Don’t Label Me

A few years ago, I had a friend ask me to do a nutrient analysis of everything he ate for a week. He wanted to know how much fat, sugar, and cholesterol he was consuming, which wasn’t surprising. But he also wanted to know how many of the micronutrients he was getting. Things like chromium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

There was nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s great to educate yourself and be aware of what you’re eating. However, it struck me that he was being obsessive about eating some sort of perfect diet that would give him the exact amount of each nutrient he was supposed to get.

I told him that as long as he was eating an overall healthy diet that included a variety of fruits and vegetables, he didn’t need to worry about it. But he was insistent and paid me a couple of hundred dollars to do it.

The problem with thinking like this is that you miss the forest for the trees. You get distracted by how many nutrients are in a food instead of seeing that food as part of your overall diet.

I see this all the time. My friend who hardly ever exercises being concerned about me getting too much sugar and not enough fiber in my fresh-pressed juice. My coworker who wants to know whether she should eat spinach or kale while she pours ranch dressing on her salad. And another friend who wants me to explain how to read the nutrition label on the back of the Lean Cuisine she’s buying.

You don’t have to worry about how many grams of selenium are in a Brazil nut as long as you’re eating one. And the problem with the food you’re buying is not that the label says there are 30 grams of carbs per serving — it’s the fact that the food comes in a box.

Speaking of labels, the nutrients we are so concerned with — saturated fat, calcium, sodium, etc. — are all simply substances that have been “discovered” and then labeled. We came up with these names. But they existed before we named them. And now that they’ve been named, we’re obsessed with getting the exactly the right amount.

The question is, how many more are there that haven’t yet been “discovered” and labeled? I’m sure the nutrients we now know about only scratch the surface of what’s in our foods. Even though a nutrient may not have a name yet, you’re still getting it.

What’s really important is the overall diet you have. If you’re eating mostly healthy foods and getting a variety of them, you are not going to miss anything. The point is that you need to enlarge your perspective. See the big picture instead of getting bogged down in these kinds of details.

In fact, the only nutrition advice I ever really have is this: eat a ton of fruits and vegetables — and not the same ones over and over again — and drink a ton of water. If you do this, anything else really is okay. You can eat pasta, you can eat cookies, you can drink an occasional diet soda. It’s about your total diet, not each individual food.

It distresses me that our society teaches us to constantly pick apart certain foods and have such a militant attitude about what to eat. We totally miss out on the enjoyment of food and the experience of eating because we’re all so freaked out by how many carbs pasta has or how much fat is in an avocado. We think of eating to get rather than eating to enjoy.

By the way, I’m so sick of celebrities promoting these random, streamlined diets fit for an astronaut and telling people that they’re digging themselves an early grave because they eat nightshade vegetables. (That’s tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, among others — seriously.)

You already know what to eat. You don’t have to read the label on the back of a box to instinctively know whether it’s healthy or not. The fact that it comes in a box means it probably isn’t that healthy in the first place.

If you eat a diet that is mostly plant-based and has a lot of variety, you’re going to get everything you need. And concern yourself with what you eat over the long haul rather than for the next week or the next thirty days.

So enlarge your perspective and, most of all, relax and enjoy what you’re eating.