From Sorrel to Detox

Food and nutrition have always been an important part of my life. I am not “that” old but looking back, I see many different and sometimes distinct phases I (and the society I lived in) went through.

As a child, my beloved grand-mother shared many traditional recipes and tricks with me: during walks across fields and meadows, she taught me which plants and wild herbs are edible (many more than dandelions and daisies), how to create a delicious dessert (or a sweet main course) from leftover bread (Arme Ritter, poor knight). No food was wasted. My grand-mother and my mum shopped locally, always regionally simply because in those days, nothing else was available, and always seasonal. They never used the term but their kitchen was sustainable.

My father (also a physician) taught me how healthy legumes are (once a week we had a lentil or pea stew), that meat wasn’t all that healthy and we should only eat it a couple of times per week. No one spoke about legumes and healthy nutrition in the 70ies and I was very good at rolling my eyes at my dad. As a physician (and of a generation who had still learnt about nutrition), he was already aware of the alarming increase in nutritional diseases, such as gastric and cardiovascular disorders the overconsumption in the 1950ies had caused. I, on the other hand, was a rather picky child and many dramas occurred around the dining table.

In the 1970ies, I learnt about Indian cooking from my mum (my youngest brother was adopted from there) and I learnt how delicious vegetarian food can be. My pickiness started to decline. I don’t remember eating fresh pineapple but I do remember how excited we were when a can of pineapple slices was opened: it was like food from the land of milk and honey.

In the 80ies, travelling and living abroad, many of my memories stem from experiencing and trying new and different foods. Including the most awful dhal I have ever eaten in my life, I had made the mistake of choosing one with chicken, in a region (Karimabad, Pakistan) where meat was an absolute luxury. As a student in Germany, the first country having a “green” party, environmental protection became a much more central concern: pesticides in food and groundwater, dying forests and the reactor accident in Chernobyl in 1986 sensitised everyone to environmental issues including in food. It was hip to pay attention to sustainability, from cleaning detergents to shopping and eating. Can you imagine, Muesli was a symbol of living an environmentally conscious lifestyle? I had eaten Muesli for breakfast since being a school child and suddenly it was “in”.

I don’t remember much about nutrition or food trends in the 90ies. My three children were born in that decade and from the beginning, I followed what I had learnt: cooking them a balanced, healthy, nutrient-rich diet. Store-bought baby food jars were a rare occasion, only when we travelled (and were not popular). I now had the “pleasure” to be the parent with a picky eater (I even wrote an article on the topic and how to deal with it for an English parenting magazine here in Switzerland).

I didn’t read about it then, but already in 1997, a new eating disorder was observed: orthorexia nervosa. In a way, we need to thank blogger Jordan Younger, then known as the “Blonde Vegan” bringing the expression into the mainstream in 2014 with her public admission that she left her vegan “clean” lifestyle because it had made her sick.

Food trends are shorter now, it seems. Now we are in the days of so-called superfoods, a term that was prohibited in the EU until 2007, unless it was supported by credible scientific research. The term superfood was (and is) the perfect marketing tool for selling foods, dietary supplements, or foods with certain food additives, promising a health enhancement or improvement. If a product has the term “superfood” on the label, they are sold at a higher price.

Without a doubt, there are foods with exceptional nutrient density. But why are so many of the new superfoods exotic and foreign fruits or “ancient” grains? Superfruit or supergrain, really? Nothing was considered super about the coconuts I ate in India in the 80ies. They were simply what was available and what people had eaten for centuries. Was that a term invented when they (and all the other exotic superfoods) were introduced to the Western market?

And now, at least looking at Instagram, Facebook, or blogs, it seems I have to decide between eating “real” food or needing to “detox” my body. My personal feeling? Give me a break. Why should I go gluten-, sugar and dairy-free if I suffer from no sensitivities or allergies? I am very luck in that regard. Why should I spend a fortune on processed gluten-free flour (unless I am one of the few who really need to pay attention to their diet) or on coconut- or agave syrup to sweeten my cupcakes? Why should I detox my body when I know (I’m very grateful for evidence-based science knowing that it’s perfectly capable of detoxing itself).

All my life, I have learnt to eat a moderate, balanced diet. Mostly that’s food from anywhere in the world (that’s what a mobile life turns you into) But, I don’t always do that. I have cravings and sometimes I give in to them. Rarely, but I do drink a well-known and very unhealthy soda drink.

All my life, I have tried new foods, and I will continue to do that (that includes delicious vegan, gluten-free cakes as much as an unknown meat recipe)

All my life, I have loved experimenting with food and learning new ways to prepare it. And I will continue to do that (including making coconut yoghurt, trying new recipes asking for some sort of unusual sweetener, or those asking for extra gluten for certain breads).

Nutrition advice and trends have changed continuously over the decades (and before over centuries). What we need to do today, is to focus more on a sustainable approach toward food, going back to the basics and cooking from scratch, reducing our consumption of processed foods, our consumption of sugar (yes, I agree to that, more on that topic another time). But we need to be allowed to enjoy food, choose the “diet” that’s right for us, eat vegetarian or vegan, but let’s stop imposing a moral on eating and the food we consume. Food is not the answer to everything, it shouldn’t be a sort of cult and there certainly is not the one healthiest or only right way to eat and to live.

Posted on April 16, 2020 by Luitgard Holzleg

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