The spice of life

I’m sick of nutritional thought-terminating clichés. They are repeated ad nauseum everywhere from morning TV to a doctor’s surgery. One of my pet peeves is “Eat a wide variety of food“. I was not surprised to see this statement in the recent draft of Australian Dietary Guidelines.

What does it even mean?

There seems to be a strange notion floating around regarding our human nutritional  requirements. Since we need a wide variety of micronutrients and each food (apparently) only contains a limited amount, we best to stay on the safe side and eat a little bit of everything. This idea is perpetuated by the constant mentions of newly discovered “miracle” compounds in the media.

Reading all these you would be forgiven to think that to obtain optimal health you need a fridge full of exotic berries from Africa, a pseudo-grain from South America, tea leaves grown on a particular valley in Sri Lanka and a vegetable you have never heard of from the Pacific islands.

The ADG draft pitches another argument in support of the variety theory:

“Dietary variety has the benefit of diluting potential toxicants found naturally in food”

They go on to mention the potential vitamin A toxicity from excess liver consumption (most westerners today would gag at the mention of liver anyway) and a potential of mercury poisoning from fish for pregnant women (enough to scare off anyone from consuming any measurable quantities of DHA/EPA. What? Babies’ brains need those?)

This makes no sense (#FFS).

Let’s take ourselves from our first world everything-is-readily-available-when-I-need-it mentality and apply some good old fashioned common sense and a bit of evolutionary logic. Is it really likely that the compound which will turn on some beneficial gene expression in humans world wide just happens to be only found in a berry from Colombia? Hey, evolution, that’s a major oversight! It took the rest of us, non-Colombian population, 2 million years to work out how to build planes and stuff and this perfect nugget of nutrition was sitting there all this time?

It amused me no end that quinoa made it into the list of cereals recommended to be eaten as part of the 5 food groups daily (Guideline 1) in Australia.

“Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups daily: 3. grain (cereal) foods mostly wholegrain, such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, cous cous, oats, quinoa, barley”.

But enough about South American wonder foods. What about a humble blueberry? All those anthocyanins and phenolics repairing the oxidative damage inflicted by the food group number 3. Has to be good for you, right? And lucky for us, health-conscious consumers, blueberries are available all year around courtesy your friendly local supermarket giant.

I still remember picking wild blueberries in a Russian forest as a child. We looked forward to a month-long blueberry season,  doing a few forest trips around July to check if berries were ready for picking. Some super keen villagers would go a few days early just to beat the crowds, their payback for keenness was a few extra hours of forest-wandering. The official start of the season would see whole families venture into the woods, each person laden with a ten litre bucket, me, a child, proudly carrying a one litre container. People would gorge on blueberries for a few short weeks, sell the excess, make mountains of blueberry jam. Every kid would be walking around with a dead giveaway of blueberry gluttony: purple lips. And then it was over for another year.

Think of it next time you buy your punnet of blueberries in the middle of February.

In the world where most fruit, vegetable and berries are farmed and/or transported across the planet we have lost a concept of seasonality. Even a 100 years ago these foods were not available everywhere all year round.  Is there any scientific evidence to suggest that eating food out of season or out of your area is harmful? Nope. But I don’t see any sense in chasing variety for variety’s sake.

“The most recent dietary survey data available for Australian adults – the National Nutrition Survey 1995 – showed an increasing number of foods being consumed by adults in that year compared with 1983 [44]. It is expected that the variety of foods consumed has continued to increase since 1995. This is largely as a result of cultural diversity in the population arising from waves of immigration from European countries after World War II and Asian and African countries since the 1970s [99, 100]. Initially, new varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables, grain (cereal) foods and different types of meat and legume/beans became available. Increasing demand for convenience and/or fast foods – also as a result of changes in social and economic conditions – has led to the availability of approximately 30,000 different types of foods and drinks [101]. However, many of these – particularly snack and fast foods and drinks – are energy-dense and nutrient-poor, so care is required to choose diets consistent with the Guidelines [102]. ” (the draft of ADG)

(my bold italics)

30,000 types of food? Looks like our diet is varied enough. And it’s not just the snacks, fast foods and drinks. Ask your grandmother if she knows what cous cous is (forgo this step if you grandmother is from North Africa).

