Growing up in a large family, it’s fair to say that the diet of my youth was not one of great variety. There were probably a number of reasons for this. First, after I started school (the last of six kids to do so), mum returned to full-time work.
With dad also working full-time, mum continued on as the family cook, and the small post-work window for food preparation resulted in a fairly non-diverse rotation of evening meals. Lunch was similarly lacking in variety for the same reason.
On top of this – and perhaps because of it – I was usually unwilling to try anything different when it came to food. By the time I came along, the standard breakfast fare for us kids was pretty much set in concrete. Cereal topped with a sprinkling of wheat germ and another sprinkling of Akta-Vite.
(Akta-Vite was definitely a ‘health food’, because it was sold at our local chemist and the blurb on the tin clearly stated that it was “recommended for growing children, expectant and nursing mothers, convalescents and those under stress”. That’s strong enough evidence, isn’t it?)
The only variation to our breakfast diet was the cereal we topped with wheat germ and Akta-Vite. And the only reason that ever varied would have been because the free toy in one cereal was better than another at any given time.
Such an unchanging routine meant that whenever Mum had a go at trying something different, it was met with howls of protest from me and (at least some of) my siblings. I can remember a particular occasion when she added mushrooms to one of our regular mince-based dinners. There I was, picking through the beef and sauce, whinging about “these horrible black bits”.
Many years later I learnt that mushrooms weren’t so bad and the only thing that was “horrible” was me.
Was that regular diet a bad thing?
In terms of mum maintaining a “tight ship”, it was a good thing. Five of us kids were boys, born in the 1950s and 1960s, and it would not be unfair to say that we weren’t particularly progressive when it came gender roles. So whatever helped mum get things done efficiently was good.
In terms of our long-term health, our rigid diet was perhaps not so good. As well as the fixed mindset it may have fostered in us, such an unchanging diet may have left us vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies. (I suppose that’s where the Akta-Vite came in. It was fortified with an array of vitamins.)
Accredited practising dietitian Anna Debenham echoes this concern: “It depends what those meals are but … there is the risk of nutritional deficiency.”
More recently, the focus of variety in diet has been our ‘gut microbiome’.
What is a ‘gut microbiome’ and how important is it?
Professor Felice Jacka, director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University, explains: “Your gut microbiome is made up of the trillions of microorganisms and their genetic material that live in your intestinal tract. These microorganisms, mainly comprising bacteria, are involved in functions critical to your health and wellbeing.”
As we learn more about our gut microbiome, it is becoming clear that it plays a critical role to all areas of our health, including skin, weight, energy, sleep, the immune system and mood. The link between gut health and brain health appears to be very strong.
Prof. Jacka suggests that variety is indeed the spice of life our bodies need to be healthy. But that required variety is in the microbiome more so than our food. The simple way to achieving a healthy diversity of gut bugs is fibre-rich whole foods.
But there is evidence that suggests a diet beyond those fibre-rich whole foods would be better still. Neuroendocrinologist Mark Heiman and Frank Greenway, medical director and professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, advise: “The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbiome and the more adaptable it will be to perturbations.”
Eating a truckload of kidney beans every day might not be the worst thing you could do, but expanding that to include a variety of grains, legumes, nuts, fruit and vegetables is likely to give you a better chance at getting and staying healthy, in mind and body.
Old habits die hard, and to this day I still occasionally top my breakfast cereal with wheat germ and Akta-Vite (which these days I buy at the supermarket rather than the chemist). But I do not have cereal for breakfast every day (and not just because cereal toys are no longer a thing). I’ll often have eggs, beans, toast and muesli.
And I absolutely love mushrooms. Sorry I was a such a pain, mum. You were right all along.
Have you stubbornly resisted a change in your diet? Have you benefitted from changing what you eat? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?
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