Just as I had been thinking this week about how I was going to write about what good nutrition is and isn’t, I stumbled across this (somewhat dubious) article about kale and how it is an accumulator of heavy metals which, if eaten in excess, could potentially cause harm (in theory).
Does this mean you should stop eating kale? Probably not, since this article is a far cry from showing an actual harmful effect from normal kale consumption. More importantly, I think the article underscores how our society’s relationship to food is so completely out of whack. (For a wonderful debunking of the recent kale-panic, check out this page)
Kale fell under the “superfood” category (a term I despise heartily) somewhere in the last decade, and since then I’ve seen kale popping up everywhere in many forms: dried as “chips,” chopped up raw in bagged salads, mixed with grains, presented as the star player in soups. I enjoy kale, but I’m so totally kaled out right now from its ubiquitous presence that I’m about ready for a long vacation to Aruguland (hardy har).
Kale is merely the current symbol for what I’m going to call Superfood Syndrome: a food’s nutrition profile is found to be especially bountiful, and suddenly everyone is eating that vegetable AND ONLY that vegetable.
Except they’re totally missing one of the fundamentals of good nutrition: variety is key to getting everything we need. Yes, kale has a lot of thisthatandtheother nutrients (to be specific, beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium; the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin; and sulforaphane, which is known to have anti-cancer properties), but it cannot possibly have everything we need in it.
I think Superfood Syndrome is not about people worried about getting good nutrition. I think it’s about people trying to find the silver bullet that will ward off the inevitable end. I’ve got some sobering news for everyone: no one’s getting out of this thing alive. Even if eating kale (or other superfood) relentlessly every day for the rest of my days added another 10 years to my life, I’m not sure I’d want it if it involved eating the same thing every day. Thankfully, good nutrition doesn’t require you to do that!
Here’s all you really need to achieve good nutrition:
- Have a good relationship to food. A healthy relationship to food means you aren’t thinking about it 24/7, you don’t fear your next meal, you don’t need to document everything you put in your mouth, and you feel relaxed, never guilty, about eating. Without this healthy relationship, your eating may end up out of balance at some point, eating either too much or not enough of what your body needs.
- Eat intuitively. Your body’s signals for hunger and satisfaction are the best guide to let you know when and how much you should eat. Listen to them, not some article or corporation or book or website that purports to know exactly how much you should eat.
- Eat a variety of foods. Eat every kind of food, from fruits and veggies all the way to fun foods like cookies and cake. You might argue that there is no nutritional value in those treat foods, but I argue that they satisfy other needs in our body, such as the need to eat really yummo foods from time to time. Psychological needs are easily as important as physiological needs when it comes to eating, and there are many different foods that satisfy both. The bottom line is that eating from a wide variety of foods ensures that we will get all the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that we need for optimum health.
- Eat fruits and vegetables. At least some every day, if you can. That these foods are really good for you is at least one part of nutrition science we can say we’ve got figured out. Aim for an average of five fruits and vegetables a day; for me that means some days I might not eat more than one serving, and other days I might eat 10. If you have a hard time including fruits and vegetables because you don’t like them, experiment with them slowly and introduce them to your palate a little bit at a time. I was never a veggie lover as a young person, but experimentation over the years has opened up that world to me, and oftentimes I’ll crave some veg like Brussels sprouts (which I upchucked when I was 5 years old) or rapini (which I didn’t even know existed till my early 30s).
- Enjoy what you eat. We’re designed to enjoy food, so enjoy it! Why spend time eating food you don’t like? Overall, I like including fruits and vegetables and whole grains in my diet not because they are “healthy” for me but because they make me feel good and I like the taste. I just can’t eat foods I don’t like (sorry, quinoa).
Experimentation. Variety. Enjoyment. And that’s pretty much it. You don’t have to be extreme or restrictive in your eating to get the best of food.
So put down that superfood you’re having for the tenth time today and see what else is out there!