Life Food & Drink

Friday 22 August 2014

Fantasy foodists: diet is about more than weight loss

What you eat, be it quinoa, seaweed or the latest superfood, teff, is a statement of who you are. And who you want to be, which could be any of the diet demigods, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Madonna to Heidi Klum, says Emily Hourican. Perfection, it seems, is now a mere kale crisp away

Emily Hourican

Published 16/02/2014 | 02:30

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So, its midway through February, which means, in terms of the new rhythm of the calendar year, that you are somewhere between shining virtue and a steady slide back into vice. January, presumably, was a kind of holy month – full of three-day fasts, matcha green tea and chia seeds.

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This, you swore, would be the New You . . . for always. You would be healthy and mindful about what you ate; restrained and aware of quantity, provenance and inter-relationships.

The payback would be abundant energy, mental clarity. Oh, and weight loss. And, because the higher the aspiration, the harder the comedown, you may well be feeling a bit rubbish about yourself right now.

I bet you did the all-juice detox, or at least thought about it. Investigated the superfood properties of quinoa and raw cacao. You may even have considered the raw food diet and going vegan.

If so, you are not alone. You are, in fact, part of a rapidly growing group for whom Gwyneth Paltrow isn't an impossible neurotic, but a guru of wisdom and sanity. And, if you are in any doubt as to whether you belong in this group or not, here's a simple question to sort the Fantasy Foodists (those creating a dream team of superfoods with the ultimate goal of impeccable well-being) from the merely healthy: have you consumed kale in the last week?

It can have been in the form of a smoothie, air-dried crisps, an ice lolly (seriously) or in its natural state. If the answer is yes, and you are not a 50-year-old farmer for whom kale has always been a winter-food staple, then, congratulations, there is a very good chance you are, indeed, a fantasy foodist.

You see, kale is basically shorthand for the entire movement. Ten years ago, the leafy green vegetable was an also-ran, eaten only by the most robust of macrobiotics and, of course, the 50-year-old farmers.

Then, it got rebranded as a 'superfood' (higher in iron than beef, high in vitamins K, A and C, antioxidant, anti-inflamatory; it can probably fly, too, we just haven't seen it) and, because it was persuasively ugly, awkward (anyone who has tried tussling with a kale stalk will know what I mean) and prolific, it took off.

Now there is a serious worry in the US that kale producers can't keep pace with consumer demand. There is even a book – 50 Shades of Kale – and sales of the vegetable in the UK shot up in value by 38.4 per cent last year. Gwyneth swears by it, natch, as do Jennifer Aniston, Heidi Klum and Sarah Michelle Gellar. The last thing that lot all agreed about was world peace. The broccoli lobby, by the way, are furious, and fighting back against kale's usurpation of the physiological high ground.

And kale is just the standard-bearer. Behind it, massed like an army, are various nuts, berries, seeds, fruits and veg with, apparently, miraculous properties, crowding up, all with fabulous claims and celebrity endorsements. Madonna swears by coconut water, Oprah by red chillies. For Miranda Kerr, it's chia seeds. Victoria Beckham is said to nibble on bladderwrack seaweed, while Claudia Schiffer, it has been reported, doesn't just drink green tea, she exfoliates with it.

Practically the entire flora and fauna of Peru seems to be endowed with miraculous properties, while Ethiopia is hoping to profit seriously from the rise in popularity of teff – a gluten-free, iron and protein-rich grain, currently poised for quinoa-style takeoff, once the wider fantasy-food world gets to hear of it.

And that's before we even get to the diets – Dukan (Carole Middleton and Jennifer Lopez, allegedly), paleo (Miley Cyrus, Jessica Biel, Matthew McConaughey), 5:2 (Benedict Cumberbatch, Liv Tyler). Frankly, a lot of this is a smoke screen, a distraction from the fact that, behind all the pseudo-science and spirulina-coloured dust cloud, is the same old calorie-restriction.

Even so, the diet stakes have been raised astronomically. Remember how, just a couple of short years ago, it was all about the five-a-day? Even that wasn't always easy – I remember wondering if the chopped garlic in a spaghetti sauce could count as one of the five . . . And maybe I'd get away with the few basil leaves on top as another one-of-five. Why, back then, you could even kid yourself that a glass of apple juice counted.

