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Why does healthy eating make us anxious?

Unsurprisingly, I have a lot of social conversations about food and health. Sometimes, people will say things to me like, “I’ve heard that [insert food here] is bad for us so I’ve stopped eating it”. The foods can be anything – milk, meat, wheat flour, butter, margarine, sugar – the list is endless. And if you’ve ever eaten it, chances are someone, somewhere, has said, “We shouldn’t eat that”.

I’ve learned not to try and debate issues like this when they come up. Food is emotional, and everybody eats, so everybody has – and is entitled to – opinions about it. If it works for you, who am I to say otherwise? But it makes me sad sometimes when I reflect: how did we get so paranoid about what we eat? Why do so many of us feel anxious about our food?

Perhaps it’s not hard to see why. We’re surrounded by unhealthy food products that make us fat. There’s also a whole industry dedicated to weight-loss, and a raft of ‘healthy’ products marketed at us to help us get and stay thin. We are confused by so much food advice – on TV, in print and online – much of it contradictory and unhelpful. It’s easy, in this environment, to relate to advice which simplifies things down and demonises a particular food group. If we all gave up sugar we’d be better off. Wheat is making us all fat and sick. Humans shouldn’t eat dairy. Or grains. Or meat…etc, etc.

There’s also a lot of ‘foodie paranoia’. We should only eat ‘natural’ foods. Only fresh. Only organic. Only local. Only in season. I once heard a well-known chef sniff that she doesn’t eat anything that comes ‘in packets’. Wow, I remember thinking, she must have a lot of time. And what must her pantry be like? While I know this kind of advice is given with the best of intentions, it can be unhelpful and inspire feelings of guilt. Am I short-changing my kids if I feed them non-organic chicken or frozen veges? What would my friends think if they knew I used pasta sauce from a jar?

We seem to be more ready to embrace the extreme than the moderate. Does it really make more sense to give up all sugar or meat, than to have just a little bit here and there? Is it really better to eat only organic vegetables, if it means we eat less of them?

I don’t know that there is one simple answer when it comes to nutrition. I believe in eating a wide, varied, ‘everything in moderation’ diet. This is very much the Healthy Food Guide philosophy. There is no food I’d never eat. If I have food ‘rules’ myself, they are: eat what makes you happy, and listen to your body. Bearing in mind that yes, there are people for whom giving up whole categories of food is necessary – and even life-saving in the case of allergies – I do think that maybe if we relaxed a little bit, we’d all feel better.

First published: Apr 2012
Last updated: September 5 2018
Last science review: October 10 2016



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