Wow so much variety!

I am not for a minute suggesting that you should stick to the boring bland diet of steak and 3 veg (of which one is potato, the other is corn, the third is beans). But the concept of “you will develop a secret micronutrient deficiency unless you eat a huge variety of foods just in case” is dubious at best.

Once again they missed the mark, mistaking quantity for quality.

Milan vegetable market.


33 thoughts on “The spice of life

  1. I have become a big fan of your writing, and I can honestly say I have never thought of food variety in the is way! Thanks for the interesting (and funny) take on CW! Please keep writing. Those of us in the States appreciate it, especially here in Wisconsin where seasonality is always a consideration.

    • Ah, don’t get me started on nutrition-in-a-pill, Aaron. Seasonality and nutrient-seeking behaviour according to needs is so natural in the animal world and traditional cultures. In our society we handed over that responsibility to supplement companies. And since there is no good evidence for multivitamin benefit at all (and there should be at least a marginal benefit with that placebo effect) I wonder if it is actually harmful.

  2. Agreed.

    Nail the quality down. The quality of your food, the quality of your exercise, quality time with family and friends.

    Variety and spice in your food choices is fine … as long as finding them doesn’t take away quality time from the rest of your life.

  3. The main problem with the idea of eating wide variety of foods is that it encourages people to eat too much, mostly because they feel like beneficial food is free from calories. Somehow most people feel they luck nutrients while they often have an opposite problem of consuming too much of almost everything (except good fats, meat and organ meats) .

    • Galina, you are spot on. People do go out of their way to introduce more foods (morning and afternoon snacks are a perfect example) because they feel they have to. And I wonder if the lack of good nutrients is what is driving the appetite and the need for variety. I have to admit that since changing my diet I require much less variety to keep me satisfied. I am perfectly content with the same breakfast every day for weeks (now its scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and half an avocado) because it keep me satiated for many hours.

      • I realize that Australia probably is a producer of some fine avocados,
        but does the salmon really fit in ?
        ‘Salmon’, like ‘rib eye steak’ and ‘sweet potatoes’ (=oxalic acid de luxe)
        has become a bit of a “paleo cringe” word for me…

        • Salmon, broccoli and sweet potatoes have definitely become the diet du jour everywhere. We have Tasmanian salmon here in Australia. Being Russian, smoked salmon for brekkie is a bit of a staple, if I could smother it in caviar and sour cream I would. It’s nearly impossible (and fruitless) to avoid imported products completely. I am just trying to find, and encourage people to find the middle ground.

  4. Very, very. good post, Anastasia.

    The seasonality issue is one that is very much underdone within the paleo/primal/evo world, although I know of a few individuals who have got some really exciting stuff coming through on this topic.

    If I am going to push variety in anything, it will be on the protein/fat side of the equation to ensure people are getting a good spread of nutrients such as creatine, carnosine, carnitine, choline, taurine… and various length fatty acid chains… you know, all of those essential nutrients that we get from fruitsnvegetables or we find in a multivitamin pill… Oh, except we don’t. Strike that. They are found predominantly in foods of animal origin.

    I’m not much of a fan of people eating grilled chicken breast or fish every day but making sure that get a wide variety of cereals, fruits, and vegetables. I’d much rather people eat a wide range of animal products and ensure that they are attaining variety in seasonally available colours (as far as plant foods are concerned) – if variety in anything is that necessary.

    In my experience, people confuse variety with texture. Take the quote you posted from the guidelines…

    “Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups daily: 3. grain (cereal) foods mostly wholegrain, such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, cous cous, oats, quinoa, barley”.

    We could rewrite this to more accurately to reflect how people are actually going to meet them in the real-world… Wheat-bread, wheat-cereal, wheat-pasta, wheat-noodles, wheat-cous cous (for the posh folk), and if you have oats or barley, for the most part, they are attached to something wheaty.

