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Would you eat this?

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When you see something delicious, do you eat it without a second thought - or are you weighing up the carb content against the glycaemic index and wondering if the egg is free range? Stylist investigates why hunger is no longer part of the equation when it comes to what we eat.

Two weeks ago, Selfridges upped its glamour count even higher than usual as Elle MacPherson, Lily Cole and Neve Campbell wafted through the doors of the Oxford Street store to celebrate the launch of Project Ocean, a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of over-fishing. Selfridges’ mission is to educate us all on the state of our oceans by only selling fish from sustainable sources in their food hall and proffering booklets explaining the threat to fish by each till, alongside giant posters displayed among the designer clothes. Clearly an intelligent and responsible initiative. But it’s a little disheartening when you can’t even enjoy trying on varying heights of Louboutin heels without being presented with yet another message about what you should and shouldn’t eat.

Imagine how liberating it would be to sit down and eat a meal without mentally debating the nutritional and ecological pros and cons of each mouthful. Ten years ago, we might have been concerned with how many calories were in our goat’s cheese and spinach quiche. Today we want to know where that goat lived and whether the grass he was eating was doused in pesticides or not, whether the crust is GM and additive free and if the spinach is organic or biodynamic.

We now make 200 decisions about food each day, according to Professor Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. These decisions will be based on our emotions, our body image, who we’re with, where we’re eating, the advertising we’ve been exposed to, our ethical values and what the government’s latest campaign is. Very few of them will be based on whether we’re actually hungry or not. The reality is that in the 21st century the vast majority of women, and men, are led by their heads not their hunger when it comes to eating.

“Eating should be one of life’s greatest pleasures, a source of joy and comfort, but it’s become a minefield,” says Joanna Blythman, food writer and author of the upcoming Fraught: What Not To Eat. “People have become scared of food.” In an increasingly health-aware, politically correct world, food is no longer just a source of fuel. Our shopping trolleys reveal our eco- credentials and lifestyle choices.

Mixed messages

Today’s woman is swamped by contradictory ideas and pressures concerning what’s on her plate. The internet is awash with information – and misinformation – about new diets, superfoods and dangerous additives. Our obsession with eating right sells books, while newspapers regularly report on a dizzying number of foods that can supposedly cause and cure cancer at the same time, including bread, cheese, chocolate, coffee, fish, soya and tea. Headlines are often completely contradictory: “An [alcoholic] drink a day increases risk of breast cancer”, followed by, “Red wine may beat breast cancer”. Even fruit comes under fire: “Eating grapefruit can increase breast cancer risk by a third”. Last week alone we learned that coffee cuts our chance of pregnancy and scampi, previously touted as a sustainable source of protein, contains harmful quantities of plastic.

“There are new stories about diet, food safety and healthy eating on a daily basis, and a huge amount of it is contradictory,” says Andrew Hill, Professor of Medical Psychology at Leeds University. “There is no interest in telling a consistent story. To get a march on competitors, the media needs a new angle. It uses bits and pieces of science and non-science to create stories that give them a new spin.”

The confusion surrounding what to eat means choosing our food is becoming increasingly time consuming. A recent survey found that women spend an average of 44 minutes a day deliberating about their food choices. Sam Bagg, a 32-year-old lawyer from Glasgow, says, “I’m lucky enough to be naturally slim, and have never bothered with diets, so I thought I had a really healthy relationship with food. But lately I’ve realised that food takes up an awful lot of my mental energy. If I eat a sandwich I worry about my insulin levels later in the day. If I eat a salad I wonder if the harmful pesticides present in a conventionally farmed tomato outweigh the benefits of the vitamin content. I wish I could turn off the food-related commentary in my mind and just enjoy my lunch.”

As well as worrying about how our food affects our bodies, we’re increasingly concerned with the impact of our lunch choices on the world around us, and dietary evangelists are everywhere. Stella McCartney encourages us to make “meat-free Mondays” a way of life to combat climate change. Jamie Oliver calculates the food miles of a school dinner tray.

New documentary, Planeat, released in cinemas last month, espouses the virtues of veganism as way of cutting cancer and heart disease as well as sustainable eating. Experts predict that by 2030 the world’s population will hit nine billion and we’ll need to be producing 50% more food than we are today to sustain our lifestyles. The recent Livewell report from the WWF found our diets should comprise just 4% meat if we want to reduce carbon emissions and meet the 2020 climate change targets. On the other hand, a study at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire demonstrated that meat substitutes such as tofu and Quorn might be equally harmful to the environment because production methods can be energy intensive.

We make decisions about what we eat based on emotion and body image, but rarely because we're hungry.

