From September we will have to feed the contents of the meals we cook for our local school into a computer which will tot up the nutrients and tell our cook if they are fit to eat. I am sure this initiative is full of good intentions, and may even help to reduce some abuses at the lower end of school catering, but it strikes me as depressingly reductionist, culturally degrading and an intrinsically unhealthy approach to food.
In a recent edition of Radio Four’s excellent Food Program, Michael Pollan author of “In Defence of Food”, gave some simple guidance on how to eat a healthy diet and enjoy it:
1. don’t eat anything your great grandmother would not recognise as food
2. don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients
3. only eat at a table; eat slowly and communally
4. distrust any food claiming health benefits
This all made so much sense that I bought the book, the gist being that your granny is a better source of dietary guidance than science and nutrition experts. Having spent five years studying natural sciences I am wary of unquestioning adulation of native wisdom but when it comes to nutrition, science has earned a bad name. Our relationship with food is far more complex than simply summing up the known,nutrients and multiplying by their known effects on our bodies – there is just too much that we do not know. Judging from a recent article in the New Scientist we are still far from understanding the relationship of appetite, diet and weight gain but this has not prevented the proliferation of highly processed functional foods marketed on their ability to fight coronary heart disease and help weight loss.
Science will not solve a cultural problem; namely a collapse in the willingness, confidence and skills needed to cook and enjoy real food. There is no one healthy diet, no silver bullet that can better the knowledge, accumulated over generations, of how to use predominantly locally sourced ingredients to sustain us through happy and healthy lives. Pollan’s advice is, that unless you suffer from a specific illness like diabetes, the best thing to do with a nutritionist’s advice is to ignore it.