During the month of April 2016, the food company that manufactures “Dolmio” pasta sauce issued a health warning telling people that they should not consume certain varieties of their products more than once a week due to high levels of salt, sugar and fat. The next day, the newspapers were covered in ridiculously dramatic headlines like “The Bolognese sauce in your cupboard is plotting to kill you” and “Research suggests it is safer to drink bleach than creamy tomato pasta bake”. Supermarkets gathered up all remaining stocks of Dolmio sauce and threw them into the ocean where over one million fish were knocked unconscious by the sudden downpour of jarred carbonara, and people fled their homes to set up new lives abroad as the sudden media frenzy had inspired such fear in their hearts that they’d rather safely escape from their kitchens without a backwards glance, than risk having a heart attack trying to dispose of a jar of pesto they had foolishly lurking in the cupboard. Now I will admit that this is perhaps a slight exaggeration on what happened after Dolmio’s announcement, but the message I am basically trying to convey here is that some pasta sauce company said there was some sugar and salt in their sauces and absolute chaos ensued.
This chaos probably doesn’t seem worthy of a blog post, especially on a website that focuses on mental health, but the problem is that this whole Dolmio extravaganza is not an isolated incident when it comes to the fact that the world has suddenly become obsessed with “clean eating” and being healthy. Just the other day I saw a headline on a magazine that asked “Which is more dangerous: Carbs or Fat”, a ridiculous question considering the fact that people need carbohydrates and fat to stay alive. It is far more dangerous to not eat enough of those food groups than to eat over whatever amount of grams the government has said is acceptable or required for every single one of us individually, despite vast differences in age, height, weight and exercise regime across the population. Ok too much of certain food groups can be bad for you, but no individual food group is especially dangerous, they all play a part, are all vital, and this food demonising obsession of recent years is incredibly disordered and unhealthy both in terms of mental and physical wellbeing.
Eating healthily is great, but being obsessed with what you eat and counting every calorie, every fat gram and every grain of sugar is not normal and is something that, prior to recent years, I had only seen in fellow people with eating disorders. Food demonising and counting “macros” is such an issue in the eating disorder community that groups are offered to try and challenge these behaviours, which would be a hell of a lot easier if the rest of the world wasn’t suddenly condoning the thoughts and fears around a potato that you have been told are unwarranted.
During one of my hospital admissions there was a brand of cereal bar that we had as part of the meal plan every day. It came in a variety of flavours but I always went for the blueberry one, because it was the lowest calorie option…However, one fateful day at the hospital, disaster struck. WE HAD RUN OUT OF BLUEBERRY. I suggested we should call the police immediately to deal with this heinous crime of cereal bar deprivation, but for some reason the staff thought this was not the way to respond and told me I would have to have another flavour bar. And they call me crazy? Still, as they were the staff, I had little choice in the matter and ended up having a different flavour that was a mere one calorie more. The next day I gained weight at weigh in and I put all the blame on that different flavoured cereal bar. I did not think of all the meals I was eating in the hospital, the fact I was on a weight gain diet and an eating disorder program designed specifically for weight restoration, no, all I thought about was that cereal bar, and I immediately decided that that flavour was dangerous and never to be eaten again. In my eyes that bar had caused my weight gain and I demonised that bar so extremely that I pictured Satan as that cluster of oats and honey I had consumed, presiding over the underworld with an iron fist and chunks of real fruit (Gosh I shudder at the memory). Hopefully anyone reading this will see that demonising that particular flavour of cereal bar was ridiculous, clearly irrational and that obviously there were many other things influencing the number on the scales at that time. Yet still the message is being spread that we should demonise and run from certain foods (like Dolmio pasta sauce) in the name of “health”, without remembering that health is another thing influenced by hundreds of complex variants and not determined by the macaroni cheese you had for dinner.
In the mental health world, being obsessed with “clean eating” is called Orthorexia, a term coined in 1996 to address the unhealthy fixation on healthy eating suffered by some people with eating disorders and it is a big problem. I myself have been obsessed with government guidelines when it comes to food intake, and due to all the scare stories I have developed a fear of salt. At times I have been so afraid of salt that I have avoided eating a single milligram, because low salt diets are “healthy”, but it has never done me any good. In fact I have ended up in A&E multiple times due to this lack of salt causing low sodium, a key electrolyte that people NEED in order to keep the heart working.
We really need to stop avoiding food groups or labelling them as “dangerous” when it is so much MORE dangerous to become obsessed and potentially develop a fatal eating disorder. Ok if we ever discover crowds of potatoes rallying in secret, plotting to take over the world, then maybe we can see a danger in the carbohydrate department, but until then can we all just sit down and eat some damn pasta like we used to rather than this spiralised courgette nonsense that suddenly seems to be so popular.
I suppose that the message I really want to get across here is that in no circumstance is a food or a food group to be considered a danger in itself, as the real danger here is actually food demonising that condones and can potentially lead people into serious eating disorders. Obviously you should still eat your greens at dinner and whack a banana on your cereal, but you should also be able to eat a bowl of actual spaghetti rather than a courgette that has been cut to ribbons. Take government warnings with a pinch of salt (literally, remember, sodium is important), and stop seeing any food as the ruler of the underworld. It isn’t just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away, sometimes you also need a piece of good old chocolate cake.