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The fear of food

We live in an era where food is restricted and resisted, in part due to medical conditions, in part due to fear

Sonia Nair

In 2016, Melbourne achieved the dubious honour of being the ‘food allergy capital of the world’, and this prevalence of food allergies as well as intolerances is reflected across the country. According to statistics collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011–12 – figures which have almost certainly risen since then – 3.7 million Australians aged two years or over reported avoiding a certain food product due to an allergy or intolerance. Australia has, in fact, one of the highest allergy and intolerance rates in the world.

The reasons for this are numerous, according to nutritionist and food scientist Dr Anneline Padayachee, and they range from Australia’s over-sanitised built environments to the widespread (and turns out, ill-founded) advice that mothers avoid eating ‘allergenic’ foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding to prevent allergies in their offspring.

Dr Padayachee cites a study that compared the prevalence of nut allergies in Western countries such as Australia with that of Israel. The study’s findings revealed that the single digit percentage of children with nut allergies in Israel climbed to double digits in Australia and other Western countries.

“Part of the reason is that in the Middle East and Asia, kids are exposed to a range of different foods like nuts while their mothers are still pregnant. Here, parents were told not to consume these foods because their children would become allergic. What the mother is consuming when she’s pregnant has an effect on tastebuds and immune system development. We’re programming our children before they’re even born.”

Australia’s high prevalence of allergies and intolerances is taking place in an age where the clean eating movement reigns supreme, the demonisation of certain foods is at an all-time high, and there is cultural cache in restricting and resisting, even when there’s no medical reason to.

Despite gluten’s negative reputation, only 1% of Australians have coeliac disease, a condition where gluten triggers an adverse immune system response, with a smaller number suffering from non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Fittingly, a 2017 study revealed that only 16% of people who believed they had a gluten sensitivity reported negative effects from eating it. Yet, socially sanctioned diets like the Paleo one relies on the assumption that humans did not historically eat cultivated grains, and so guts aren’t made to manage them – despite the scientific evidence that whole grain foods can lower one’s risk for heart disease and colon cancer.

There is emerging evidence that food allergies (but more so intolerances) are being used as a socially acceptable guise for a disordered eating condition called ‘orthorexia’ – a term coined in 1998 to describe people who are obsessed with ‘proper’ or ‘healthy’ food. While food allergies are an immune system reaction to a food, which can in some cases lead to fatalities, food intolerances are an adverse reaction to a particular food where the symptoms are unpleasant and severe but not generally life-threatening. And, the worst part: people who erroneously believe they have intolerances can further compound this belief.

Image: Benito Martin
Image: Benito Martin

“The thing is – if you get rid of lactose, your body is going to produce less lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. This enzyme is produced based on actual intake,” says Dr Padayachee. “If you stop consuming dairy, you are going to get bloated when you do eat these things because you do not have enough lactase in your gut and you’ve overloaded your system.”

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish legitimate allergies and intolerances from disordered eating patterns because the behaviours required of one are so similar to the other. Much of the behaviour exhibited by people who have orthorexia – like compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels, thinking hours per day about what food might be served at an upcoming event, and the cutting out of foods from a number of food groups – intersect with those displayed by intolerance sufferers. For instance, less than 1% of the population suffer from histamine intolerance but they have to check labels for food colourants and additive. FODMAP sufferers, whose guts don’t properly absorb a collection of short-chain carbohydrates known as ‘FODMAPs’, have to cut out ingredients from disparate food groups such as vegetables, fruit, grains and pulses.

A self-test questionnaire developed by physician Steve Bratman (who also coined ‘orthorexia’) reveals that an obsession with ‘purity and rightness’ and judgement of others who eat foods that are thought to be unhealthy is what separates those who have orthorexia to those who have intolerances.

But what exactly is ‘healthy’ when food groups are being demarcated into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ binaries without scientific evidence? On any given day, ‘bad’ food can oscillate from fat and sugar to gluten and dairy. The pendulum swings back and forth according to which influencer you follow on social media.

“You’ve got a lot of self-acclaimed specialists who are not necessarily experts in nutrition or human physiology who are publicising the fact that they’ve stopped eating bread and aren’t bloated anymore,” says Dr Padayachee. “But this assessment is based on one person making one change in their diet but who doesn’t understand how or why this has happened.

“You can easily manipulate outcomes with food without having any knowledge of what you’re doing, and that makes it challenging for people who work in the nutrition and dietetics space.”

To combat the increasing fear around food and an increasingly one-dimensional view of health, Dr Padayachee has advice that can be encapsulated in another word that has become symptomatic of our time: mindfulness.

“Be mindful of when and what you’re eating. We often eat while talking, driving or sitting at our computers and we’re not paying attention to the textures, flavours and colours of what we’re eating. Health is about getting sensory enjoyment and pleasure from food.”

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings among others. Follow her on Twitter

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