Ten years ago, it was easy to be a virtuous eater – we just avoided ready meals and takeaway restaurants. Today we’d need an encyclopaedic knowledge of biology, a thorough understanding of sustainable farming methods and an economics degree to make sense of it all. “The 1970s onwards saw Western society putting an increasing value on science and modernity, and rejecting methods of the past,” says Krishnendu Ray, professor of social studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “We still want to believe that science will come up with the right answer. And so we jump from nutrient to nutrient, thinking that we finally may have found the right one. Our confused eating habits are clearly the product of affluence. When we have enough, we add an aesthetic element to something that previously was a necessity.”

Vivienne Wong, a 29-year-old graphic designer, from Belfast, says, “I’ve been a pescatarian for ethical reasons since I was 14, and until recently I felt fairly proud of this position. But now I’m hearing everywhere that eating fish isn’t ecologically sound at all. Today I feel quite guilty when I explain my diet to people.” Since it has become endangered, eating tuna is now as much of a social faux pas as eating foie gras.

It’s a lot of information to digest.A survey of 1,000 shoppers by Which? magazine found that consumers were “overwhelmed and confused” by the vast array of different environmental labels on foods. While most people recognised the Fairtrade label, and 54% of people recognised the Soil Association’s name, only 3% recognised the LEAF label, which stands for Linking Environment And Farming and supports sustainable farming. Just 6% of shoppers were aware of the Marine Stewardship Council label used to identify sustainably sourced fish and seafood. We’ve become accustomed to branding foods with the label of “good” or “bad”, but the lines are increasingly blurred.

Changing diets

We haven’t always had such a psychological struggle with what we eat. In prehistoric times, our early ancestors faced a daily battle to find enough food to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being able to choose between food groups; what and when they ate was determined by how hungry they were. They increase their consumption in the winter so they were better equipped to survive.

Even as little as 100 years ago, the working class majority still lived off homegrown vegetables, occasional portions of meat and rudimentary homebaked bread. Food fads, like the Graham cracker diet of 1829 – a meat-free diet consisting of fruit and vegetables and whole wheat crackers – were a concept that only privileged few could enjoy.

It was in the Twenties when health fads became primarily about losing weight, as opposed to other supposed health benefits like virility, vigour or longevity. Affluence meant that hunger was no longer the main agenda. The catalyst for this new body obsession was, as ever, fuelled by fashion. Flapper dresses became the mainstream and required a streamlined, boyish figure; resulting in a slew of weight-loss diets which females clamoured to follow.

One of the most popular and enduring diets of the Twenties was the Hay Diet, designed by New York Physician William Howard Hay, which separates foods into alkaline, acid and neutral groupings. Later came the Cabbage Soup Diet, the tapeworm diet (ingesting a pill containing the egg of a tapeworm which would then eat the contents of your tummy; popular with jockeys) and the grapefruit diet. Later, in the Thirties, there was a booming diet market, with several weight loss manuals, such as Dr Lulu Hunt-Peters, 1922 Diet And Health, which made the non-fiction bestseller list for five years running. They tended to advise avoiding sugary and fatty foods and recommended consumption of lean meat, fish, fruit and salad – common knowledge today, but revolutionary at the time. Anxiety about body shapes and weight was exploited in advertisements of “slimming foods” such as Ryvita, launched in 1925.

However, the Second World War swept away these concerns. On 8 January 1940 the nation tightened its belt as rationing was introduced. The rationing system, established by the Ministry of Food in 1940 under Lord Woolton, was engineered to provide a balanced, healthy diet for every citizen, regardless of income. It was a great success; the generation of children raised during the 14 years of rationing grew up to be taller and healthier than the previous generation, with a much lower incidence of disease. Meals were simple and homemade, and over-eating was an impossibility.

In a time of such scarcity, our relationship with food was simple: we ate whatever we were given. Food was eaten in small amounts, chewed thoroughly and relished. Virtually overnight, rationing reset the way women thought about food, and wiped out the fads and anxiety of previous decades. “Rationing was accepted as part of the war effort, and people were prepared to make sacrifices to help ‘our boys’”, says Stewart Ross, social historian and author of Rationing: At Home In WW2. “It brought the nation together, and individual vanities were pushed aside for the greater good of society.” While we’d never wish such stringent measures on ourselves, it’s hard not to look wistfully at a time when our attitudes to food were blissfully uncomplicated.

By the late Fifties another psychological shift occurred as an obsession with Hollywood stars rekindled interest in our physical appearance. In 1951 Gayelord Hauser’s bestseller, Look Younger, Live Longer, encouraged would-be movie stars to add years to their lives by consuming skimmed milk, brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, yogurt and blackstrap molasses. Yogurt was touted as a ‘prevention food’ which could remedy belching, stomach rumbling and flatulence.

