It seems to me that we humans fall into several categories when it comes to food. There is the simple “I live to eat” vs ” I eat to live” category. I’m clearly in the “live to eat” camp. Food is a great pleasure in life, and I probably spend more time than the average person thinking about it (how it’s made, where it comes from, how it’s processed, how much it costs, how healthy is it, and can I grow it or make it myself, just to start). I know there are people who simply see food as fuel for their bodies, and don’t really give it much thought after that (like about 80% of all teenage boys I have met).
And then there are the Justifiers and the Controllers. The Justifiers: “I want to eat what I want when I want it in any quantity, and I will go to great lengths to defend this behavior. Red wine contains antioxidants… why yes, I’ll have another glass. And could you please poach that chicken in butter, because butter adds so much flavor!” The Controllers: “the world is a scary and chaotic place. I need to set boundaries about what goes into my mouth, because at least I can have control over that. So I’ll have a vegan raw cookie, please, with a shot of wheat grass juice on the side.”
And while I clearly have tendencies toward the “controllers” camp, I’m actually just a big believer in evolutionary biology as a role model. I roll my eyes when I read chef centered cookbooks about how more butter is always better because it’s all about the FLAVOR, or watch Paula Deen, bless her warm, loving, likely clogged-up heart, throw yet another stick of butter into the mashed potatoes. And then I roll my eyes at raw foodists who believe that food is DEAD and therefore not fit to eat if it is heated over 120 degrees. (Though it is one hell of a diet strategy since your body has a much harder time extracting energy and nutrients from raw food.)
Humans did not spend the last 50,000 years eating giant quantities of butter or consuming all of our food raw. We’re not well adapted to either strategy. We have both meat tearing and plant grinding teeth in our head, because that is the diet we ate for a very long time. (There ARE good environmental arguments for eating vegetarian, and ethical arguments, and I DO respect that. It’s just not for me). Google “Catching Fire. How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham for an interesting discussion on some of this. Personally, I choose the path of “everything in moderation” or “opportunistic feeder” as a friend of mine says.
I think that one of the biggest problems with today’s eating and diets is that we are so disconnected from how food actually makes us feel. Not the psychological feelings of desire or comfort or control but the actual physical feelings. It is often difficult to separate the two. Am I actually hungry, or am I just feeling sad because my coworker was just unkind to me? Is this headache due to stress, or did I sleep on my pillow wrong, or is it the aspartame in this diet drink? (For me, it’s the aspartame, which gives me a mild headache, confirmed through repeated trials).
What’s the big deal about how food makes us feel physically? Because how a particular food makes ME feel may not be the same as how it makes YOU feel. We SO want there to be a one size fits all solution to weight and health issues. And we want it to be easy. If I just avoid X, I’ll feel so much better. If I just add Y to my diet, I’ll live to be 100. And people who have found something that works for them become zealots about it. We want everyone to do what we do. We feel superior. We preach. We drive people crazy and alienate our friends and relations. We write books and go on Oprah.
Sometimes, many times, we don’t even understand the basic biology. I once knew a woman who self-diagnosed as gluten intolerant. One day, she was very hungry, and rooting around in the fridge for something to eat. She found a flour tortilla, which she promptly rolled up and ate. Shortly thereafter she felt light-headed and shaky. She determined she was allergic to gluten, and proceeded to revamp her entire diet to avoid it. More than likely, she had actually just had a drop in blood sugar from eating a highly processed white flour product on an empty stomach. But I kept my mouth shut and ate her gluten-free zucchini bread.
Correlation (I see B after I do A) does not equal causation (A caused B). Maybe L caused B, but you weren’t looking at L, so didn’t notice it. And maybe L and A are often found together, so it seemed like A was causing B. Can you see why nutrition/diet research might be difficult? And why a headline or sound bite about a new study might not tell you the whole story?
I’m a big reader of nutrition news. For years I had a subscription to Prevention Magazine (a surprisingly good USA Today type read on the latest diet and exercise studies to help keep you up-to-date and motivated. I finally let my subscription lapse because I couldn’t take the sensational headlines on the covers designed to drive up grocery line sales). I love the Nutrition Action Healthletter (put out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest) and trust their information. I also love Eating Well Magazine, which along with great recipes, always has great pieces on the latest health studies along with inspiring stories on eating closer to home.
But you know what? If you read these stories long enough, the studies start to contradict each other. I remember in high school, antioxidant vitamins were all the rage, and you could buy a mixed A, C and E vitamin pill that would run around in your body fighting cell damage and preventing cancer so you could live to be 100. Now too much beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) is bad for you if you smoke, many double-blind studies of vitamin C show no conclusive evidence that it shortens the common cold and too much vitamin E might aggravate prostate cancer.
Here’s what I think. For some people, vitamin C DOES shorten the common cold. For others it doesn’t. If you do enough studies, you’re going to find some that say yes and some that say no. And if you do a meta analysis (put all the studies together and recrunch the data) it all averages out and nothing has an effect. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t work for some people. Or make things worse for others. I suspect that as we become more sophisticated with our understanding of human genetics, we will reach a point where we can tease out what works for specific people and why. But until then, you have to listen to YOUR body and see how foods and medicines make YOU feel. And remember that just because it works for you, that does NOT mean that it works for everyone.
I recently read (OK, skimmed, as a lot of it was information I was already familiar with) the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. Here’s the book’s description from Amazon.com.
This well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods contains a startling message: Animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels. Sally Fallon dispels the myths of the current low-fat fad in this practical, entertaining guide to a can-do diet that is both nutritious and delicious.
Nourishing Traditions will tell you:
- Why your body needs old-fashioned animal fats
- Why butter is a health food
- How high-cholesterol diets promote good health
- How saturated fats protect the heart
- How rich sauces help you digest and assimilate your food
- Why grains and legumes need special preparation to provide optimum benefits
- About enzyme-enhanced food and beverages that can provide increased energy and vitality
- Why high-fiber, low-fat diets can cause vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Topics include the health benefits of traditional fats and oils (including butter and coconut oil); dangers of vegetarianism; problems with modern soy foods; health benefits of sauces and gravies; proper preparation of whole grain products; pros and cons of milk consumption; easy-to-prepare enzyme enriched condiments and beverages; and appropriate diets for babies and children.
It’s really an interesting read, with everything footnoted and referenced to the hilt (which I love). Basically it’s one big giant justification for eating lots of butter and animal fats. And there may be something to this. The part about enzyme-enhanced foods (i.e. fermented foods) is particularly interesting. However, the big fat fact that the book fails to mention? The reason heart disease and cancer were not killing us 100 years ago was that heart disease and cancer are diseases of the old. In the early part of the 1900’s American’s were lucky if they made it into their late 40’s because antibiotics had not yet been invented. The three leading causes of death in 1900? Pneumonia & Influenza, Tuberculosis and Diarrhea. Diarrhea! Heart disease was still fourth, even in 1900.
All this is just a long way of saying, educate yourself. Do your own research. Read. Ask questions. Try things out. See how YOU feel. See how what you eat affects your weight and energy level and health. Take responsibility for your own well-being! Me, I practice author Michael Pollan’s advice in Food Rules. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And by food, I take that to mean foods my grandmother or great-grandmother would recognize. If I can’t pronounce it, I try not to put it into my body.
Next up: Trying new things, National nutritional guidelines (and how they’ve changed over the years) and Portion Control, baby.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re miles away from thinking of food only as fuel, and make no apologies for that position.