Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Foodies May Be Our True Dietary Messiahs

By Catherine Lockley

The facts and figures in the Australian Dietary Guidelines are less influential on our dietary habits than the enthusiastic narratives of food cooked up by gastronomes.

Have you ever had the “perfect meal”? An offering that delights the eyes, the palate, the emotions and the olfactory senses? A meal whose flavours are so delightful, surprising and masterfully woven that you can’t even imagine wanting to over-eat?

I can guarantee you that if you have, the meal was not prepared by Lite’n Easy, Weight Watchers or even a registered dietician. This meal was created by a food artist, a chef. This person probably didn’t give two figs about calories, phyto­­nutrients, antioxidants or macronutrient profiles – any more than a great painter worries about the chemistry of the cerulean blue on his brush. This balance and excitement came from a deep knowledge of flavour, of season, of the person that grew the food, and of the feelings elicited by words, textures, temperature and colour.

Current research suggests that at least part of our obesity crisis reflects a profound disconnection with our food, and that this disconnect is primarily imprinted during our childhood years. Somewhere along the way we forgot to teach our children how to grow, and how to cook.

We reduced food to fuel, and allowed generations of kitchen and garden stories to disappear. These stories were not scientific, very few were even factual, but they were engaging and beautiful. Our forgotten food narratives once linked us to each other, our world and even to a greater understanding of ourselves.

The problem is that a food narrative is never entirely removed, but it is often replaced. We have allowed our own stories to be superseded by those woven by marketing companies. If we turn to nutrition science for our narrative – the gold-standard of evidence-based facts – it is even more foreign and uninspiring.

The NHMRC’s Australian Dietary Guidelines offers 226 pages of grey tables, graphs and lists of diseases you may encounter from poor dietary choices. Stentorian use of words like “limit” and “restrict” litters each page. Even the more digestible 53-page summary is awash with charts, serves, weight measurements and food categories and sub-categories.

The message is clear. Food is about extremely careful balancing and counting. Food is about health. Bad choices equal bad health.

Enter stage left: a raft of celebrity chefs with a very different set of narratives. There’s the sensually indulgent, the knock-it-out natural, and the local, seasonal artisans. We gobble these stories greedily, starving for their wholeness, their joy, their passion and their adoration of flavour.

They don’t tell us to restrict but to embrace and relish. Instead of charts, measured portions and grave responsibility they offer a multi-faceted, utterly human story. Sometimes their food is “naughty”, or what the NHMRC would label “discretionary”, but “naughty’ is much more fun, isn’t it?

Most often they guide us towards fresh produce, joyously prepared and served to loved-ones. A tomato is no longer a package of carbohydrates and phytonutrients in the “good” section of the pie chart, but a scarlet flavour-bomb that oozes sunshine, summer and endless possibility.

In short, our cooks and gastronomes invite us to reconnect with our food by weaving it back into a beautiful story. But does the story really matter that much?

It turns out that it does. The words we use and the thoughts we have about our food have physiological effects. If you concentrate on a meal being healthy, for example, your levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin don’t drop and you remain unsatiated. If you see your food as indulgent and flavourful, you’ll be full and satisfied with less food.

Stories matter. We need our gastronomic storytellers to help us rediscover the joy in our food.

I asked my 6-year-old son to tell me how a commercial mud-cake compared in flavour with the one I had just made. He tested both with a delicacy that made both parents twitch towards laughter, but his final judgement after a mouthful of my cake? “This one’s better ‘cos it’s made with love”.

Catherine Lockley is a postgraduate student in Science Communication at The Australian National University.