Global Resilience Solutions > 2013 > March

Understand the Diet Fads: A Reasoned Approach to Nutritional Resilience

 

Eat what cave-men ate.  Eat local.  Eat raw.  Cut out carbs.  We live in an era of unlimited dietary choice, and every magazine promises the perfect recipe for a healthy diet.  If, like most people, you have trouble making heads or tails of the dietary fads in circulation, this is the post for you.  We’ll review the principles behind a few of the current favourites and what they’re designed to achieve… and then we’ll give you some tips on a balanced plan to reach your dietary goals.

 

The Ancestral Diet

The Paleo Diet, raw food diets and, to an extent, the Eat Local movement all follow a sort of dietary regression to what (they think) our ancestors ate at a certain time period.  Thus the question, what did our ancestors eat, and was it really healthier?

Well, that’s a loaded question, because people in different climates have always eaten different diets.  The Inuit of northern Canada have such an ancestral history of subsisting on meat protein that it is difficult if not impossible for most of them to adapt to anything else.  Arctic explorers similarly found that a high-fat high-protein diet was essential to maintain energy in that environment.

The diets of peoples living a little farther south, including my Celtic ancestors, ate diets rich in both protein and carbohydrates (no, not as rich or the same kinds as the standard Western diet now) as a hedge against winter scarcity.  When the US Army found itself fighting in tropical climates in World War II, it discovered that its soldiers rapidly fell prey to vitamin deficiency on rations intended for temperate climates.  After the war, American food was introduced to tropical Hawaii on a wide scale, causing an ongoing obesity epidemic.  This is one argument in favour of Eat Local as a dietary principle: you are better off (with some big caveats) eating what people in your climactic area historically ate, in the seasons in which they ate them.

Eat Local, however, is mainly a political movement against the current global food system, and, laudable as it is, it requires at the very least some readjustment of expectations to work well, and preferably an understanding of when to give in.  Every climate zone has its particular nutritional deficiencies, and it’s best to find out what they are before you start.

Paleo and raw food diets both refer back to our hunter-gatherer prehistory, albeit not always accurately.  Likewise, low-carb, high-protein diets like Atkins and South Beach tend to refer back to this primordial period as evidence that humans were built to eat protein more than carbohydrates.

 

A History of Carbs

Unless your ancestors lived in the far north, it is very likely that most of their staple foods were starches, not protein, even before the advent of large-scale farming.  This is the “gathering” part of hunter-gathering.  Gathering was generally the specialty of women.  If your prehistoric ancestors lived in Britain, they probably depended on foods like acorns, grass seeds, nuts, berries and cattail roots as their major sources of energy.  For indigenous peoples living in the Amazon today, the staples include tapioca bread and heart of palm.  For the hunters, being able to find carbohydrates to sustain them on the hunt was and is a valuable skill.  The fact is that there was no time in history when the majority of the human population subsisted primarily on protein.  Those who did so without a climate-based necessity did so for social reasons (“plants are poor people’s food”), as in medieval Europe and some North American aboriginal groups.

This is why low-carb diets fall down, particularly when used for more than short-term weight loss.  Long-term dependence on animal protein for energy is very taxing to digestive systems that weren’t designed for it, and if the meat in question isn’t organic, you’re inviting health problems down the road.

 However, the Paleo Diet does have a point in that grains were a small component of the hunter-gatherer diet relative to roots, nuts, pulses and fruits.  This is where gluten-free diets come in. 

 

Gluten intolerance or gluten allergy is acknowledged to affect about one in thirty-three people in at-risk populations, but in truth this is only the most severe manifestation of gluten-caused digestive disorder.  Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley among other grains, is the substance that makes your pastry and your bread dough stick together.  It also interferes with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and promotes constipation.

Undigested gluten causes your immune system to attack your intestines.  Over time, gluten causes a number of nutrient deficiencies, unpleasant physical symptoms and degenerative effects.  Gluten allergy is simply the most pronounced level of your body’s revolt against this interloper.

Research has shown that gluten-intolerance is on the rise relative to past generations, partly because we have created varieties of grain with much higher gluten content, and partly because of the use of high-gluten white flour and the decline of whole-grain and mixed-grain flours.  If you do have the symptoms of gluten allergy, looking at a gluten-free diet is probably a good idea, but reducing grain consumption, and moving to whole grains when you do eat grains, is recommended for everyone.

This is where the Mediterranean Diet fails in the modern world, as all European Mediterranean cultures depend heavily on bread, and have throughout recorded history.  A Roman legion once mutinied because it was given too much meat and too little bread.  ‘Too little’ was a loaf a day!

 

“Our Ancestors Ate Raw and Didn’t Process their Food”

Believe it or not, humans have had fire for awhile.  The kernel of truth in the raw food and whole food movements is that there are nutrients, particularly in vegetables but also in meat, that are lost when exposed to heat or otherwise processed.  This is a good reason to eat raw fruits and vegetables on a regular basis.

However, a healthy diet does not have to mean an exclusively raw diet- Indian cuisine cooks a great deal of its food, but can still be extremely healthy in its native forms.  Even hunter-gatherers cook their meat, and they processed it to last into the future, just as they processed starch and fruit.  “Processed” doesn’t automatically mean bad.  A number of world staple foods like tapioca root are actually poisonous before processing.  The preserved foods of our ancestors may have fewer nutrients than the fresh variety, but they also last longer.  Pickles, preserves and dried foods allowed fruit and vegetable nutrients to be extended through the winter.  Dried and smoked meat allowed a perishable resource to be extended for weeks or months.  What these methods lack are the chemical preservatives, pasteurization an irradiation that make modern methods of preservation so pernicious. 