    Now where is the variety in that lot?? Many of the “foods” that represent the above “variety” will have a degree of fortification, and will be fortified with the same [synthetic analogue] nutrients, at similar levels, potentially reducing absorption of other nutrients (like the grain component doesn’t do enough of that already), or competitively inhibiting more active versions once absorbed. All of these foods might be able to be used differently, at different times of the day, and have slightly different tastes and textures, but they are anything but variety.


    • Thanks Jamie. Exactly my point. The so-called varied “healthy” diet is anything but. It’s just various forms of grains served in a different form. People reckon that having 5 boxes of different cereals in their pantry is “variety”: Special K for protein, All-Bran for fibre, Crunchy Nut for nuts and Sultana Bran for fruit. Argh! And the same people would sprinkle wheatgerm and LSA on top of their cereal. And feeling guilty about their inadequate fruitnveggie consumption, they force themselves to eat lettuce/grilled chicken breast for lunch. They end up chasing their tail in search of micronutrients while the bulk of the diet is void of any utilisable nutrition. Sad.

  5. The blueberry thing is so right, never thought of it that way. If we were MEANT to eat everything all the time, surely it would be available in nature all the time. The fact that it isn’t and we have not become an extinct race suggests that perhaps we can survive without everything, everyday.

    • Yes, Kerrie. It’s very much a first world issue. Since all our food is available 365 days a year on shiny supermarket shelves, our diet is actually less varied because we eat the same food all year round.

      • I love this post, and I am really enjoying reading your blog! But reading this, I immediately thought of a woman I know who works with recently arrived refugees from places such as Sudan. One day she encountered one of the refugee women crying in the supermarket. She thought she must be lost or something bad had happened – but when she asked her, the lady admitted she was crying because there was so much food.

        A side issue – are you familiar with the ‘Mum’s United’ page on Facebook? But be careful – it might do your head in!!

        • I had the same feeling, Fiona, when I moved to Australia from Russia. You get so excited by the variety, by the colourful packaging and so much food! Right up to the moment when you realise that you didn’t need any of that in the first place.

  6. Fantastic post. I always have a chuckle to myself when my dad warns me I may need to eat more variety. Of course like many in the west he consumes a variety of foods including weet-bix for breakfast, sandwich or pie for lunch, but a more ‘paleo’ style dinner (thanks to mum and I.) I have had friends concerned for me because I do not eat my recommended daily serving of fruit, if much at all (not to mention my other bizarre eating habits like omitting grains, soy, legumes, sugar and dairy!) But eating a variety of grains, processed into various foodstuffs offers more nutrition right!?

    • Yep, I get funny looks when I go to a cafe for lunch with friends and say there is nothing to eat. They see a menu full of sandwiches, wraps, pasta, ciabattas and crumbed chicken and think there is so much variety. I look at it and marvel: can’t you see that they are all the same thing???

  7. As I read your post, I realized I am guilty of this although I never said it to mean exotic, difficult to find foods. I started saying it because so many others were saying they were zero-carb or VLC. Based on their comments, they weren’t even eating many different parts of the animal. So what I call “a wide variety of meats, vegetables and fruits” translates to a small list on a given day but I do eat more than muscle meat and I eat (gasp) a little fresh fruit. After reading this, though, I don’t know if I’ll be so free and easy with my words anymore.

    • Nance, I am not against variety either. I just don’t like the way this word is thrown about. I find that giving up processed food changes your taste and you end up naturally searching for different flavours. I certainly don’t go to my farmers market and think: I need to find more variety. I just buy whatever is fresh and available, and sometimes it is something I have never tried before. I do think that those staying on VLC for long period of time are missing out on flavours as well as nutrients. Our message to the general public should just be: Eat real food.

      • I agree with that! And sometimes the different flavors are so simple. I’ve always eaten leafy salads with just oil and vinegar but this week I tossed finely chopped fresh basil on my salad and it was amazing!

