Think of Food as Food

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.

food as food“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.

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9 Replies to “Think of Food as Food”

  1. What a great post, Lia. The idea that you should eat something because of a single nutrient has always struck me as weirdly clinical, especially when you’re talking about food. Food is a textural, tasty, sensual experience that should be enjoyed and not over-analyzed.

  2. Thanks, Eagranie. I remember your post on chocolate getting to exactly to that point very eloquently.

    This interview with Dr. Trichopoulou was really a turning point for me in my career/personal life. I’d been on a vertical learning curve about nutrition, and Antonia brought it home that ultimately, it isn’t about the “antioxidants,” it’s about the tomato. I’ve really tried not to lose sight of that stance ever since.

    Great to see you here!

  3. I’ve just finished dinner and am not at all hungry, but the picture of the the tomato-avocado sandwich just made my mouth water.

    Thank you for the reminder that food is to be enjoyed, not broken down into components that have no drool factor.

  4. You both are really on the right path. In my soon to be released book, Misinformed About Food, I reveal the truth…just because one food is high in a particular antioxidant and another is lower does not mean the former is a better choice. I would rather have a food with a medley of available nutrients, even if its not as high in one. I reveal a program called The Synergy of Super-Nutrients (SOS), about how certain foods actually empower each other,. In the end, its about the “cocktail”of nutrients you’ve offered up to your body at any given time/ The GI or GL level of food means little, except if eaten alone. Its the GI or GL of the entire meal. Good stuff!

  5. Recently I found myself leafing through old food magazines, and I was struck by how many various issues over the years touted this, that, or the other thing as the next big thing for health. Eat this and you’ll feel better. Eat that and you’ll boost your immune system. Seriously, if I ate everything that I was told over the last five years to eat because of the health benefits, I have no doubt I’d be seriously overweight.

    Most of the time, I just want what I eat to taste good. It’s an added bonus if it’s got great health benefits, but I’m so over the idea of lining up to eat the next big super-antioxidant. Give it to me wrapped in luscious dark chocolate as part of a balanced, all-things-in-moderation diet, and I’ll be a happy girl.

  6. Erika . . . Amen, sister. (I hope my byline wasn’t on one of those articles ;-)) Seriously. I was struck by the same thing over the years as I was writing about health. At first, I’d get really excited about each “discovery.” But then it seemed that superfoods and superscares would inevitably cancel each other out. What remained was the essentials of, like you say, a balanced, all-things-in-moderation diet. And . . . there’s science backing that up too. Thanks for your thoughts!

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