So long as you reduce your dependence on packaged foods and increase your raw produce intake, there’s no reason why a cooked meal is bad for you unless you put something bad in it.

 

Fat?

Low-fat diets were all the rage a few decades ago, but the truth is that it matters more what kinds of fats you eat than whether you eat them (and your body does need them).  Historically, most diets around the world have incorporated a significant fat component, whether it was coconut or yak butter or, in much of North America, just plain animal fat.

The low-carb diets do have a point- most of your body’s stored fat is unused carbohydrate being saved up for famine or winter, rather than anything you ingested as fat.  What matters is that you have the right Omega-3 to Omega-6 balance (which means giving up vegetable oil and incorporating Omega-3 sources into your diet), that you avoid transfats and reduce animal fat sources, particularly non-organic ones.  We discussed this last week, so we’ll move along.

 

Veg

Vegetarianism or veganism is a dietary choice that in and of itself could mean anything health-wise.  Many people adopt these lifestyles for moral or religious reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with that, provided you do it right.  It is true that many people are predisposed to eat meat, and some will suffer malnutrition without it regardless of substitutes, morally inconvenient as that might be.  There are many people who can successfully live on these diets, but the key question is how.  If you make up for a reduction in protein with more carbs, you aren’t doing your health any favors. 

Substitutes are everywhere in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, but be very careful of the ingredients.  Large amounts of soy are pernicious, as the Taoists discovered long ago, and many other additives can make substitute foods downright bad for you.  Going in, you need to be conscious of every aspect of your nutritional plan, and the more you can do outside the vegetarian-specific section of the grocery store (or the bread section or the pasta section) the better off you’ll be.  Expert guidance and awareness of your individual nutritional type (one size certainly doesn’t fit all) is recommended.

Most of us could do with eating less meat, and certainly the factory-farmed, hormone and antibiotic-fed varieties, but some of the thick rhetoric that attempts to paint moral vegetarianism as a cure for global food inequality deserves a sharp kick in the truth.  Some meat is and always has been a key efficiency in food production, as any traditional Chinese farmer with a pig in the yard will tell you.  There are always things that humans can’t digest that animals can turn into protein and fertilizer.  Animals make otherwise-unlivable climates livable and act as a nutrient recycling system in organic farming economies.  Moral vegetarianism will have to stand on its own.


Organic

We’ve probably flogged this horse to death by now, but if meat is a significant part of your diet and you live in North America, chances are you’re taking in a lot of hormones and antibiotics that were given to the poor beasts, and that they were raised indoors with a minimum of movement and living on corn or soy products rather than their natural diet of forage.  That means that they are starting with nutritional deficiencies which they then pass on to you.  The antibiotics are there to keep them alive while malnourished and confined long enough to make it to your table.  Hungry yet?

Similarly, non-organic produce is grown from nutrient-depleted soil and sustained only by artificial fertilizers, which may be enough to grow the plant, but not to give it a healthy vitamin and mineral content.

If you’re of the food activist persuasion, this is the key pressure point.   All this said, be sure to do your research and balance your budgets – organic food is not always cheap, and not everything labelled organic is created equal.

 

Balancing for You

 Here’s a quick video from Dr. Joseph Mercola with a few suggestions about how to navigate the diet / nutrition maze and find what’s right for YOU:

 

 

How you build your diet depends on a number of factors- your nutritional type, your native (and adoptive) climate and your dietary goals.

If you want to lose weight, calorie-counting and low-carb diets do work in the short term, but the long term question for most people is “How can I find a healthy, balanced diet that keeps me at a healthy weight and that I can live with in the long term?”  (And that’s not even broaching the subject of the emotional component so frequent in weight problems).

The answer of course will vary from person to person, and chances are you won’t find the perfect formula in a book.  But that’s why starting from general principles and working toward the specific is so helpful.  Let’s recap:

  • Eating local and eating seasonally are good ideas, within reason
  • Organic food and especially organic, free-range, hormone and antibiotic-free meat is a good idea.  Reducing factory farmed, chemically contaminated meat is a good idea, as is fresh organic local produce in the summer
  • Whole, non-processed foods, and foods processed in non-pernicious ways are encouraged; packaged foods are discouraged
  • Raw fruits and vegetables are good for you (what a surprise)
  • Reduce (or eliminate) grain intake, and move toward whole grain (or gluten-free) sources
  • Be smart with your fat sources
  • Reduce refined sugar, sodium, cholesterol, etc.- we’ve covered all this before

 

By following these simple steps, you:

  • boost your immune system,
  • reduce your vulnerability to chronic disease and improve your health and vitality

…if you’re eating appropriately for your nutritional type and balancing your caloric intake with your lifestyle, that is.

If you live in a Western country, chances are your government publishes a nutritional guide of some sort.  Ignore it completely!  If it’s anything like the Canada Food Guide, it was written by the agribusiness lobbies, includes too much carbohydrate, dairy and protein and not enough fruit and vegetables.  There is no substitute for educating yourself and experimenting to find a diet that is right for you.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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