  8. The question is when is there enough variety?

    Considering how toxic lots of nature is you realise that if we were to start foraging and hunting for food afresh we’d be taking huge risks with every bite. The knowledge about what to eat and what not to eat, how to prepare it, when to eat it and when not to eat it, how to store and preserve it, etc, would have to be passed from generation to generation. Even if we know something isn’t toxic we may still eat it not knowing whether it’s ripe, unripe or overripe. In other words, it’s taken quite a while to build up the current variety of foods so how far off into the future, when presumably more types of foods will exist, will the advice still stand that a “restrictive” diet is automatically bad and that we should be eating a wide variety of foods?

    • Nick I reckon this ancient knowledge is disappearing. We don’t eat foods because they are non-toxic, we eat them because they are available in the supermarket. I personally love different cuisines and cook foods that my parents have never even heard about. But I doubt that there is a miracle ingredient out there somewhere that I wouldn’t find in my steak and veg.

  9. One of my favorite topics, as it combines my loves of nutrition, agriculture, and environmentalism- oh, and tasty food. The concept that we should be eating seasonal fruits and veggies through all seasons is just looney- I’d actually say that of the things I listed, the nutritional one is actually the least annoying to me (though I think binging on high sugar fruits all year long is probably ill advised). To escape appropriate growing seasons, farms resort to heating (or cooling, actually) greenhouses, and unless you live in Iceland or somewhere else with geothermal heat coming out the wazoo, that is incredibly energy inefficient. Otherwise you’re growing something on the other side of the world, picking it before it’s ripe, and shipping it across the world, again using a ridiculous amount of energy. Plus- because stuff is picked before it’s ripe and produce is bred to be good for transport, it tastes like crap!

    Seasonality is fun. Let’s be honest- if rhubarb came into season later in the season, when you had lots of tasty berries and fruits to chose from, no one would actually eat rhubarb. As it is the first thing to come up in the garden in the spring, people eat it and enjoy it as something new after a winter of limited veg (and no fruit save that which has been preserved). Well- that’s how it was until the last few decades.

    There are some fun books out there documenting attempts to eat local and eat seasonal. I’m currently enjoying ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ which is about a family’s year long endeavor to eat local. And ‘The Dirty Life’ is a fun read of a couple that grow and raise all the food needed for the members of their farm co-op, year round (In addition to meats, dairy, fruits and veg they make maple syrup and even mill their own flours). In that scenario, people can supplement their diet with things from the supermarket, but ostensibly you could eat year round from a local farm- you just have to realize that what you preserve or store in a root cellar over the winter, plus meat, is what you get to eat at the end of winter. Sure makes you appreciate those first fresh things in the spring though- rhubarb and asparagus.

    I totally stuff myself with asparagus (usually with poached eggs +/- Hollandaise sauce) in the spring- will sometimes eat it three times a day. I won’t eat it any other time of the year, as it invariably tastes like crap. (Shame about the smelly side effect though…)

    Wow… long comment!

  10. Pingback: Missing Link(s) 2/10/2012 | Primal Bodybuilding and Health

  11. My pet peeve food advise is “All things in moderation!”

    I’m new to this blog, so perhaps you’ve already covered this annoying platitude.

  12. Some quotes:
    You are what you eat – Victor Lindlahr
    You are what what you eat eats – Michael Pollan
    Man can never be more than what he eats – Ross Hume Hall

    My philosophy of establishing and sustaining sound health is to consume food that is both high in quality and appropriate for metabolic make up. Since the quality of purchased food is problematic, I garden.

    Soil enrichment translates into micro nutrient abundance in every food plant a person cares to grow. I can gauge the success of my soil enrichment efforts by flavor, productivity, and deer behaviour. They will mow weeds, growing in enriched soil, to the ground but not touch the same weeds growing nearby in depleted soil.

    It’s a shame we don’t do more to utilize the nutrients our bodies shed on a daily basis. In our household, all kitchen waste is retained to enrich the soil surrounding our home. Eventually, I plan to install a separating toilet to collect urine and solid waste as well. Properly handled, these resources become a valuable fertilizer input that sequesters carbon in the soil and furnishes increasingly nutritious produce as the micro nutrient content and profile of the soil improves.