Although the Sixties saw women trying to attain a Twiggy-like figure with the newly introduced Weight Watchers launching in 1963, most experts agree that it wasn’t until the Seventies and Eighties that both what we ate and our attitudes to food changed – starting us on the road to food analysis that we’re on today.

We've been made to distrust certain foods by heavy marketing messages from the food industry.

“Until this point most people were eating a very simple diet much like the one people had been eating for centuries – pork chops and vegetables,” says Blythman. “The Seventies was when we saw the arrival of ready meals and foods in boxes. Businesses realised there was money to be made selling packaged foods with lists of ingredients we didn’t understand. Food became more complicated.”

During this period Britain also saw an influx of fast food restaurants. Pizza Hut arrived in the UK in 1973, with its first branch in Islington, London. McDonald’s opened its first branch a year later in Woolwich. Ready-made foods were heavily advertised and the rise of career women meant that ‘convenience’ food accounted for more than a third of all food spending, according to a 1984 survey. As a counter-movement to “convenience foods”, the health food industry thrived. These polarised movements of health foods vs convenience foods was primarily a marketing strategy, but it amounted to psychological warfare.

Social commentator and author Susie Orbach observes, “By the Eighties, the food industry created more products and more niches as a way to increase sales. Diet foods, lunchbox ingredients, sumptuous treats, healthy options – a proliferation of new labels meant that we started to put more food in our baskets than we used to, losing a proper sense of our hunger and how to satisfy it.” Fad diets and vitamin supplements flourished as young professionals hunted for a shortcut to long life, extra energy, vitality and freedom from disease. We concocted nutritional programmes for weight loss, to protect the heart, to lower blood pressure and even to calm hyperactive children. “Shoppers, it seems, got used to buying low-fat products to feel virtuous, then rewarding themselves for their virtue by buying fatty ‘treats’,” says Orbach.

A simple pleasure?

Since the turn of the century, food has become increasingly politicised. Our dietary choices are part of our own personal ‘brand’; whether we shop at the Whole Foods Market or eat sushi every day for lunch. What we eat is dictated by the documentary we watched last night or the food blog we read over breakfast. Our diet is now determined by external influences, rather than internal impulses.

At its most basic, however, hunger is a simple message to your brain that it’s time to eat and should be the body’s natural way of dictating your daily diet. It has nothing to do with an empty stomach; it’s when your blood becomes depleted of nutritive materials and a message is sent to your brain via the nerves. The brain then kickstarts the intestines and stomach to become active, which is why you feel the sensation of your stomach rumbling.

Experts believe our cravings happen in response to temporary deficiency of specific nutrients. In winter, we crave mashed potatoes because they provide fuel and warmth and a pre-menstural craving for chocolate is due to the magnesium depletion that occurs. But in our quest to appear perfect – healthy, principled or stylish – we’ve somehow forgotten how to eat properly. Blythman says, “There is nothing complicated about food. We’ve been made to distrust certain foods by the heavy marketing messages from the food industry and from bad public health advice, so our confidence in our own ability to know what is good has been undermined.”

Mother Nature is not wrong: foods that have been eaten for centuries cannot be bad for us. Perhaps now is the time for us to stop thinking of food as a list of nutritional ingredients and allowing health messages to impact on our menu choices. Thinking about food should be a pleasure, not a chore.

How to revive your appetite

Keep a food diary for a day

Pinpoint the times when you eat for psychological reasons. We use food as an emotional regulator, eating when we’re bored, angry or sad, to fill an emotional gap. And we often use food as a form of communication – as the types of food we eat say something about who we are. For example, “I’m a stressed out exec too busy to cook” or “I’m an earth mother who only eats organic” . A food diary helps us to recognise the psychological triggers that cause us to eat.

Don't eat at your desk

When we eat unconsciously while focusing on other activities, our brain doesn’t register the food we consume. When we eat mindfully, taking the time to prepare our own food and focusing on eating, our brains give cognitive effect to the consumption of food, encoding it in our brains and memory. This means it is more likely to satisfy our physical hunger and make us less likely to eat for psychological reasons.

Ditch diet foods

Many foods preserved as healthy options are actually full of artificial substitutes. When you eat food with fat or sugar substitutes, the taste of the food tricks your body into expecting it will receive that fat or sugar. When it doesn’t, your body begins to crave the food that it has missed out on. Plus, when people eat diet foods, they get lulled into a false sense of security. They think they’ve been “good” and so “deserve” extra calories elsewhere in their diet. Avoid foods that make you see nutrition in terms of payoffs and trades. Don’t reach for the low sugar brownie, eat the real one slowly and mindfully.

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