With just a month and a bit until Santa squeezes his way into our world through a dwindling number of chimneys, many traditions are having to be rethought this year. What once seemed a given, the big meal, with the whole extended mad family seems less likely than a quiet TV dinner this year, and with plans for all the usual preparations that see us filling the fridge with a year’s worth of leftovers on hold...we’re not sure how Christmas dinner might look for us. The festive fallout is looking pretty devastating at this point.
But that’s probably peering too far into the future in a year where those who liked making plans were thoroughly scoffed at by the gods. So this year we’ll be rolling with the punches...all the way into round 12...This year has also brought with it a level of focus on exercise and nutrition like never before. A workout in the park never seemed quite so much the first world luxury as it does today, and the creations coming out of our kitchens as we try to match the in-book and online image of Michelin star dishes, have been no small achievement. So we’ve got fitter (once that COVID stone was put to death) on our feet and balanced out the newfound food skills and consequent tasting sessions!!
But is that really a healthy relationship to have with food? To constantly be working off the load we’re planning to put in once the sun goes down? Is there a place we can find where we’re fuelling our food adventures in a way where we won’t have to feel claws of guilt clinging onto us and pulling us into yet another online HIIT class or pilates session? It seems like humans are just built for this life of extremes and the toughest and possibly most boring thing for us to do is live a life in balance.
So what is it that makes us this flip flop species - either fasting or feasting from moment to moment...it’s like we can’t stay in the middle of the balancing act. As a total aside, it’s interesting to note that most things physiological aren’t as consistent as they seem - even our heart rate, that steady thud in our chest, is actually wildly varying from one beat to the next. The dance of balance is just the ability to come back from fast to slow, not to stay on either side of that fence for too long at any time.
It’s particularly interesting when you look to our ancestral diets. If you take away all this globalised food transport that makes it so I can blend up a mango lassi in the depths of winter, we have a necessary link to times of feast and fallow. And when fruit was ripe, and there was no refrigeration possible, we just had to eat it all when it became available. Over our 2000 generations as a species, our DNA has got used to this method of consumption, so that we are genetically primed to benefit from fasting and feasting. In one of those “magic of nature” moments our cells pick up on the specific frequency that emits from autumnal fruit such as apples and pears, and there’s evidence that shows that consuming these fruits specifically triggers signalling mechanisms in our body that tell us to store energy for the leaner winter months ahead.
But that isn’t meant to be some way of us telling you not to eat an apple in springtime, it’s just another nudge for us to start thinking seasonality in a much more focused way - looking at what is actually growing and ripening now - coming into winter we obviously have all those tree fruits we’ve mentioned, and then - the joy of joys - we get the winter citrus invasion. Blood oranges, bergamot lemons - some of the real indulgences of winter and something that makes me look forward to the darker days with just a chink of light peering through the gloom.
Food has far too much darkness to it anyway, and our relationship to the thing that literally keeps us alive doesn’t have to be a creature that lives in the shadows - only rearing its head as our destructive patterns play out with a large tub of Booja Booja and the biggest spoon. And if those parts of our psyche are making their presence felt in our food habits, it doesn’t mean that our friendship with food is over forever either. Maya Duncan is an amazing living testament to this. In our podcast with Maya this month, we explored her past eating disorder, how it controlled her life in her early teens, and how, amazingly at only 19 she has it under control, but not in such a way that she’s now scared of food - quite the opposite she celebrates good food as a core part of her daily life, embracing it without having to question it. Not to say it was easy, years in therapy and a safe and supportive family unit helped her to get to this place of stability and certainty.
What this tells me at least is how much food doesn’t have to be allowed to rule our lives, control our routines, or make us scared of our own compulsions. After all, what is food? Really breaking down its makeup can rob it of its power, perhaps we’ll lose some of the magic here, but I just want to be clear what really matters about the quality and quantity of what we put in our mouths.
For too many decades now, women especially have had fear driven into them about the calorie density of their diet. Limit your calories to X, we’re told or else you’ll see an expanding waistline. And there’s a partial truth here. An excess of food units from any food group - proteins, carbohydrates or fats - can and will lead to adiposity (an increase in fat storage cells in the body) when consumed on a daily basis, and without the sufficient burning of energy. That old adage - calories in, calories out - isn’t complete rubbish as a basis for understanding how food consumption requires activity in order to ensure the excess energy consumed in our diet doesn’t just hang around and malinger in our bodies. But given that our brain uses 50% of the glucose that we consume, why does it even matter if you decide to eat the whole pack of sour snakes?!
A calorie in its most real sense is not a food unit. It’s the measurement of available energy in food. 1 calorie is equal to the energy that’s required to heat 1 gram of water by 1 degree. But hang on, a stick can heat water when we burn it? So is that a ‘calorie-dense food” - well um, yes. So considering that sticks contain calories and that they don’t provide ANY goodness to our body when consumed - just how useful is caloric measurement? From the emerging science, we’d have to say - not that useful. Our body runs on much more complex machinery than calories, and the food we consumed is made up of far more interesting energy supportive molecules than calories too. If you consume nutrient empty carbohydrates - thinking white bread etc - then perhaps calories count for something. Cuz there’s not much else in there to call fuel than the sugar that your body converts the starchy pillows into. So that’s one way to manage your diet. Doesn’t sound great. And it’s not.
