Most of us have a fairly good idea of what catering is, and what are the
benefits of employing a reputable firm of caterers. You choose the menu, or often go along with the suggestions of the caterer, specify the number of people you expect, and the rest is taken care of by a small army of usually efficient personnel. All you have to do is pay the bill at the end.
Many of us also maintain we have an equally good idea of what a healthy diet is. What we don't usually know is that there is a bill to pay here too, only of a different kind. It's the bill you pay when you presume too much, when you make the wrong decisions and choices, when you think you know but actually don't. But this is one case where you can't afford the bill, because you may have to pay with your life.
A healthy diet explicitly refers to health. But what is health? Is it the absence of disease, as the medical profession maintains, or something a little more complex? Because there are far more complex notions regarding health. Thus, for the health services of the United Nations for example, health is not only the absence of disease, but it includes the notions of bodily and mental balance, a healthy environment, correct nutrition, and personal happiness, naturally within the bounds allowed or fostered by society. But that is very different from the mere absence of disease, not only in mental and psychological terms, but in the physiological terms familiar to modern medicine. Only this requires an example to make it clear.
The example of vitamin C
Let's take the example of vitamin C. Government recommendations specify a daily dosage of vitamin C, ranging from 60mg for the US to 1OOmg for Germany, to keep us free of scurvy. This is such a small amount of this vitamin that we are bound to get it from almost any fresh fruit or vegetable, and hence most doctors justifiably maintain that it is unnecessary to take nutritional supplements. The question is however, is that all vitamin C does in the human organism? Is its function solely to keep scurvy at bay?
The answer to these questions is that vitamin C has at least 200 other functions in the human organism we know of, and an unknown number we will find out in the future. Is 60 or 100mg enough for all these functions? Well, here the answer is that we really don't know. We haven't the slightest idea of what is the actual amount of vitamin C an active primate needs, to accommodate all the vitamin's functions. This is because unlike all other animals, we cannot manufacture vitamin C. Primates like us, our rainforest relatives, guinea pigs, and some fruit-eating bats, have to get it from our food supply. If we don't get enough we die of scurvy, like the seamen of old and the human cargo they carried. If we get enough, we stay free of the blighter. That's all we know about our vitamin C needs, and the reason for the monumental attacks on Linus Pauling a dozen years or so ago, for advocating larger doses of 1,000mg or more. The virulent attacks on this disinterested researcher were such, that after two Nobel Prizes and a distinguished career in the sciences, he could not find a scientific journal to publish his findings or reply to his detractors.
It is strange that nobody thought of finding out. After all, all other animals have the four enzymes required for manufacturing the vitamin in question. Why not measure how much vitamin C they make up every day? It turns out that a big 70kg dog and a small 70kg cow, both synthesize about 1,000mg of vitamin C every day. But that is when these animals are healthy and lead normal lives. When they are sick or in conditions of serious stress, they produce ten times as much, or 1Og of vitamin C a day. Can you think of any reasons why humans like us prone to a far greater number of diseases and with often unbearable stress, may not need the same amount of this vitamin as the other two similar-weight but vastly different animals? But do you know anyone who takes 1Og of vitamin C a day? This amount could not be swallowed without serious problems, and we can only take intravenously what other animals manufacture as a matter of course when sick or stressed out.
We can multiply many times over examples of this kind, that is, of the cavalier attitudes of governments and medical associations, in the face of evidence that if taken to an independent court of law, the accused would be found guilty of crimes against humanity. But examples take space, and this is usually limited.
The bottom line here is that if you think of health as equivalent to the absence of disease in the specifically narrow sense of the vitamin C/scurvy example, then you stick to the recommended daily allowances, whether these come from governments, specially constituted councils, medical associations, or other bodies of expertise. If you think of health as something more than the absence of disease as in the above UN example, then you have to do a lot more thinking on the subject. Perhaps that is why most of us prefer the ready-made recommendations. Thinking along these lines is not easy, it takes time and a lot of searching, and it may lead to unaccustomed awareness about matters previously taken for granted, or as "justified from what we know".
One step further
To justify our own intervention, let us take this rationale one step farther. Until about the end of the 19th century, the killer diseases of humanity were contagious diseases like the plague, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis, and so on, the infectious diseases that Louis Pasteur and his microbiologist colleagues set out to understand and eradicate. At the end of the 20th century, these had nearly disappeared and were replaced by chronic degenerative diseases like hypertension, coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, arthritic diseases, Parkinson, Alzheimer's, and so on, that have nothing in common with these of the 19th century and earlier. Within a hundred years the diseases of mankind changed radically, something that has never happened before in the history of humanity. It is surely justifiable to ask, why?
The usual medical explanation is that it is the result of our longer life span. Now we live longer, hence a greater degeneration of our cells is to be expected. It sounds reasonable on the face of it, but flies contrary to several lines of evidence. Medical examinations of the Bushmen and Hadja hunters of Africa show freedom from the precursors of degenerative disease like hypertension and hypoglycemia, and even though ten percent of them are over the age of sixty. The centenarians of the mountains of Bulgaria and Greece visited by the researchers of the Institut Pasteur in the 19th century were equally free of degenerative disease, or otherwise a sharp-eyed microbiologist like Elie Metchnikoff would have certainly noticed. Many of the generals and successors of Alexander the Great fought with the heavy weapons of the time until the age of eighty and beyond, something unthinkable today. Is degeneration of cells then confined only to 20th century civilized humanity? It certainly seems so.
A more realistic explanation about the change in our disease patterns may be obtained by asking what do all these chronic degenerative diseases have in common. The answer is as simple as it is revealing. They are all food related. They can be induced by a poor unbalanced diet, and can be prevented and cured by correct nutrition. If cell degeneration due to a longer life span were the cause, these chronic diseases would be permanent. And certainly, Australian Aborigines who become diabetic after residing in towns, would not be cured in seven weeks by returning to their original bush foods. Clearly, the considerably longer life span of modern westerners is not quite the reasoned explanation for chronic degenerative disease it is made out to be.
The role of catering
So, what has all that to do with catering? Well, catering is about serving food and drink to people. If modem degenerative diseases that kill up to 8 out of 10 people in western society are largely food related, should not catering be concerned about what it serves to people? Having discussed the matter with a number of caterers abroad, we know that the usual answer is that the caterer gives the client what the latter demands. But having also discussed the matter with a number of clients, we found that most of the time the client accepted what the caterer suggested, except in the case of special occasions when the serving of a particular menu was the main purpose of the client.
Well, what is a good caterer supposed to do? For an idea, see our relevant article in the proceedings of the 1st International Meetings Industry Conference in Athens, Greece. For more detailed information, the best advice is to get in touch with competent nutritionists with experience in Mediterranean diets.