December 3, 2018

Thoughts On The Art of Eating Well

America is well known for enjoying fast food and doughnuts. Everything has sugar in it and everything is fattening and the average American likes it like that. Unfortunately, as nutritional science advances, many researchers, practicing nutritionists and concerned citizens are realizing that this is a terrible dietary lifestyle and almost exclusively responsible for the thicker waistlines all across the fruited plains of the United States.

We are among the first generation that has had to re-learn the ancient art of eating well. I'm sure that there were overweight people back in the day, but it's hard to find much in the way of evidence when looking through pictures of grandparents and great-grandparents. Pictures of families from back in the day show a uniformly fit and healthy view of men and women. Such a selection of healthy people is increasingly hard to find today.

Certainly, the increase in people working in offices, performing less arduous work, has to be acknowledged, but the general trend of obesity continues regardless. We cannot blame everything on office work, no matter how tempting. There are a couple of things that most of us need to do to reverse this situation. The first is to get moving, but I'll cover that in a different post. The second is to eat well.

But what is eating well? Nearly everyone has seen the government authored food pyramid and it's recommendations. Eat lots of grains and all will be well, they say. Yet, the start of the obesity epidemic and the introduction of the food pyramid coincide so closely that it's really hard to believe that the two are not linked.

A useful life principle is to go back to the last known thing that worked. If we look at the way that we all used to eat back when most of us were properly sized, then we are looking at the era of our grand-parents and great grand-parents. We can learn some very useful principles from that era. We also are learning new principles from the continuing research in nutrition and diet that is being released through research papers and books. Combining these insights can go along way to bringing us back to normal.

Food Science Back In The Day

Back in the era of our great grand-parents there was very little in the way of food science. There was some, but so little of it ever got reported back to the general public that there may as well have been none, for all of the benefit that people got from it. What did exist in that time though, were mothers and grandmothers who insisted that their family members eat heartily so they could be ready for their hard day of work.

I remember eating at my grand-parents house when I was a young lad and the common factors across all meals were meat and vegetables, and plenty of them. There might be a dessert on a Sunday or some cookies would be baked on a rainy afternoon, but most of the time there was very little in the way of sweet stuff. Christmas would be an obvious exception to this rule, with so much baking going on that the oven would get tired and need a rest before New Year!

The rule was a good breakfast, a light lunch and then a hearty evening meal. And for growing boys, there was always the option of a jam sandwich or an apple to get you through any afternoon that felt particularly long.

Even at school, the provided school lunches were generally a meat and several vegetables and a dessert. For the record, I loved school lunches and used to smile so sweetly at the dinner ladies that I would often get a larger portion of everything, which I would then promptly polish off. I also remember that we would get a milk allowance at school. They had crates of child-sized bottles of whole milk (1/3 of a pint if I remember correctly) delivered to the schools and every child was asked to drink a bottle. There would always be a few kids who were not at school that day or didn't really like milk, so there were often a few bottles left over, which, you guessed it, I would finish off for them. I was such a helpful young man!

There are many lessons we should learn from our grand-parents and great grand-parents. The direct lessons seem to be:

  • Eat according to your expected workload.
  • Eat meat and vegetables.
  • Desserts are only for special occasions.
  • A good breakfast will get you through a long day until it's time for your evening meal.
  • Whole milk is good for you.
  • Boys love a jam sandwich.

What is interesting is the implicit lessons we can extract by reading between the lines. So, we should also learn:

  • That real food doesn't need added sugar. (Except for high days and holidays, sugar was a rare ingredient.)
  • All meat was fatty. No one trimmed the fat from any meat during cooking or before eating.
  • Hungry children who have been playing outside will eat vegetables.
  • There was relatively little snacking (jam sandwiches excepted).
  • Very little food was processed.
  • Home grown food was more common.
  • Meals were generally prepared from scratch, at home, each day.
  • Eating out was a rare treat.
  • There were very few children with allergies.
  • There were far fewer picky eaters back in the day.
  • Foods were not enhanced or created using chemistry.
  • It was understood that food spoils, so it was bought frequently and used quickly after purchase.
  • Most food was locally sourced, organic and only available during it's season.
  • All varieties of vegetables or grains were heritage versions that had not been enhanced by food scientists.

Food Science Today

Food science today is almost like the science fiction of my youth. There is no aspect of our diet or the food supply chain that is not affected by the urgent desire to improve every aspect of it. Whether it be crop yields of wheat or the fat composition of the meat available, science has directly affected everything that we consume. And on top of that there are the pseudo-science people posing as nutritionists who insist that their carefully designed diet is just the thing to get you right as rain. These diets generally seem to me to be either re-worded versions of the government food pyramid or outlandish food combinations that stand almost no chance of being good for you.

My primary issue with modern food science is that it seems to be trying to solve problems that it doesn't fully understand. Its practitioners are convinced that they know more than nature and so dive in and make changes to our food or recommendations to our lifestyles that while (hopefully) well meaning, seem to regularly turn out to have been unhelpful.

If it wasn't so seriously bad, their pattern of making recommendations and then a decade or two later exactly reversing that recommendation would be funny. I remember when butter was going to kill you and we all had to switch to margarine. Now, over three decades later, they have realized that the hydrogenated oils in margarine are powerfully bad for our hearts. Eggs were another target. The advice from the food scientists painted them as mini cholesterol bombs and even eating an average of one a day was going to clog your arteries. Now, it's understood that the body makes cholesterol when it doesn't get supplied with enough from external sources, so those eggs are a vital part of a healthy diet. There are many more examples I could offer, but instead I'll offer an observed trend. This trend has been very consistent in telling people not to eat certain foods, that always seem to be the natural foods that your grand-parents ate (be it milk, eggs, salt, red meat, fat, coffee etc etc) and that we should consume man-made alternatives instead, only to discover, one or more decades later, that the natural food was exactly what should be in a healthy diet

What Can Be Done?

The more I think about it, the more I see that there is an option for us. We need to start being more discerning on where we get our nutrition data and advice and start eating more like our grand-parents and great grand-parents. They were all fit and healthy and slim, so they must have been doing something right. I suggest that we start doing the same right things. These days it seems that diets need a catchy name to be successful. I'm terrible at marketing, so I'm not sure that "eat what your grandparents ate diet" is going to be a wild success. I've also heard such an eating plan called "the bible diet" as all of the foods that are good for us are mentioned in the bible. Again, I suspect that isn't the best name. Instead, as the whole concept I'm suggesting is a core tenant of living well, perhaps I should just call it eating well?

There is so much more that can be said on the subject of eating well, that this post only really scratches the surface. I'll be returning to this topic to look at the poor state of dietary advice and the many mistakes that have been made in telling us that perfectly healthy foods are bad for us.

Tags: Writings Living Well