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Is Health just Wealth now? The food edition.

As I write this, we are in both a cost-of-living and health crisis of extraordinary proportions, and I do not believe these two things to be mutually exclusive. The current cost inequities have now extended to household basics, but when it comes to health and, more specifically 'wellness', a certain financial standing seems to have always been a prerequisite for the latter. Wellness is like health's patronising big sister; there to remind you of where you're falling short, even when you're trying your hardest whilst facing circumstances that are equally hard.

In this country we have the once 'golden goose', now much maligned NHS; a free-at-the-point-of-use service conceived in 1948 to provide universal healthcare for all, no matter their circumstances, but now, for a number of reasons, it is near collapse. The finger of blame usually lands squarely on the government, but there's another, important conversation to be had here. When recently recording a podcast with a nutritionist, she perfectly articulated what I had been thinking for some time. Why aren't we asking, 'What are we doing for the NHS?', rather than lamenting all the ways it is failing us. Granted, we don't want to undermine that, whilst it is free, the NHS is still funded by the taxpayer, and said funds should be better allocated by our 'government'. However, it is my suspicion that we have become too reliant on it; the idea that you can eat and drink and smoke like a king and then pop a pill to mitigate the inevitable ailments that come with that lifestyle. We have ignored the need for preventative healthcare for far too long, and now we are paying the price.

Last year, I began my training as a Naturopathic Health Coach, a title that qualifies me to educate people in preventative health; i.e using nutrition, exercise, lifestyle choices and even mindset approaches to offset the possibility of illness and disease. What I can't do is prescribe any medicine or even supplements. What I can do is work alongside NHS GPs who's job it is to do just that, in the hopes that it might lighten their load when it comes to preventing conditions before they need a full diagnosis and subsequent never-ending prescription. Throughout my time studying and immersing myself in the world of preventative health, I have been able to empower myself, my family, friends and now clients to make better, more informed choices about diet and lifestyle; things that even I, a recovering orthorexic and self-described 'health nut', would not have known, without this wealth of information that I now have at my fingertips.

But alongside my state of wonder runs an uncomfortable awareness of a somewhat ugly truth. This miraculous lifestyle of health-in-your-own-hands? It's not exactly for everyone, at least not right now. Let's start with a particularly contentious aspect, the food we eat. Food insecurity is worse than ever at this moment in time, and I will never forget giving food out to both a teacher and a nurse at a food bank I used to volunteer at, and that was even before the current cost-of-living disaster we are facing. So, as you can imagine, telling someone who isn't currently eating an exclusively organic diet that they need to try harder just doesn't sit right with me. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford at least some organic produce, there is a priority list e.g., fruit and veg that happens to get particularly battered with harmful pesticides includes things like apples, nectarines, strawberries, celery, grapes, cherries, sweet peppers and potatoes, whereas things like avocados, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, aubergine and asparagus are more conventionally farmed, so don't necessarily need to be bought organic. GMO food is banned in the UK, but it's worth noting that non-organic meat, should you choose to eat it, often grazes on GMO crops. Not everyone can afford organic meat and fish, which is already costly anyway, but I do think it is important that people know how their food got on their plate, and from there they can make a decision. Personally, with current food costs as high as they are, my way around it has been to revert to my previously vegetarian ways, not out of ethics this time, but out of cost-effectiveness.

There also seems to be a long standing obsession with protein that gets irresponsibly shared on social media by individuals not qualified to give it. In my dieting days I was obsessed with protein and thought that a diet high in it, and little else, was the way forward. Firstly, this way of eating is not going to suit everyone's constitution, no set diet does, which is why it is vital that you, either through your own skills of intuition, or under the guidance of a nutritionist or coach, take the proper time to find what is right for your own unique body, a one-size-fits-none, if you will. Whilst protein is a vital building block of your physical and mental health, it's not the only thing you need, and often, it's actually more about what you combine it with. So often an optimal diet is about how we eat, as well as what. In this current obsession with the p word combined with the other big buzzphrase 'plant-based', I've noticed a few internet personalities (with big followings) erroneously throw around the term 'complete protein' to describe foods that, scientifically, don't actually fit that accurate description. A bit of simple science for you: for a food to be considered a complete protein, it must contain sufficient quantities of all 9 essential amino acids, so-called 'essential' because the body can't produce them, they must, therefore, come from diet. I won't bore you with the AAs themselves, but I will give you this short, helpful list of where you can find all 9 in plant-based foods (assume all animal proteins contain them in full), they are: quinoa, buckwheat, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds. That's it. That's why meat-heads freak out over the plant-based thing, but fear not, because combining your favourite plant-based produce wisely will also give you all your essential 9 amino acids in abundance, which is a longer and more convoluted graph for another post.

This last point actually starts to illustrate the issue at hand; managing a balanced diet can start to become an inaccessible, long-winded guessing game that would make anyone say, 'f@!k it I'll just buy a meal deal', and I get that, but have faith, because there is a middle ground. I believe that food companies often want you to either drain your bank account on their healthiest fare and, if you can't, drown yourself in the other end of spectrum in sugary beige foods, in a bid to numb your sense of defeat. But you can buy tinned food, yes you can! And frozen food, which will never stare at you in rotting disgust from your salad crisper. Anyone who tells you that these aren't good enough is a snob, and this is exactly where the shadow of health-is-wealth shows it's ugly face.

I remember being told by a nutritionist friend many years ago that I may as well 'throw away' the strawberries I had because they were frozen and not organic, and I've felt the same undertones from other peers and even in my studies, and certainly all throughout social media. The hypocrisy here is, of course, stunning, because these same people will proudly tell you that they are eco-warriors who only use green products in their homes and are all about #sustainability, but yet binning a perfectly good piece of food is justified because it isn't somehow nutritious enough. Which is it? And what is this attitude really about? Is it looking out for people's health? Or just another way to cast shame on a person less fortunate than you?

Part of my ethos as a health coach is to the best with what you currently know and currently have, for that is the best you can do. I will never give two clients the same advice, not because I don't stand by what I believe, but because I know now that health is deeply bio-individual, not just in terms of the physical, but also the socio-economic as well. If your vegetables have to come from Iceland (the supermarket, not the country) right now, that is still far, far better than resigning to a life of crisps, chocolate and coca-cola. You have to meet people where they are and empower them where they are. If the poorer in society are continuously left out of the conversation, they stay dependent on an NHS that can no longer help them.


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