Within foods we have major groups - proteins, carbs and fats - they ALL make up calories. High-fat food burns REAL well, so you can imagine it heats water by lots of degrees, and hence, yes you guessed it - it makes fat the most calorie-rich (and most vilified by the calorie counters). Yes, the balance of these components in our diet will lead to changes in how our body behaves - in terms of energy use and storage throughout the day, what type of tissues will be best fed, and the rate at which our metabolism runs. But again, going beyond calories to the balance of macronutrients - an obsession with most modern diet routines such as ‘high-fat/low-carb’ - still only goes some way towards addressing the reality of the communication that happens from your food to your physiology - When it comes to nutrition, what your food tells your body to do should be our only concern. Not boiling water.
How little the calories matter if you’re feeding your body nutrient-dense food
Within those macronutrients lie the micronutrients - the little amino acids that make up the proteins, the calcium magnesium, zinc and folic acid that fill the extracellular space in each leek and potato we put in our mouths. Those little nutrients have been the subject of study of most of the nutritional science for the past 50 years or so, and their roles in our healthspan (how well we do at staying healthy into old age) are becoming better understood every day. However even these guys have their limits when it comes to influencing how our body behaves. Because nutrients feed human cells. And how many human cells are inside us? Some say up to 37 trillion...but that absolutely pales in comparison to the number of non-native cells. The protozoa, the microbes that 90% of our body are comprised of - they aren’t even us!! So when say a pregnant woman is “eating for 2”, that’s really only .0000000001% of the truth. In fact, our diet could and possibly should be more concerned with feeding the bugs in our gut than it is in feeding our own cells.
And what is the food for the predominant bacterial species in our guts? Well, there are really two main categories - fibre and polyphenols. Just like for humans, diversity is key to maintaining a friendly colony of little fans in our gut. And we want to cheerlead them as they go to bat for us on a daily basis, modulating inflammation, helping us feel happy, fighting disease-causing bacteria, and most interestingly for this wee blog - telling our body whether to store energy or burn it!! Yes, those little critters are engaged in constant chatter with cell signalling molecules produced by what some call our ‘fat genes’, and have a really strong sphere of influence when it comes to insulin and leptin production (hormones that control energy storage and expenditure). Basically put, a diet lacking in polyphenols (we’ll get to them in a sec), is one that will see your body store more energy than it needs, essentially predisposing us to weight gain and diabetes. So now come back to the calories count on the box of cereal - we’d really rather see a polyphenol count in there wouldn’t we?!
So polyphenols, otherwise known as secondary metabolites, are plant chemical compounds, that grow within the foods we eat for a variety of reasons - usually either a protective role or defensive role in the plant most commonly. A lot of these erstwhile ‘antioxidants’, actually are the opposite to antioxidants, in that they work in our system like mild poisons, triggering what’s known as a ‘hormetic’ effect, triggering our immune system to upregulate protective pathways. Much of this signalling happens through our gut and via the microbiome. So again you can see how the wee bugs are really there to keep us alive. They’re acutely aware that without us, their hosts, they don’t survive - and over millennia you can imagine how that relationship has evolved, those bacteria, yeasts and protozoa developing a harmonious, symbiotic relationship where they become intrinsically linked to our wellbeing. You could say that their responsibility for our health is orders of magnitude higher than our closest external carers, the doctors and nurses that look after us in situations of major health crises. From a day to day perspective, our microbiome is constantly at work, managing our wellbeing.
So while we’re feeding those non-human cells, there’s also the human bit to take care of. Even if we’re only made of 10% “us” - we still have a duty of care to maintain our body’s native bits. A key factor in this is managing the inevitable intake of sugars which feed our cells provide a key fuel for many of our organs. From a macro perspective, sugar is a vital and yet hugely disruptive molecule to our fragile physiology, so of all the macronutrients we consume it needs the most careful management to ensure that its key role as fuel for our system doesn’t spiral into a negative relationship with our cells.
Excess sugar gets in way of those messages between our microbiome and our immune and other cells, triggering inflammatory cascades that inhibit all the good work that you’re doing by stuffing polyphenol-rich foods into your diet. It’s really not rocket science and we’ve explored the metabolism of sugar in-depth in our previous blog, - fundamentally, the consumption of sugar just needs to be handled with care, not fear.
Probably the most impactful single method to enhance and support the role of sugar as it comes into our body, is by consuming it with protein. Protein buffers the delivery of sugar to our cells - the biochemistry is fairly boring so we can leave that part out - but it’s a well-studied facet of the protein/carb relationship - which means you can make serious strides in your body’s processing of sugars, both long and short term by simply adding a spoonful of peanut butter to your porridge or a scoopful of a decent quality protein powder to your smoothie in the morning.
So with all this darkness behind her, Maya has come to a live a really balanced, healthy relationship with food. And the prospect of food extremes hasn’t left the building, she just has forgiveness for and understanding of her needs for food - for fuel, for joy, for replenishment, for a creative outlet...and when we as humans take feasting and fasting to the dietary extreme - with people like Maya around us, we can fully believe that one dark day doesn’t make it winter, and even if winter does come - and it surely will - we can and will push through to see the spring.