I grew up as a fat kid – the fact that most of those who hear it nowadays find hard to believe is a comfort. At school I had to cope with the cruelty of other kids. In my teenage years, when my girlfriends were in shorts and jeans, I was clad in black, dark blue, or brown. I remember my first experience with dieting… One day, when I was twelve, my mom said “Katie, fruits have no calories. You can eat fruits and lose weight”. For the following days I remember filling a huge bowl with various fruits, cherries, apricots, apples, melons a number of times during the day. At the end of the week I had put on one kilo. I had not thought about quantity.
I belong to a generation that was given tons of misleading information about nutrition and weight loss. Trying to lose weight? Eating fats meant death sentence. And nuts, were totally forbidden. I remember the tons of guilt I experience for years trying to lose weight every time I ate some nuts or some cake. And butter was something that belonged to another world. For years I really starved and experienced the yo-yo syndrome, losing and gaining weight. Even when in the end I lost the extra weight, in my early 20s, with a revolutionary nutritional program in the beginning of the 80s, fat was restricted to 3 teaspoons a day. Period.
How different things are nowadays. Though the concepts of metabolism, energy balance, and weight loss and management are still really complicated and overwhelming for many, fascinating new discoveries on the frontiers of science have a completely different story to tell.
There is an emphasis on increasing healthy fats. In fact, healthy fats are necessary for good brain function. In terms of weight loss, healthy fats are the building block for sustainable blood sugar and weight management. Your body uses glucose from sugar and carbs for energy. But once that is used up, your body starts to use fat, which helps you lose weight and maintain muscle tissue. In fact, medium-chain triglycerides like the ones found in coconut oil are not stored as fat as easily in the body and are actually more readily used as energy.
But the most fascinating discoveries about food concern the concept of food itself. But let’s start from the beginning.
Modern Western concepts of food are a byproduct of a centuries old process of intense secularization. Food is now largely conceived in terms of its economic value as a commodity and its nutritional value as a source of physical sustenance. In the latter regard, its value is quantified through the presence and molecular weight of macro- and micronutrients or its “fat-inducing” calories. In the process of reducing food’s value to these strictly quantitative dimensions, it has lost its soul. Food is no longer believed to possess a vital life force, much less a sacred one. But the etymology of sacred, namely, to make holy, and the etymology of holy, which connects to heal, whole, health, implies correctly that food has the ability to “make us whole”.
If talk of food as “sacred” and “whole-making” sounds pseudo-scientific, consider how Nature designed our very first experience of nourishment (if we were fortunate enough to not have been given a bottle full of formula): breastmilk taken from the mother’s breast was simultaneously a nutritional, physical, thermic, emotional, genetic, and spiritual form of nourishment. Food, therefore, can and should never truly be reduced to an object of biochemistry.
As we go deeper, we discover that the topic of food is a highly cerebral one. And this begins with any simple act of eating, albeit in a slightly different way. It’s called the cephalic phase of nutrition, “in your head”, which reflects how you are actually experiencing the food: is it delicious? Are you feeling pleasure? These “subjective” aspects profoundly affect the physiology of digestion and assimilation. Food, therefore, begins in a context that transcends merely physiochemical conditions and concerns. The nocebo and placebo effects, which are powerful forces in the setting of clinical medicine, also apply to the field and experience of nutrition. And therefore, it is hard to ignore how this important layer of nutrition: the first-hand experience, and even our intention and level of gratitude, has been lost in the fixation on the chemistry and reductionism of food science.
But the inquiring mind wants more specific scientific answers to the question: how does food make us whole? How does its arrangement of atoms possess such extraordinary power to sustain our species? Why can’t we answer the most rudimentary questions that go back to ancient times, such as the still timeless mystery and miracle of how the bread is transmuted into blood and flesh?
Perhaps, it is the information (and intelligence) within food that will help explain some of this mystery. After all, information literally means “to put form into”. This understanding will add much needed depth and nuance to conventional nutritional concepts where food is still conceived as a bunch of essentially dead and uninteresting atoms and molecules.
Food as Information
The new view of food as replete with biologically important information, is based on a number of relatively new discoveries in various fields of scientific research.
For instance, the discovery that food contains methyl groups (a carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms (CH3)) capable of methylating (silencing) genes, brought into focus the capability of food to profoundly affect disease risk as well phenotypal expression. If folate, B12, or Betaine – 3 common food components – can literally “shut off” gene expression with high specificity, food becomes a powerful informational vector. One which may actually supervene over the DNA within our body by determining which sequences find expression. In addition, it is possible that food, depending on how it is grown and prepared, will have vastly different protein folding patterns which will carry radically different types of biologically vital information. This is another example where one can not exhaustively assess the value of food strictly through quantitative methods, e.g. measuring how much protein there is by weight, but need also to account for qualitative dimensions, e.g. the vast amounts of information contained within secondary, tertially and quaternary conformational states of these protens.
Another extremely important element is the role of water in food. Not only has water been found to carry energy and information, but water has also been identified an instrument of biosemiosis. The water component of food, therefore, could contribute biologically important information – even genetic and epigenetically meaningfully information.
Water, which is capable of taking in free energy from the environment, has its own information and energy. This means, therefore, that food qua water content, has the potential to carry relatively vast amounts of information beyond what is found in its material composition itself.
When food is looked upon as a vital source of biologically important information which can inform the expression of our genome, it is much easier to understand how our ancestors considered its creation, production, harvesting, cooking, and consumption sacred.
Once we understand the true implications of food as information, our entire worldview will change.