain after crash dieting. Instead, by focusing on our behaviors and not our food, we can adopt a new, permanent diet of moderation and variety to combat rising obesity rates. And in doing so, we do not have to sacrifice our humanity. We owe it to ourselves to take time to enjoy our lives and the variety of food that is available within them. And no dessert tastes sweeter than one that is both rare and eaten without guilt.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].