We are experiencing an epidemic of comparisons between food choices and diets. Information about foods is often based on an ‘or’ question such as ‘bread or wraps’, ‘butter or margarine’, ‘pasta or rice’‘butter or oil’, ‘low fat or full fat milk’, ‘low fat yoghurt or regular fat yoghurt’, ‘butter or coconut oil’, ‘pasta or noodles’. And so on. Similarly, diets are compared in the same way: ‘low fat or low carb?’, ‘paleo or vegan?’, ‘5:2 or Mediterranean?’ But, is it useful, or appropriate, to compare two foods? Or two diets?
THIS OR THAT
Choosing one food over another is relevant where there may be a food preferences (eg would you like vanilla ice-cream or chocolate ice-cream?) or if there is a medical reason to choose one over the one (for example, sugar over honey for someone on a low FODMAP diet). Apart from these exceptions, an ‘or’ question forces a decision between two choices. It implies one is right, healthier, better and the other is wrong, unhealthy, worse. They may encourage labelling individual foods as “good” and “bad.” Instead of providing insight, possibilities and hope, this or that statements create fear, confusion and even shaming of foods.
NEITHER THIS OR THAT
Sometimes it may actually not be appropriate to say which of two choices is better. The choice may not be a clear cut answer of one or the other. We do not eat foods in isolation, so comparing one food to another is nonsensical. We need to consider foods in the context of the overall diet in which they are eaten. Furthermore, the two alternatives being compared are usually two choices which are very different. At times, the exact opposite. Think Paleo and Vegan. There are aspects of a Paleo diet that are healthy, and there are aspects of a Vegan diet that are healthy. Both also have their downsides. It is almost impossible to compare them side by side let alone pick one as being superior over the other. So, sometimes neither of ‘this or that’ is ideal.
Advice is often of the ‘one size fits all’ mentality. There are lots of factors to take into account when considering which diet is better for one person compared to another – health, family, medical conditions, preferences, social situation, financial situation, culture, beliefs, and even religion. To use the same example, neither the Paleo or the Vegan diet is for everyone. The choice for one person may not suit another. The personalised nutritional advice gets lost in the generalisation.
THIS AND THAT
‘This or that’ questions also imply people need to make a choice between two options as if only one is deemed suitable. Except in the case of a medical condition (eg gluten for coeliac disease, nuts for allergies) or those following a particular diet, most foods are usually fine. It’s essentially the message of everything in moderation. In the recent long standing debate about spreads, the question was always “Which is healthier – butter or margarine?” Putting one food on a pedestal may cause exaggerated overeating of the “good” choice and guilt in eating the “bad” choice. And we have seen this with a swing from butter to margarine to butter again. Black and white discussions can erode messages of moderation. “Don’t“ messages are not productive to making us eat healthier. “Do” messages are wiser.
THIS AND THAT … AND SO MUCH MORE!
Although the definition of ‘or’ is 2 or more alternatives, when it is used with foods and diets it is usually restricted to just 2 alternatives. Choices are presented as though these are the only two options. A choice of ‘this or that’ may narrow our focus to only one alternative. We can get so caught up in a particular choice that we lose sight of the many other choices we have. For example, a spread on bread could entail butter or margarine. However, it can also include a blended margarine, avocado, oil, nut paste, seed paste, mustard, a huge array of chutneys, many mayonnaises, a multitude of dips, a soft cheese and so much more. So ‘this or that’ statements can create rigid food choices to the point that it becomes counterproductive to eating a variety. By focusing on what not to do, rather than what to do, we can lose sight of the healthy changes we are trying to achieve.
Next time you hear ‘this or that’ statements about food ask yourself if it is a case of either, neither, both … or (no pun intended) both and so much more.