A recent article in the New York Times discusses a new study of the effects of caffeine on young women’s estrogen levels. I being a) female and b) a bit of a crackhead when it comes to coffee, I clicked on this link before looking at anything else involving things like the presidential race or whatever the hell is going on in the world right now.
What interested me about the article was not that they found that caffeine affected women’s estrogen levels in an infinitesimal and possibly insignificant amount, but that it affected their estrogen levels differently depending on their race: Asian and African American women saw a slight increase in estrogen levels with moderate caffeine intake, Caucasian women saw a slight decrease.
More to the point: the study illustrates that one food or substance can affect two people in totally opposite ways.
There’s a recipe for crockpot chicken stew that’s been circulating through the gym recently. One of my close friends put it together, and I’ve watched her throw the ingredients in her crockpot countless times. Now, she’s a great cook—she regularly makes lunch or dinner for the two of us, and it’s always spectacular in the way that you try to go home and recreate it but it’s just not the same. (This is not a one-sided friendship. Sometimes I cook, too—usually things I don’t actually know how to make, like steak, and then I ask for advice [cough cough] and she conveniently helps out and whoops! Looks like somebody ended up in charge of making dinner again.) (I’m a lovely friend.)
Her crockpot chicken soup, needless to say, has been a hit with everybody who’s replicated it. There’s the usual chicken and celery and carrots, but there’s something magical that happens with the addition of sweet potatoes and bones and—Oh my God, people are saying, this soup is so satisfying.
Except, of course, it’s the one thing I don’t find at all filling. I can take a bigger serving, add extra chicken or fat or sweet potatoes, and, plain and simple, I will not feel like I’ve had a meal. It’s not just my friend’s recipe, either. I’m enchanted by this whole idea of soups and stews and crockpots, and regularly try to convince myself that this chili or this kale and white bean soup will be the comfort food meal for me. But it never is. I long for something more and, after the first or second time, start dreading the meals that include the soup and wishing it wouldn’t be wasteful to just toss the damn stuff.
How a body processes caffeine and how much a person likes soup differ in that the former is biochemical and the latter is arguably a matter of preference, but they both illustrate that how our bodies and minds respond to food is very individual. We see this often with food intolerances, but if you talk to your friends, you may find other things as well—some people have to have a fair amount of fat or protein in their meals to feel satiated, while others may need some carbohydrates to keep them from turning into a groggy, disoriented mess.
Yet every year, new health plans come out touting that this food regimen is the key to real health. Some call themselves diets (South Beach, Atkins, Dukan), some are touted as lifestyle changes (eating Mediterranean, Paleo, or vegan), but all imply that one style of eating trumps all others.
I’m sure you get where I’m going here: if our bodies and minds respond to food so differently, then how can one plan or lifestyle stand out above the rest? It’s a question that’s come up before, and I like how Michael Pollan responds to the concept of following a particular eating lifestyle in his book Food Rules: “Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.” He explains: “Any traditional diet will do: If it were not a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn’t still be around.” Oftentimes we focus on a specific regimen as being the best when it actually just one of many that gets rid of some of the trash in our day-to-day eating.
But my main point isn’t simply that people need to find the healthy lifestyle that works for them rather than following the latest trend. Instead, I’m interested in how cyclical our definition of “healthy eating” is.
When I was growing up, my whole family got to a point where we were struggling with our weights. My mother went the route that’s generally advised by doctors and nutrition experts, which was to change our current meals and snacks for the better and to teach my brothers and I about making healthier choices. I picked up some invaluable practices at this point that I’m seriously thankful to have as an adult—I don’t struggle to get enough fruits and veggies in my diet, prefer whole grains to white, prepare most of my meals from scratch—and, more importantly, these things are actually what I prefer and enjoy the most.
But in the process of figuring out what was healthiest, our family went through countless iterations of “the best” diet. Sometimes it meant we ate a lot of tofu, for a long while we were vegetarian (my parents still are mostly vegetarian, actually), but there were times where we were eating lots of protein and few carbs, and there were times where we lived without gluten or casein, and there were times when our cabinets overflowed with Omega 3 pills, buckwheat, coconut oil, or xylitol.
Working in the fitness industry, I’ve seen this same fascination with others—focusing on “super foods” or reducing grain intake or following anti-inflammatory eating plans. You can see the shift in how processed foods advertise themselves; current foods tout that they’re “All Natural!” when before they may have low-sugar or low-fat (Remember how Snackwells cookies shifted from being low-fat, high-sugar, to higher in fat and lower in sugar when Americans became more carb-conscious?).
It seems like many of us view health in the way that others view technology: we want the latest, the best. And yes, there is a great motivation to live the healthiest life possible; we’ll last longer with a higher quality of living for however many years we do get on this plane of existence.
Our fascination with latching on to the latest trend stems from our cultural fascination with maximizing profit and being as efficient as possible—what will get us the most results, and how do we streamline the process to get the most results for the most people?
Ironically, however, our manner of one-size-fits-all healthy living is really only a stone’s throw away from the same environmental factors that have caused the rising rate of ailments caused by excess. Just as we’d rather buy a sandwich on the go than make a meal from fresh ingredients at home, we’d rather try out a pre-packaged program for health than take the time to figure out what our bodies need specifically. Because these programs rarely work one hundred percent for anyone, we continually “fall off the wagon,” and then search for new evidence of a different lifestyle or diet that would work better. Sometimes we place the blame of our fickleness on the changes in research, on new evidence that refutes the past lifestyle that didn’t work.
If our fascination with efficiency and profit is both causing our general habits to become more unhealthy and keeping us from developing healthy lifestyles that are maintainable, then perhaps the issue is larger than the foods we eat or how much or little we exercise. Perhaps we need to shift our entire perspective on living, to stop trying to be so efficient. By trying to make our everyday lives quick and to the point, the shape of our lifespans have followed suit. If we want to live longer lives, then we must do just that: take the time to find the things that we specifically enjoy and need, be it caffeine or career.