Those days seem laughably innocent now, as we learn that, actually, fruit juice is, basically, just cola or fizzy orange in terms of sugar. Not only does it emphatically not count, it is actively the enemy. Even whole fruit ain't what it used to be, because, apparently, we have gradually bred it, over the past 200 years, to be big, juicy and sweet (there are scientists who dispute this, by the way, although I wonder if they have tried supermarket apples recently). Even lemons are sweet these days, which means pineapples or mangos are practically chocolate bars.

Back then, failing the strict observance of five-a-day, you could, at a pinch, pop a multivitamin and you'd be all right. Now that we know vitamin supplements are, at best, useless, at worst, in the case of high-dose antioxidant regimes, actively bad for you (if you didn't know, I'm telling you now, so no excuses), the idea of superfoods is even more important.

Because we are not throwing the baby out with the bath water here. The actual product – vitamin supplements – may be bad, but that doesn't mean we are going to abandon the notion that a quick-fix, a short cut to turbo-charged super-health, is possible. This is the point at which we all jumped on to the superfood bandwagon.

And so food is the great battleground of the new age. This is where we play out our deepest psycho-dramas: our need to be better people, to be functioning to our highest potential, to fight the sense of exhaustion and creeping failure that is an inevitable part of modern, developed-world life. If food ever was 'just' food, it certainly isn't any longer. It is a system, a badge, a pledge, a bid for immortality and an attempt to put order on chaos via mental and physical discipline. Here, in Ireland, I suspect we have only begun to tap the potential for Fantasy Foodism inherent in our psyche.

After all, who would ever have thought that running and cycling would become national obsessions? We were definitely not natural candidates for this kind of California-type carry-on. And, yet, roads and laneways throughout the country are daily dotted with men and women in neon shades of yellow and pink, slogging it out in wind and rain, huffing and puffing up hill and down dale, for all the world like a bag of Dolly mixtures set tumbling out of their packet. Exercise has become a national obsession – and diet is right behind it.

And we no longer just want to be fit and healthy. We want to be perfect. That's what all the superfoods are about. We don't consume lucuma, (South American tropical fruit sold mostly in powder form) just because it sweetens dull stuff, such as rice pudding, but because it also helps lower blood pressure and offers an abundance of beta-carotene, something that has strong antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, and can help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. These days, in order to be properly motivated to consume, we need multiple benefits. It's not enough to get one result any more, we need a minimum of two: increased vitality and great hair, say. Or enhanced mental clarity and hopping sex drive.

Being a fantasy foodist delivers just that, with added smugness. If all we wanted was reasonable health, we would follow the HSE guidelines – the old food pyramid they still trot out, showing a broad base of 'bread, cereals and potatoes', with a strip of 'fruit and vegetables' on top of it, and a thinner strip of 'milk, cheese and yoghurt' on top of that again, followed by 'meat, fish and alternatives'. The pyramid's narrow tip is composed of 'foods, drinks and snacks that are high in fat and sugar.'

That pyramid bears as little relation to the most advanced and ambitious thinking around food and nutrition as my mother's macrobiotic diet did to the children who came to my house when I was a kid, and stared suspiciously at the plates of dried fruit and brown rice. To the average fantasy foodist, that stodge-based pyramid is little better than a daily diet of burgers and chips.

For genuine fantasy foodists, the food pyramid simply doesn't cut it any more. Because the food pyramid is offering only decent, average health, and the food fantasist wants far, far more than that.

I suspect that most of us feel slightly crap most of the time: a bit tired, a bit lacking in vitality, a bit pudgy round the middle, a bit directionless and with indifferent libido. I suspect these things are inevitable by-products of stress and too much technology. But perhaps I'm being complacent. Because there are, in clear view, people who have broken through the restrictions so many of us accept as inevitable. These are the folks who are claiming to consistently hit the high-90s in terms of well-being-out-of-100.

Until now, most of them seemed to be in America, but, increasingly, they are over here, too, shining with health and vitality, insisting that every day is a riot of vibrant energy and mental clarity.

