Saturday, March 07, 2009

Food Neurosis

By Diana Hsieh

The NY Times recently ran an article entitled What's Eating Our Kids? Fears About 'Bad' Foods. Here's the opening:

SODIUM -- that's what worries Greye Dunn. He thinks about calories, too, and whether he's getting enough vitamins. But it's the sodium that really scares him.

"Sodium makes your heart beat faster, so it can create something really serious," said Greye, who is 8 years old and lives in Mays Landing, N.J.

Greye's mother, Beth Dunn, the president of a multimedia company, is proud of her son's nutritional awareness and encourages it by serving organic food and helping Greye read labels on cereal boxes and cans.

"He wants to be healthy," she says.

Ms. Dunn is among the legions of parents who are vigilant about their children's consumption of sugar, processed foods and trans fats. Many try to stick to an organic diet. In general, their concern does not stem from a fear of obesity -- although that may figure into the equation -- but from a desire to protect their families from conditions like hyperactivity, diabetes and heart disease, which they believe can be avoided, or at least managed, by careful eating.

While scarcely any expert would criticize parents for paying attention to children's diets, many doctors, dietitians and eating disorder specialists worry that some parents are becoming overzealous, even obsessive, in efforts to engender good eating habits in children. With the best of intentions, these parents may be creating an unhealthy aura around food.
From my perspective, the problem is not that parents are attempting to steer their kids toward healthy foods. Parents ought to do that: they ought to feed their kids foods that nourish and sustain them, as well as to teach them the principles and habits of good eating. The problem here is that some parents seem to be imposing a strict dietary regimen on their children as a duty disconnected from facts -- and disconnected from the child's own understanding. That duty-based approach will do psychological damage, whether the recommended diet is sound or not.

The proper response to that problem is not to say "eat in moderation" or "don't be so fussy" or "lighten up." Nutrition is a science: the human body is not mere mere subjective phenomena, capable of being stuffed full of anything without ill effect. As a matter of objective fact, some foods are healthy and others are not. As a matter of objective fact, some foods should be eaten in abundance, others in moderation, others rarely, and others not at all. The proportions may often depend on the individual, but even then, facts are facts.

A person can do him self very real damage by eating the wrong kinds of foods. Personally, if I attempted to eat sweets "in moderation," I would suffer for it. I would start feeling run down. I would be constantly hungry. I would have persistent cravings for more sugar. I would regain weight. My fasting blood glucose would rise again, meaning that I'd be on my way to type 2 diabetes. My liver would get fatty again -- or fattier. My HDL levels would decline, and my triglycerides would rise. All of that would be very bad for me, and that's a matter of fact.

So for me to refrain from eating sweets is right and proper. Frankly, I'm even discovering that the ill effects I feel from eating just one brownie once a month are not worth the pleasures of it on my tongue. Do I flog myself for eating that once-a-month brownie? Of course not. I simply observe those ill effects and remind myself to choose more carefully next month. It's too bad that I'm so sensitive, and I'm well aware that others are more tolerant of sugar than me. But I'm not going to beat my head against a wall: my job as a person is to live in reality in accordance with the facts, whether I like them or not.

The only real solution to the problem of this new neurosis about food is to banish the duty-based approach to eating in favor of a fact-based approach. A person's dietary choices should be based on his first-handed understanding of the facts. That means understanding the actual science of nutrition -- opposed to the conventional wisdom. (For that, I think, a person simply must read Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories.) And, in conjunction, a person must track the effects of his diet on his day-to-day well-being to determine what kinds of foods benefit versus harm him. That often requires some substantial work of discovery: it's usually not obvious without some careful and sustained experimentation of one's own. Moreover, to be useful, such experiments should be guided by a person's well-grounded general knowledge of metabolism, nutrition, and the like.

In short, a person should fare better in perceptible ways on on any diet worth sustaining. That knowledge should be the basis for the person's nutritional choices, not mere dogma. If a person has that knowledge, then for him to insist on his food choices -- however fussy, however demanding, however contrary to conventional wisdom -- is right and good. Such a person is acting in his self-interest, based on his own independent judgment. And that's a good thing.

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