    Excerpt describing just how fertile soil can get when properly managed:

    On a recent morning, using a soil coring device, Oyuela-Caycedo extracted a heavy, black dirt in a spot he calls Salvavidas, or Lifesaver. It was terra preta, black, nutrient-rich, as good for agriculture as the soil in Iowa. “It is the best soil that you can find in the Amazon,” said Oyuela-Caycedo,…”You don’t find it in natural form.” Three feet deep here, and stretching nearly 100 acres, this terra preta could have fed at least 5,000 people. The forests here were also carefully managed in other ways, Oyuela-Caycedo believes, with the Indians planting semi-domesticated trees that bore all manner of fruit, such as macambo, sapote and jungle avocados.

  13. Eat. Real. Food – It’s such a simple message! It often baffles me how foreign this concept is to many people, and how disconnected we’ve become in such a short period of time. Thanks Anastacia, it’s comforting to hear other health professionals bring common-sense and sound nutrition to the table!

  14. Anastasia.
    Congratulations on achieving your registration as a doctor. I’ve fairly recently started to take a more active interest in health, which among other places has led me into the paleosphere and as a fellow Australian I was delighted to stumble across your blog today (too late to make it to your sugar workshop in Melbourne). It is great to see evidence of an Australian doctor challenging some of the conventional nutrition wisdom.

    I mostly agree with the views you’ve expressed in the post above though I believe my perspective is somewhat different than yours and thought I would share some feedback.

    I’d recommend that you read the book “Good Health in the 21st Century” by Dr Carole Hungerford – if you have not read it already. Carole is another doctor based out of NSW – I don’t believe she self-identifies as Paleo however many of her ideas and observations seem to align. Within the book there is some exploration of ideas around food diversity, interrelated topics such as soil depletion, seasonality, food sourcing and an evolutionary perspective.

    My gut-feel perspective is that quality and quantity are both vital. Certainly the variety that you see within supermarket aisles is not quality and is not true variety when so much of it breaks down to wheat, corn and soy and a few other highly processed ingredients (perhaps the variety comes from the plethora of artificial flavourings and preservatives). If what you mean by quality is the difference between say, grass-fed organic meat from rich soil or free-range organic eggs versus their industrial factory farmed equivalents then I absolutely agree.

    In Carole’s book she refers to a “delightful essay” by Colin Tudge who approaches the variety topic from an interesting perspective; his idea is that modern, agricultural human beings are ‘pharmacologiclly impoverished'”. I believe that essay is here:

    One of the central themes of this essay, greatly simplified, is that current humans are the result of many millions of years of co-adaptation with plants and animals and that as a result of that long period of co-adaptation we’re likely to have health uses for many of the compounds that exist within those plants and animals (they may not be necessary for human life but may contribute to optimal health). Some of the key points that he makes are:
    – Our “modern diets are based on a narrow range of crops (and livestock) which our Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic ancestors happened to have available, and developed”. This doesn’t represent anywhere near the full range of plants and animals that are genes have evolved with.
    – The plants and animals in our diet now are “bred mostly for yield and low toxicity”, potentially decreasing their healthfulness. There’s also often raised in poor soil or with inappropriate/inadequate diets themselves.
    – “Hunting-gathering people have commonly been found to make regular use of scores of different wild plants from a wide range of plant families (and different plant families tend to be pharmacologically distinct; chemistry runs in families) whereas the range of crops regularly eaten by most people in the western world is rather small”.

    It makes sense to me on an intuitive level that we should include variety where possible (again, from Carole’s book: “folk wisdom in japan says that one should eat 30 different food types every day”) and I don’t think Paleo is necessarily incompatible with variety – Colin Tudge concludes the essay above with “We might indeed revert to a more ‘primitive’ diet — meaning, in particular, one in which we treat ourselves to a far greater range of the kinds of materials that nature has to offer, which our ancestors evolved to cope with. In detail: more spices, more herbs, more plants in general, and among meat: more offals”.

    Hope that you find that perspective interesting.

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