Several years ago I was interviewing the highly-respected Greek nutrition scientist Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou. She had studied thousands of Greeks over a span of several decades in order to understand the nutritional effects of a Mediterranean diet (defined by an abundance of healthy oils, whole grains, vegetables and legumes) on long-term health. “So just how healthy is olive oil?” I asked, eager to codify the benefits of each food group for the article I was writing.
“Olive oil is an essential part of what makes the Mediterranean diet healthy,” she answered. But as I scribbled notes and scanned studies, she continued on. “If we look at one nutrient at a time, though, we miss the way they interact. It’s a cocktail of everything that makes this type of diet so good.”
As I tried to deconstruct food into its building blocks, Dr. Trichopoulou kept bringing them back into context, talking about how tasty greens are when sautéed in olive oil with garlic and a squeeze of lemon, or how Greeks like to snack on simmered beans. “It’s much more effective to look at the health of your whole lifestyle rather than individual foods.”
That interview changed the way I thought of healthy eating. Yet amid the constant barrage of diet and nutrition advice here in America I sometimes find myself slipping back into that old reductive view of food. Avocados and olive oil cease to be really tasty things and instead turn into “good sources of monounsaturated fats” (with a tinge of guilt because, well, they’re fats). Tomatoes morph from luscious little orbs into things that are “packed with lycopene,” and whole grain bread goes from being a textural marvel to being “heart healthy.”
While it’s important to understand the impact that certain food groups and nutrients have on our bodies–and we have and will continue looking at them from several different angles on –what Dr. Trichopoulou taught me is that it’s even more important to carry that information back up to 35,000 feet and remember that, ultimately, if your plate is full of things that didn’t come out of a box or container it’s probably a healthy meal.
Most important of all, though, is to remember to think of food as food.