An Assault On Diet

When the National Health and Medical Research Council released its official new dietary guidelines this week, they helpfully included a sample daily meal plan.

This was a mistake. The meal plan inadvertently demonstrates how ridiculously austere the NHMRC’s ideal diet is. It’s almost comic. We’re being recommended the culinary equivalent of sexual abstinence.

For an average man, the hypothetical day begins with toast (wholemeal, two slices), baked beans (half a can), a tomato (medium size), and a glass of milk (250ml, reduced fat).

Breakfast is as good as it gets. Lunch is a sandwich (wholemeal) with 65 grams of sliced roast beef, 20 grams of reduced fat cheese and some salad. Two small coffees may be consumed at your discretion. For dinner, look forward to a tiny piece of fish – 100 grams maximum – rice, and a small, boiled potato. End your day with a glass of water. (Dinner for women: a cup of pasta, 65 grams of beef mince, kidney beans and half an onion.)

Pity those who try to follow the government’s new diet. This is self-denial pretending to be cuisine.

According to the NHMRC you mustn’t even use salt – that mineral essential to the human practice of cooking. It’s no exaggeration to say the desire for salt has shaped civilisation. To eliminate salt is to reject thousands of years of food wisdom.

Official dietary guidelines have been steadily reducing any pleasure we might draw from food. The government-endorsed diet is getting worse; more ascetic, more brutal, more surreal. It’s entirely divorced from human taste.

The CSIRO’s bestselling 2005 Total Wellbeing Diet was positively decadent compared to the NHMRC’s new rules. Male dieters were permitted between 2½ and four times as much meat for their dinner. Salt was allowed, in moderation. And the entire point of the CSIRO’s recommended diet was to help people lose weight. The spartan new guidelines are for people who already have a healthy weight.

Dietary guidelines are highly political. There are many special interests with a special interest in what we eat. Industries that find their products downgraded protest loudly.

Meat and livestock producers don’t like the idea we should eat less meat. In the United States, dietary recommendations have been forever shaped by lobbyists. The subsidised sugar industry has political clout.

But there’s a deeper ideological battle going on around nutrition.

After all, what is the point of providing ”guidelines” that are so far removed from the experiences of Australian eaters? Surely health tips should not simply be scientifically accurate, but also socially plausible.

Advice is pointless if it’s going to be ignored. If our best medical minds have decided that drawing any pleasure from food is too risky, perhaps they should rethink their goals.

In 2008, the NHMRC decided any more than two glasses of wine in a single session constituted ”binge drinking”. This decision turned the previously benign cultural practice of sharing a bottle of wine into dangerous hedonism.

But ”binge” is a moral concept rather than a scientific one – it’s just a synonym for ”bad”. Since risky behaviour exists on a continuum, this redefinition was little more than an attempt to berate people into changing their behaviour.

That was five years ago. Now public health activists are pushing the message ”there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”. Another banality pretending to be insight. There’s no totally safe level of doing anything. But expect to find ”no alcohol” on official recommendations soon.

Food and drink are deeply intertwined with cultural identity. No wonder our palate is a political plaything. Environmentalists are frustrated the NHMRC didn’t focus on sustainability. Social-justice types want more attention on equity and fairness.

In Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage, the historian Barbara Santich relates the story of a Sydney doctor who in 1893 proposed a national dish in the lead-up to Federation: perhaps a ”vegetable curry”, he thought, ”or some well-concocted salad”. Such a delicate, health-focused dish was never likely to be embraced in a land of mutton, damper, and kangaroo-tail soup.

In 2013 we still don’t have a consensus national dish (why would we want one?) but the success of MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules suggests a cultural change in food and dining. Australia is the perfect combination: a rich, immigrant, and agricultural nation. Our cuisine is starting to reflect that holy trinity.

The government’s health guidelines are directly opposed to this new culinary culture. They would strip away the pleasure and meaning of food.

Indeed, there’s something symbolic in the way the NHMRC has offered different menus for men and women. Sharing a meal with the opposite sex is getting in the way of kilojoule management.

Our new health guidelines are more utopian than honest. They may be theoretically ideal – nutritionists can argue the details – but they’re also unrealistic, implausible, and unappealing.

Maybe culinary abstinence is the healthy choice. But replacing the joys of cooking and eating with a tightly engineered formula of self-denial is unlikely to be the happy choice.