Demonstrating not only that mankind is perfectable after all, but that it is within all of our grasps to achieve this – and, apparently, all the rest of us need to do to be like them, is eat 'right'. They are tapping right into the need we all have to aspire to be better, look upwards and feel inspired to try, to strive. Of course, in the old days, religion would have taken care of nearly all these needs – for self-denial, even fasting; for renunciation; for hard rules; for community; aspiration; sheer belief. The void inside would have been filled with the need to not eat before communion and confess our sins, no meat on Fridays, mass on Sundays.

If you were orthodox Jewish, the rules were even more wonderfully strict: no dairy within three hours of eating meat; no meat from animals without cloven hoofs who don't chew their cud; no seafood except that with scales and fins. Muslims – no pork, no alcohol; no food at all before sundown for a month of every year.

Sticking to the rules took up so much time and mental effort, provided such a strict, delineated code of behaviour, that we all lived quite comfortably within them. They say nature abhors a vacuum. I think people do, too. There is something terrifying about infinite possibility, the limitless psychological space around us in which to be anything we desire. So, having chucked out the old rules and codes, we busily start devising new ones to keep ourselves in check.

There is a very long, archaic German word that means a 'feeling of security in one's braces'. Basically, that is what most of us are after. A tight paradigm, within which to live out our lives. Fantasy-foodist stuff fits that bill perfectly. You know, where you are on a gluten-free diet, or a raw-food diet.

There are parameters, rules, even direct consequences of failure – you will get fat, or bloated, or suffer nasal drip – and a community of like-minded folk to make you feel cosy. And the best bit, of course, is that, instead of looking like a dowdy but devout religious person, the chief side effect of fantasy foodism is aesthetic. Thinner, more glowing, better skin, hair and nails, more like Rosanna Davison, who follows a vegan diet because she is ideologically and intellectually committed to doing so, but also manages to look amazing on it.

Or Susan Jane White, who, as regular readers of this magazine will know, eats wholefoods and superfoods like the rest of us used to eat crisps: effortlessly, creatively, with joy, and glows as though lit by a 100 watt bulb from within.

These few dedicated disciples know exactly what they are doing, have worked out how to consume the right superfoods, in the right quantities and the right balance.

For the rest of us, I think it's largely a question of dabbling, and hoping. Throwing in a few handfuls of kale and almonds in the hopes they will counteract the coffee and white bread we had for lunch. Tipping nasty green powder into the orange juice of a morning to make a power smoothie, shovelling a bit of chia seed into the shop-bought granola. We are the once-a-week, Sunday mass-goers to their daily communicants. And, in case I sound viciously sceptical about the whole thing, let me say that I am not. I'm entirely in favour of aiming high when it comes to healthy eating, of running up and down the N11 of a weekend, or cycling to Wicklow.

I think we should have cupboards full of spirulina and goji berries, instead of packaged cereal and biscuits. We should guzzle kale in all its forms (but not to the exclusion of broccoli), and we should limit the amount of meat. And I do think doing this will make us happier, to an extent. Probably slightly sharper, mentally, too.

Superfoods are good, a careful, mindful diet is excellent, but perfection is impossible, and we will no more succeed in mitigating our essential humanness through food than through religion.

The right food cannot make you happy or enlightened. We're going to have to do that for ourselves.

 

WHICH FANTASIST ARE YOU?

The Chest-Thumper: Likes the idea of food as a battle, something to be hunted and gathered. Eats meat and seafood, anything that our ancestors would have consumed, before they farmed crops and committed the sin of gluten. Leans towards exotic nuts and very bloody meat. Think Miley Cyrus, above, in Wrecking Ball form.

Enlightenment-Seeker: Naturally inclined to minimalist eating anyway. Favours raw, vegan and plant-based foods, and is certain that their consumption patterns can save the world. Determined that their karmic footprint shall be as light as their physical one. Gwyneth Paltrow is the poster girl, but Alicia Silverstone and Sting aren't far behind.

The Driven Sensationalist: Results-based, rather than ideologically committed. Likely to hop from one promise of perfection to the next. Can be found at the forefront of whatever is trending in the superfood world. Looks for anti-ageing, as well as slimming properties. Victoria Beckham and Demi Moore both make the varied approach work for them.

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