Food in the Age of Anxiety

Usually I post on topics that have some scientific research to back them up, to discuss or possibly to dissect critically. Today, though, I'm going to rely on a couple of scientific faux pas: anecdote and gut instinct.

It seems to me that a certain level of food anxiety has pervaded our collective psyche (that would be, specifically, the psyche of the kind of person to read this blog: relatively educated, health-conscious, and interested in optimizing their health). Let me give you some examples.

A colleague warns all of her patients against eating soy products, regardless of the person's individual health conditions or habits. A patient (actually lots of patients) tells me she's giving up gluten, because she thinks she might feel better without it. I myself, the other day, went running straight back to the store after unpacking my groceries, suddenly consumed with worry that the fish I'd bought might contain too much mercury to feed my family.

Where do we get these concerns from, and are they valid? What with social media and its near-instant dissemination of content, they are pretty much everywhere now. Any new health-related "findings" are posted without much (or any) critical analysis or reasonable discussion. This includes stuff emanating from large and respected medical researchers or establishments.

I receive a daily email shot from one such body, containing a link to recently published health or medical news. It's often interesting reading, but one week I found myself deleting the emails without even opening them. I realized that I just felt too stressed out by all the bad news bombarding my inbox. Our beleaguered inboxes are, after all, a stand-in for our psyches in this hyper-digital age.

So to relax I turned on the radio. A renowned cardiologist was issuing a dire warning that sugar is the new salt (only it's worse!) in terms of contributing to cardiovascular disease. Ye gods. I carefully scraped off the raw sugar I'd sprinkled on top of my plain, organic, non-fat yogurt.

Later that day I went to a weekly discussion group I belong to, which happens to consist mainly of people in their 60s and 70s. It was the first meeting after a holiday, and someone had brought fancy chocolates. Someone else had baked three kinds of cookies, none of which was the gluten-free, dairy-free, or sugar-free kind. I watched in a sort of awe as the treats were passed around. Everyone took one, and then they took another. By the time the discussion was over, not a goodie was left. And no one had fretted over the damage they might be causing to their health.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that older people are less fussy about what they eat. They eat what is served, and they enjoy their food. While we younger folks, who theoretically should be in better shape, worry ourselves sick over every ingredient and its potential consequences.

All in moderation, of course. I believe we (whether reading or writing this blog) acknowledge the serious problems of the standard American diet - the sugar, the fat, the artificial additives, the portion sizes, the environmental contaminants. Understandably, we seek to avoid those. But. There is a point beyond which awareness becomes obsession - and obsessions are not healthy. On the other hand, there is a tremendous health benefit to being relaxed and happy, particularly when you are eating.

So let's take some wisdom from age, and give our psyches a break. Before eating, don't look at the inbox, turn off the radio. And after enjoying your brown rice, organic veggies, and omega 3-laden, organically farmed salmon, please - have another cookie.

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