Chocolate is the new fruit

Yesss! Well, where's the point in eating a healthy diet if you don't enjoy it, say modern-day food gurus
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Let food be your medicine, said Hippocrates, the father of all physicians, around 400BC. Chinese and Indians have thought along similar lines for 3,000 years, but this ancient approach is suddenly Very Now in fatigued Britain, where longevity, vitality and quality of life are finally being favoured over the pursuit of mere skinniness.

Let food be your medicine, said Hippocrates, the father of all physicians, around 400BC. Chinese and Indians have thought along similar lines for 3,000 years, but this ancient approach is suddenly Very Now in fatigued Britain, where longevity, vitality and quality of life are finally being favoured over the pursuit of mere skinniness.

Browse the aisles of any superstore and you'll find that even mass-market manufacturers like Dolmio are proudly boasting the lycopene content of their tomato-based pasta sauces. Lycopene, which can also be found in our old favourite, ketchup, is a phytochemical that may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, among other things. Elsewhere in store, there's cereal with folic acid for healthy pregnancies and yoghurt made with BA cultures to boost friendly gut bacteria and immunity. Some of these are nutriceuticals, or "functional foods" fortified with added ingredients, with the aim of benefiting specific conditions. But the overwhelming trend is to understand and appreciate the health-giving properties of real food: olive oil to grease the flow of the arteries, cheese to prevent osteoporosis, the sex-life improving zinc content of oysters and prawns, cancer-fighting antioxidants in brightly coloured vegetables, pruneaux d'Agen and Medjool dates to - ahem - keep you smiling.

That you are, or will become, what you eat has never been more appreciated and in tandem the culinary stars of tomorrow are not likely to be the television chefs we see piled high in the media. They - and slimming gurus who think a healthy snack is the cocktail of chemicals known as 0 percent fat yoghurt - will soon be available three for the price of one. No, the smart money is on the new breed of food-loving doctors and nutritionists, and they're already jockeying for position in the celebrity stakes.

This week, The Food Doctor in the City, from nutritionist (not doctor) Ian Marber is all over the book shops. He highlights "protective" foods needed to make up for the damage done to us by urban living: avocados, chickpeas, asparagus and broccoli are all recommended. What his message boils down to, however, is the not entirely earthshattering, "all fruit and vegetables contain essential vitamins and minerals that should be eaten daily."

But the leaders in this ever-growing field are America's Dr Andrew Weil, author of Eating Well for Optimum Health (Little Brown), and Britain's Jane Clarke, who writes the Bodyfoods books. Flick through their recipes and meal planners and you'll find temptation, not trial. Crispy duck with nectarines and cashews, prawn and saffron risotto, pasta e fagioli and pan-fried halibut with mushrooms are dishes that would not be out of place on a restaurant menu. Even dark chocolate and mascarpone are viewed as nutrient powerhouses.

Among Clarke's assertions that healthy eating can transform your life, is the satisfying news that we have wrongly been encouraged to believe real foods are fattening and that processed low-cal products are healthier. "Reduced calorie foods are less tasty than real foods and contain inferior ingredients," she says, confirming what gourmets have always known.

When Joanna Hall, the new fitness and diet expert on This Morning with Richard and Judy, eats out, her healthy choices are almost imperceptible. No freshly juiced wheatgrass, no ban on yeast or dairy products. Moules mariniÿre and smoked or poached salmon are more likely to feature - "It's good quality protein, full of omega-3 fatty acids and tastes brilliant," she says. Joanna tends to choose herb tea over coffee, and moderates, rather than restricts, her intake of starch, but nothing is forbidden. Indeed, when Health and Fitness magazine featured her Christmas Day menu complete with croissants, pud and custard alongside that of a vegetarian and a fruitarian, one couldn't help but notice that the healthiest looking person in the group was Joanna, the easygoing eater.

Over the past decade, publishers and writers have enjoyed promoting the concept of "superfoods" - the idea that some foods are superior to others because of their specific health-giving properties. Pick up almost any chirpy women's magazine and you'll be presented with a Top Ten plus a round-up of their magical qualities. It's certainly helped to familiarise us with the various beneficial vitamins and minerals in these foods. The problem is, the list of superfood contenders has expanded to the point where it's time to accept that maybe all food is super, unless it's artificially produced. Shetland lamb, previously considered just another fatty red meat, has recently been found to contain high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, which fights cancer and actually helps fat loss. Coffee aids constipation, plain white flour is a good source of calcium, chocolate contains iron, eggs offer the full spectrum of amino acids and plenty of vitamins and minerals, potatoes and even sugar have a role to play in banishing depression.

Nutrition may be the new religion, but it's no longer a cult demanding the elimination of entire food groups, nor encouraging social exclusion through overly restrictive regimes. Rather, it's about expanding the variety of real foods you eat. Professor Tim Lang, director of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University, draws attention to the healthy eating advice given in Japan - to eat at least 35 different types of food (small amounts obviously) per day for a "biodiversity of the stomach".

In any case, there is mounting evidence that the best thing you can do for your health is to invite friends round for supper, then relax and enjoy the evening. Stress encourages various illnesses as well as weight gain; the antidote is leisurely eating and sharing the pleasures of the table.

According to Dr Andrew Weil, "The social importance of food and eating, like their association with pleasure, must be honoured by anyone advocating eating well. Too often people who follow rigid diets in the name of health isolate themselves from social interaction that is itself an important factor in optimum health." A slap-up dinner party, then, is just what the good doctor has ordered.

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