Eating a good meal is one of the most common pleasures in the world. And it’s no coincidence we find food enjoyable. Food is needed to provide nourishment and energy for our bodies. If it wasn’t enjoyable, humans would have died out long ago. Who of our ancestors would have spent all that time in search for food? But food is more than just the nutrients it provides.
Celebrations focused on food have existed for thousands of years from successful hunts to modern-day Thanksgiving. Social structures have been built around the growing of foods. Holidays celebrate harvests. And wars have been fought over food with the outcomes often based on which side has the better supplies. So goes the saying, an army marches on its stomach.
Meals have also become a time for family and friends to come together and share stories. The early Christian term, “breaking of bread”, has come to mean an act of sharing and gathering. It’s often said that families who share meals together have greater social bounding. Plus, many big and small business deals and arrangements have been made over meals.
Our Senses Guide the Way
Our senses have evolved over thousands of years to help us detect food that’s good for us and steer us away from food that isn’t. We don’t need to taste rotten meat or spoiled milk to know to avoid it. A quick smell tells us that. And if we can’t tell, our taste buds act as the last line of defense, causing us to spit out anything that may be bad or spoiled.
At the same time, our taste buds have a strong sense for certain flavours. In particular, salt. Salt, or rather sodium, is needed for many biological functions. You can probably only live for a few weeks without sodium. The reason we’re so highly attuned to salt is because it’s not found in high amounts in most natural foods (whether in meat or plants). As a result, our bodies have evolved so that we seek it out.
The desire for sugar, or sweetness, is another taste we crave. It’s not clear why we have evolved that way. Infants and children crave sweetness to a greater extent than adults, and this may be to meet the higher energy needs during periods of growth. Beyond that, many theories have been proposed, with the most common one being the need to eat high-energy foods. However, the sweetest foods aren’t always the most energy or nutrient dense. Unfortunately, the food industry has taken advantage of these cravings to sell their processed foods.
The Role of Nutritional Science
For the most part, our senses get it right. But diseases due to nutritional deficiencies were only really identified with the advancement of nutritional science. As a result, these diseases have been reduced or eliminated, and lifespans have increased. Probably the most well-known example is that of scurvy and the need for vitamin C. Nutritional science has also helped make healthy foods accessible to most.
But when it comes to food as an enabler of health and disease in modern society, we’ve become obsessed with trying to figure out what it is that makes a food good for us. Is it the antioxidants, the high source of protein, the vitamins or the fibre?
Scores of websites are devoted to lists of what they consider to be the healthiest foods around. We label certain foods such as blueberries, kiwis and nuts as ‘superfoods’ as if one can really tell one food is better than another. Nutritional science has also become reductionist, trying to isolate a food’s healthy ingredients. We then package them into pills creating a multi-billion-dollar industry.
However, for most of us, the days of nutritional deficiency are long gone and no supplement has been found to be beneficial (or necessary) when eating an adequate diet. Sometimes a multivitamin may be warranted in older adults whose appetite has decreased. In these people, the lower appetite may make it a challenge to get the required nutrients from food. And vitamin D is recommended in some countries for people living in areas of limited sunlight. But other than that, we should be getting our nutrition from food, and not pills.
Food is More than Just Calories
Probably the most problematic view of food is solely for the amount of calories it has. One only has to scan a health magazine to see articles discussing foods based on their calories alone. And food labels in various countries are evolving to make calorie counts more visible on packaging. With all the attention calories get, one would think that’s all there is to food.
A lot of this has to do with obesity, and indeed obesity is a concern, but counting calories oversimplifies the causes of obesity and how people manage what they eat. The emphasis on calories assumes we have some knowledge of how many calories we need on a daily basis, plus how many we’ve eaten throughout the day. Without taking the time to measure each individual food, knowing how many calories a food has is next to impossible.
Focusing on micronutrients and calories can certainly take the enjoyment out of food. And for the most part isn’t necessary. There’s been a shift in nutritional science to a more holistic view of whole foods and food patterns. The Mediterranean Diet is a good example. While people may still want to know what the best diet around is, it may be a long time for science to answer that question. And even still, there may not just be one.
What modern-day nutritional science tells us, is to eat whole foods. The further away a food looks from it’s natural state, and the more packaging it has, the less healthy it likely is. Which in the end, isn’t really much different from how our ancestors ate, without the need to hunt for it.
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