With all the buzz about the new version of Canada’s Food Guide, we asked Dr. Alissa Overend, who researches shifting definitions of healthy eating, to talk about food truths.
No matter how tempting it is to cling to singular food truths – kale is a superfood, organic is best – the biggest truth, it turns out, is that there isn’t just one.
“As much as we talk about dietary truths, even in the scientific literature, there’s a lot of grey area,” says Alissa. “There’s a divide between stating that as a general rule, foods have certain vitamins and minerals, and ignoring the fact that not everyone can digest certain foods, like meat or dairy – or even wants to eat those things.”
The associate professor of sociology’s upcoming book Food Facts in a Post-truth Culture, looks at the cultural influences and politics of knowledge around food – topics she’s also exploring with students this semester in her fourth-year seminar on the sociology of food and nutrition. Using case studies on controversial foods like meat, wheat, soy and dairy, and a chapter on the history of Canada’s Food Guide, she challenges the way we’ve been taught to think about what we eat.
“We’ve been trained to look at food through a scientific lens, but it’s often difficult to ascertain the truth of food studies,” says Alissa. “There are so many factors. Foods are metabolized in combination – a bagel eaten on its own, for example, isn’t processed or metabolized the same way as it is if you eat it with peanut butter or an egg. A carrot that was just pulled out of the ground is going to have different nutritional qualities than one that was shipped from Chile. The way you prepare food also changes it’s nutritional value. So it’s actually really complicated to pinpoint a singular dietetic truth.”
While it’s tempting to look at documents like Canada’s Food Guide as the be-all and end-all, Alissa says we need to look beyond calories and carbs, and consider the bigger picture, including issues like affordability that are tied to social of determinants of health.
“It’s easy to say things like, “Everyone should eat more produce,’ but for many people, produce just isn’t affordable – or even accessible.”
In the classroom
Marjorie Bencz, executive director of Edmonton’s Food Bank, visited students in Alissa’s seminar on the sociology of food and nutrition for a discussion about food insecurity – not having reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
The food truth Bencz wishes everyone knew? “That most of us are closer to food insecurity than we realize.”
Even if we all had access to kale every day, or could afford an organic and vegan diet, would that solve everything? Alissa doesn’t think so.
“For some people, meat works. For other people, veganism works. We want quick-fix solutions and food has often been sold that way, but food is complex and so is the society we live in.”
And the pressure that comes from believing there is a single way to eat healthy can leave people confused and stressed.
“There’s this idea that if you don’t feed your family the right way, you’re a bad person,” says Alissa. “Prepared foods are often demonized, but depending on the context, eating that food could mean you get an extra hour of sleep or are able to spend more time with your kids. When we look at foods only in one way or focus on a very strict, healthy eating regimen, we ignore how food is tied to our families, histories and culture.”
Instead of focusing on protein and carbs, Alissa suggests thinking about what works for you – your schedule, your culture, your politics – and what makes you happy.
“Think about what you like to eat and why it makes you feel good, because food should also bring us pleasure.”