Wellness gurus part of the Australian health problem

Rohan Anderson, farmer, author and passionate advocate of eating simply and avoiding the confusion-inducing wellness ...
Rohan Anderson, farmer, author and passionate advocate of eating simply and avoiding the confusion-inducing wellness "experts". Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

How much fun is it walking into a bookshop and perusing the selection of beautiful cookbooks? Over the last few years the experience has become somewhat tarnished for me. My local bookshop now has a section half the size of the regular cooking section, dedicated solely to the "health and wellbeing" category. Each time I visit, I sense the celebrity wellness vibes behind me, those taunting faces of smug gurus staring deep into my "unhealthy" soul. Ok so I'm being a little dramatic, but I do find the whole thing a bit unnecessary. This probably has something to do with my own personal "wellness journey". You see, I used to be obese, I used to have blood pressure, severe depression and anxiety and was high risk for type 2 diabetes. All my fault of course, a result of my lifestyle choices. It's pretty simple, I did what most Australians of this era do, I relied on a diet of mostly processed supermarket and take away food all high in fats, sugars and salt. I drank too much booze and rarely exercised. I was part of the 63.4 per cent of adult Aussies now either overweight or obese.

 

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Thankfully I'm a fit and healthy specimen these days, a result of favouring the ever-reliable approach of cooking with mostly whole foods and moving more than I used to. I've lost more than 25 kilograms, lowered my blood pressure, removed myself from high-risk medical issues and my butt looks amazing in tight jeans. One thing I didn't require to achieve this was reading any of the wellness and health books from my local bookshop. I have, on occasion, drawn by curiosity, read through some of these books, full of beautiful people sipping green superfood smoothies with the happy smiles of internet health gurus eating bowls of salads after a session of yoga on a white sandy beach. It's easy to get sucked into the aesthetics of the lifestyle but I always find myself asking "Who are these people? Who actually lives like this? Were they ever obese, living in the suburbs working six days a week like me?" Probably not.

I resent my curiosity each time because I've stupidly read the bit that tells me which cooking oils are carcinogenic, or that evil sugar is in everything and only someone who doesn't care about their health eats legumes of any description. These books feed anxieties in us. Sure, most of us want to be healthy, and some of us get lost along the way, and sure we all get inspired in different ways, but why do we now have such an array of books all with their own "unique" eight-week wellness program, and why do we have so many people giving expert culinary health recommendations when they aren't trained experts? To the novice reader it's easy to believe everything you read. This can be a dangerous thing, fake cancer survivor-wellness guru ringing any bells?

There's a small village on the coast of Italy called Acciaroli, where one in 10 people live until they are at least 100 years old. They eat a simple, seasonal, Mediterranean diet of fish, vegetables, fruits, legumes and get plenty of hillside exercise. They also drink wine and coffee. There is no health and wellness section in the bookshop there, but somehow they manage to have low rates of heart disease, Alzheimer's and prostate cancer and have the highest rates of happy centenarians. Something for us anxious health and wellness victims to consider.

The multi-million-dollar wellness industry is a reflection of our current society. We're full of insecurity, we're constantly looking for answers and we've generally lost our way with so many basics of life. We're a generation that lacks elders with the practical and simple knowledge to pass on a simple message like "eat ya vegies".

I've lost more than 25 kilograms, lowered my blood pressure, removed myself from high-risk medical issues and my butt looks amazing in tight jeans.

We've made the concept of health unnecessarily complicated when it's really just a matter of avoiding unhealthy processed foods and following the food pyramid we were taught as kids. You know, that thing put together by the government by a selection of trained nutritionists and scientists, what's it called? The Australian Dietary Guidelines? Which, I believe is provided completely free of charge on that thing called the internet. It goes along the lines of mostly plants, a little meat, dairy and grains and you'll be right as rain. Oh, and superfoods, you must eat your superfoods.

Change starts here

A few basic principles can make a life altering difference. They certainly have for me.

Firstly, learn to cook. Without this basic skill (that all adults should have), we tend to take the easy option which is a reliance on processed foods and takeaways. Start by learning just a handful of basic skills, not necessarily recipes. How to make a pesto, pasta sauce, soup, to roast vegetables and meat. Focus on techniques not so much the details of a recipe. Cooking is easy once you have the technique figured out, then you can cook to suit your schedule.

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Secondly, learn the difference between unhealthy processed food and the healthy option. A packet of crisps, packet noodles, supermarket sauce, condiments, flavoured yoghurt and TV dinners are what we'd refer to as an unhealthy processed food. Real cheese, supermarket milk and butter are also classified as a processed food (because they are no longer in their raw form), so are roasted almonds, pasta and chorizo but in the right quantities they're totally OK as part of a balanced diet.

Thirdly learn the when, what and how. When is the right time of day to eat a bowl of pasta and how much should be eaten? This is different for every human. And really we don't need an expert to tell us to not to have a giant serve of carbonara at 7pm followed by a second serve. Apply common sense. I like to have a big savoury breakfast as it fuels me for the day. My lunch is more modest and dinner scant, usually a salad. Eat mostly plants, meat is the treat.

Finally, open your eyes and take notice. Ask your food questions like what are you made of, where have you come from, what will you do to my body? Reading the labels of processed foods can be a great catalyst for the shift towards real foods. The amount of sugars, fats, salts and preservative in our food is mind-blowingly legal. No wonder Australia is the fourth-fattest and most unhealthy of OECD nations.