My acerbic Irish grandmother would take a look at our modern obsessions with nutrition, light up a Camel, and ask what good comes of all the worrying. She’d have a point. After fifty years of expert advice on diet, what do we have? The fattest society on earth, an epidemic of diabetes, and the first generation that will not meet, let alone exceed, the life expectancy of their parents.
We live in bodies exquisitely suited to life forty-thousand years ago. The sweetest things on the planet were some sparse berries. The only drink was water. No one fattened up wild game with corn. Getting food required considerable expenditure of energy, and who would waste energy chasing more food than they needed? But just in case extra food came along, the body was equipped with a highly efficient means of squirreling away the excess as fat, to cover inevitable times of short supply. Lights went out when the sun went down, and everyone rested up for the next day’s pursuit of food.
These old-fashioned bodies are now awash in too much food that is too easy to obtain, and in manufactured food full of unnatural, but edible chemicals. We are also awash in advice, calorie counts, carbohydrate grams and recommended daily allowances. Looking at the results, our grandparents might guess that the average man is more in need of common sense than tables, charts, diets and recommended daily allowances. So here are some common sense suggestions about how to navigate the modern world of food.
Shop the perimeter of the grocery store
Everything your body needs is out there. Don’t skip any of the departments, spend the most time and money on fruits and vegetables, go for color, avoid sugar, and remember that there are vitamin and micronutrients in dairy products, meats and fish that are scarce elsewhere. Egg whites are one of nature’s best proteins. The closer food is to its actual source, and the less the processing, the better its nutritional value.
In the middle aisles, stick to a list
There is nothing in this part of the store that you need for survival, but there are cooking essentials like olive oil and spices, convenient staples like canned tuna and tomatoes, and whole-grain, high fiber cereals. Look for packages with the fewest ingredients. Remember – “natural flavors” often come from manufacturing plants on the New Jersey turnpike, soy protein is a very unnatural derivative of the manufacture of soybean oil, vegetable oils that go rancid are not good for you, and oils derived by cold pressing are closer to their original sources than those that are refined like petroleum.
Opt for fresh food over manufactured food whenever possible
The addition of high fructose corn syrup and preservatives to almost every packaged food gives us cheap, long-lasting and attractive products, but think of these foods as emergency rations. If you built your home with poor materials and filled your car with unsuitable fuel, they might hold up for awhile, but over time they would suffer premature failure. Fresh and frozen foods that haven’t strayed too far from their original sources are the materials and fuel your body is built to handle.
Think regular meals with smaller amounts and balanced composition
We are designed to need a balanced mixture of food every 4-6 hours (while awake). Your hand is a rough guide to amount and mix of food for each meal. You need protein, carbohydrate and fat and you don’t need to read labels to know if you are getting them all. Protein comes from living things that were able to move around on their own, and necessary fat comes along with protein. Beans are the only exception and their protein comes by virtue of bacteria which transport nitrogen into the roots of bean plants and which do move around. Carbohydrates come from stationary living things. The carbohydrate portion of a meal should cover the palm of the hand. The protein component fits in the area from the base of the thumb to the big central crease. The fat that you need comes along with your protein source, in the olive or coconut oil needed for cooking, and in any milk you drink.For perspective on old fashioned eating, consider a sample meal in a California museum that is a replica of a hotel of the Gold Rush era. Dinner consists of a hard roll, an apple, and a few clams and some leafy greens floating in a thin broth – fuel enough for the people who did the hard labor of building this country.
Make the time to prepare food and eat in a nice setting, with good conversation
Get back to the way your body is designed to eat, the way people have eaten for thousands of years, and you’ll save time by being healthier and more energetic and not having to read diet articles. And lighten up – a small amount of ice cream or pie or chocolate now and then is fine. Amount is the key.
If you are thirsty, you need water. If you want liquid to help wash down food, pick water. If you want water to taste like something else, choose a liquid that lacks high fructose corn syrup and has some nutritional value: fresh, pulpy juices with their vitamins and fiber, or milk, with its protein, minerals and vitamins. Coffee and tea? Fine. No one has ever been able to pin much bad on either one, in moderation. Ditto for wine, in even more moderation.
Avoid fake food
Artificial sweeteners – a real boon for diabetics – are unnecessary chemicals for everyone else. There is no evidence that artificial sweeteners promote weight loss. They may even lead to weight gain. Not worth it for the mere 12 calories in a teaspoon of sugar. And margarine? Even ants won’t eat that (but they do like butter).
We are where we are after over half a century of harping on fat and cholesterol. Common sense tells us they can’t be the only problems. Common sense is what we need – along with a diet, sleep and physical activity suitable for life 40,000 years ago.