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Pan Metron Ariston

Forget bizarre fad diets and eureka! studies, great taste and good nutrition only requires a cup of good old-fashioned common sense and a dash of skepticism

We are painfully aware that making healthy eating decisions in our modern, hurley-burley world can be difficult. To add to the confusion, we live in an information age and sometimes a little information is worse than none. Good health is a result of sound food choices and lifestyle. Olive oil is an amazingly healthy product with many attributes, but not a cure-all. Drizzling olive oil on potato chips will not transform them into a healthy snack. The ancient Greeks had a recipe for long, happy life: "Pan Metron Ariston" roughly translated: all good things in moderation.

With our obsession with youth and thinness, our growing waistlines have made the diet industry huge (oops, a pun) and quite lucrative, fattening many wallets. It seems that every day there are new studies and diets trumpeting the virtues of this or that, implying a particular product is the ingredient to slim form and good health and we are all too eager to believe. It's all misleading nonsense, no single product is a magical elixir to attractiveness and longevity. Adding to the uncertainty, many of these studies may be funded by interested groups and their objectivity may be suspect. Or simply, the study may be wrong. Be suspicious.

WHAT ONCE WAS BAD IS GOOD

In the '80s there was a lot of concern about the dangers of fat. Reduce fat intake, we were led to believe and all would be right in the world. Unfortunately, this naïve and one-dimensional approach was wrong and not without consequences. First of all, fat is not a four-letter word and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Secondly, fat adds a lot of flavour and eliminating it results in food with all the culinary delights of cardboard and sawdust. So the big challenge was to produce "low-fat" or "lite" foods that were palatable. The solution? Replace fat with sugar. Curiously, this only added to our girth, not to mention fueling the skyrocketing rate of diabetes. Two hits in one.

Not to worry, because we were then told about the next big evil in nutrition: carbohydrates. It wasn't the fat, but rather sugar (a carb) and it was "miraculously" found that cutting sugars and other carbs from one's diet was all that was needed to lose weight and be healthy. So much for "low-fat" being the answer. Problem solved. Go ahead, wolf down those bacon double cheeseburgers, just toss the bread. Again, wrong nutrition choices based on an oversimplification. Carbs and it must be stressed, complex carbs, also form the basis of a healthy diet. They're a source of energy and a brain food.

Now who said that carbs make you fat is a revelation? When I was young, my mother always used to say "don't eat too much cake, you'll get fat," weight-lifters have long-known about "bulking up on carbs." Nothing new here. Even the Brothers Grimm were ahead of their time, nutritionally speaking. Have we forgotten the fable Hansel and Gretel? The savvy wicked witch knew she could fatten up the children with her gingerbread house. We were easy prey to splashy headlines and frenetic morning programs spouting vapid information. Symbolically, our information was as empty as the food we were gulping down.

Don't get too caught up with new studies. There's always a new study that appears five or so years down the line that refutes an earlier one. Fat was evil, now it's virtuous; butter was naughty, now it's respectable; alcohol was ruinous, now a little red wine is beneficial, coffee was bad, now it's fine, etc., etc., etc. Like a scratched CD, we would constantly hear same refrain, "Oh, we were wrong then, but we're right now." It's very confusing. Why not use a 5000+ year-old study? That is, how people in the Mediterranean have been eating.

COMMON SENSE AND CYNICISM

Any diet that proclaims being the solution to obesity by avoiding this or maximizing that is inherently flawed. As long as humans are humans, this fact will never change: good health is a result of a balance of sound food choices and exercise. We need proteins to build and repair muscle tissue, carbs to provide energy and fats store it. Ignore what the latest diet hot seller says, stop trying to think for your body, eat right and it will pick out the necessary nutrients all on its own. We also need to stop taking the car to the corner store.

Heed the ancients' sage advice, enjoy everything and be sensible.

Minimize (no need to eliminate) animal-based fats. Avoid, avoid, avoid, trans-fats. Take "experts" with a grain of salt (pun intended.) Weren't they telling us not too long ago to avoid butter (a perfectly good natural food) and replace it with margarine (a trans-fat and not a food)? Pass up refined oils, they're made with chemicals and heat, don't believe "experts" who say there are no side effects. Despite their condescending reassurances, they cannot be certain, whereas unprocessed foods have thousands of years of history behind them. As for carbs, go ahead and enjoy them, but not the empty carbs such as chips and bleached white bread. Skip the supermarket cake frosted with pastel coloured edible oils, but do delight in the occasional cake made with real butter and real cream. Enjoy complex carbs, (whole grain breads, beans) they're healthy and sate your appetite. Try to wean yourself away from addictive "cheap" flavours, that is (sugar, salt) and you will soon appreciate the teasingly subtle nuances of delicate flavours. Taste your food before salting. Does your coffee really need two heaping teaspoons of white sugar?

Read labels. Carefully. You'd be surprised at how much misleading information there is out there. I can think of one product that touted the fact, right on the front label, that that it was made with extra virgin olive oil. However, upon reading the ingredients (not surprisingly, on the back), I noticed that the main oil ingredient was canola oil, with olive oil far down the list. Look for sugars in encrypted form (any ingredient that ends with "ose") and salt (sodium.) If you have difficulty reading a polysyllabic ingredient, it probably isn't a good thing.

We North Americans also tend place too much weight (bad pun) on quantity rather than quality. All we have to do is take note at the size of our chocolate bars. They've gotten huge with absurd names like "Eat More" or "Mr. Big." Why would anyone want to "supersize" their fries and soft drink? Tackling these issues would go a long way in winning the cliché "battle of the bulge" much more than the dizzying array of dubious diets out there.

Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • Make extra virgin olive oil your main fat. Erudite experts are finally appreciating what "backward" village grannies have known for thousands of years.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods that are as unprocessed as possible. Nature does a better job than humans.
  • Enjoy fresh, in-season vegetables, not from a can (loaded with salt.)
  • Avoid products that say "ready in only X minutes." Most nutrients have been conveniently removed.
  • Eat meat in moderate amounts. Too much of a good thing is not good.
  • Limit refined sugars and flours. They're just empty carbs leaving you feeling empty.
  • Crave something sweet after dinner? Have fresh, in-season fruit, instead of the sugar laden canned variety. Sprinkling cinnamon and drizzling honey on slices of apple or pear turns them into a fancy dessert.
  • Be vigilant for fillers, ie strange usually soy-based concoctions intended to replace meat and reduce costs. There's no place for soy in a sausage.
  • Eat heartily, but don't be a glutton. Do you really have to eat that 100th chicken wing?
  • Decadent desserts (real cream and butter, please) are for special occasions, not after every meal.
  • Be physically active. Walk or bike to work, take the stairs, use the diet books as weights for exercise, etc.
  • Realize that being thin does not necessarily equal healthy and a little flab does not mean heart attack.
  • Laugh as much as possible, it's exercise and usually helps you feel good, too.

Here's another sage piece of motherly advice: never skimp on the food you buy. We are what we eat, after all. Always buy the highest quality, which does not necessarily mean the most expensive. Even if it may cost a little more, think of the money saved by not buying the latest fad diet book.

Finally, here's a sad fact: Greeks now have the highest rates of obesity growth in Europe. This parallels the change in diet by Greeks to more fast foods and processed foods. I would say this is no coincidence. What would Homer think?

Eat well, be active and enjoy life with gusto. All wholesome foods are good for you, enjoy the taste and let your body divvy up the vitamins and minerals accordingly.

Pan, metron, ariston.

November 11, 2005