I’ve never had an eating disorder but, like many people, there have been shades of being a bit dysfunctional with food. That includes: not really trusting my body around food; believing I need to “earn” the cake I’m going to eat by doing exercise; shaming myself around certain foods (eg kale is great, McCoy’s are bad); and half-hearted periods of calorie restriction when I felt I needed to lose weight.
It has taken 37 years to unpick all of this mess.
At first, I struggled to see where it came from – after all, I had a mother who always cooked from scratch and never commented on how much I weighed. But then I realised the pressure and weird guidelines we have about food literally come from EVERYWHERE.
I’m not even talking about restrictive diets, “earning food” or bikini-body bullshit – I’m talking about healthy-food fads. I've been so desperate for permission around food that, in the past few years, I can think of a number I’ve embraced with gusto, from quinoa to chia seeds; at one point, I even considered getting a machine to dehydrate nuts, and the only thing that stopped me was my sister’s laughter down the phone. And, Christ, does anyone remember bone broth – that brew that smelled like the inside of a goat’s arse – which was said to cure digestive ailments and stress, with zero scientific evidence that it did any of those things?
The thing that finally woke me up was when ghee and coconut oil were trotted out as miracle oils that were healthy and great for you. Yes, I was an eager sponge around anything to do with nutrition, but even I knew that ghee – clarified butter – should not be consumed with the regularity these experts were telling us to. And I know this from watching my mother, who is Indian – she uses it only for seasoning dahl and cooking richer “special-occasion dishes”.
It was the same with coconut oil – something we use to moisturise our scalps with; the science just seemed off. When Gwyneth Paltrow endorsed it, I then knew the science was off.
Now, an epidemiologist has come out saying that the coconut-oil fad is complete nonsense – and it has ruffled a lot of feathers.
I don’t agree with how Dr Karin Michels, an epidemiology specialist from at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, has phrased it – she described it as “pure poison” and one of the “worst things you can eat” – but it does raise a bigger point, which is that there is no quick fix or shortcut to healthy eating.
Yes, I was an eager sponge around anything to do with nutrition, but even I knew that ghee – clarified butter – should not be consumed with the regularity these experts were telling us to
Not being a nutritionist, I asked registered nutritionist and intuitive-eating expert Laura Thomas about whether there was truth behind the claims around coconut oil’s health benefits or whether it should be handled with a measure of caution. She said, “When a food is trendy, it’s seen as this magical panacea that’s going to be a shortcut to health. It’s a 'superfood', which we know doesn’t exist.
“And there is a common myth that coconut oil has a higher smoke point. But there have been a number of studies that have shown that it is categorically not true. Coconut oil doesn’t in fact have a higher smoke point than things like olive oil – so that is a myth and misconception born out of the clean-eating era, because of a lot of unqualified people making bold claims about nutrition.”
For Thomas and for me, the big problem is that food fads reinforce the idea of good and bad foods. So, rather than introducing a food gradually to your diet, you’re told to completely replace it. “When a food is billed as a health food, you get misinformation and pseudo science," she says. "So, for instance, with coconut oil, if people are only using coconut oil in their cooking, they may displace other important fats and oils from their diet.”
And there’s the rub. It’s fine to introduce people to the benefits of a little-known food or explain how they can introduce it as a part of their diet. But there is a real danger in presenting this as the only possibility to health, which it often is.
The most damaging side effect of all of this over the years is that the rollercoaster of good foods and bad foods meant I was completely ignoring what my body needed and I wasn’t trusting it to tell me what I needed to eat.
Sure, when I was eating Cup-A-Soups as “lunch” in my grotty sixth-form common room, I wasn’t under the illusion that it was a healthy diet. But the more insidious stuff has actually been this massive tornado of guilt caused by the clean-eating brigade’s habit of demonising or evangelising food.
By learning to see foods as neither good nor bad, it means that I pretty much eat what I want and in moderation, rather than self-flagellating when I eat something the rest of the world seems as a “naughty” food.
I asked Thomas for a final word on anyone feeling utterly confused about what they should eat post-coconut-oil drama and I’m going to print it and stick it on my wall.
“If it deviates too far from convention or common sense around food, don’t believe it. Nutrition is shades of grey, so if it’s presenting nutrition as black and white, don’t believe it. It’s not a zero-sum game – just because you ate an ice cream doesn’t negate the great benefits of all that fibre you may have eaten earlier that day.”