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Masai warrior/hunter

Imagine you live in a nomadic tribe. Perhaps it was primitive, or perhaps its one of the few that still exist today. What type of food groups would you likely eat?

Meat and produce, you say? You’d be right. You’d hunt and you’d gather, and that’s what you’d eat.

You might also have some herds that moved with your tribe, which could add in dairy depending on what kind of animals your tribe herded. There might also be some wild grains you’d gather when they were in season, but they’d likely make up a small part of your diet; bread would hardly be a staple.

Grass-fed cows

Now imagine you live in a farming and agricultural society, before genetic modifications and fertilizers made from fossil fuels. What would your diet look like?

There’s a good chance you’d have more grain in your diet, although fruits and vegetables can easily be a huge part of a farming society too.

The grains would be different from the ones we’re used to now, as the breed of wheat most commonly consumed now was bred in the 1960’s to grow higher yields in a shorter amount of time to stop a global famine. Newer wheat is less nutritious, the gluten protein is more abundant in modern wheat (and in fact ancient strains of grains may not have had much effect on celiacs). The grains likely would have been prepared using methods like sprouting, soaking, and fermenting, all of which improved the quality by inhibiting anti-nutrients, improving the bio-availability of proteins and nutrients, and making nutrients more accessible. The grains would also have, obviously, been whole.

Not only would your grain consumption have looked different, but your meat would be raised differently. Most likely your livestock would have been raised primarily or totally on pasture, making them much healthier than livestock fed exclusively on grain and confined in small areas with other animals.

So What?

We’re doing it wrong, that’s what.

We’re stuffing ourselves with food products rather than food. We’re consuming frightening amounts of sugar, often from high fructose corn syrup. We’re eating grains stripped of their nutrients, and which then have to be “fortified” with minimally bio-available nutrients because they’re so bad for us. We’re stripping out natural fats and thinking that makes a food better for us.

Guess what? These people who live in the conditions described above had their food right.

I’m not saying I’d want to do everything like them; they lived before modern medicine, after all. A broken bone or childbirth could easily lead to death, when they rarely do now. Vaccines and antibiotics hadn’t been invented, so a bout of diphtheria, tetanus from a cut, or a bacterial infection could all easily spell death–and in the case of diphtheria and tetanus, death resulted over half the time. But what’s also true is that the skeletons of people who had access to whole foods and didn’t survive on sugary products tend to show signs of robust nutrition. This includes strong bones and good dentition.

In fact, hunter-gatherers tended to show this even more than those who lived in agricultural societies. This was likely due to the tendency in agricultural societies to live in larger groups, thereby enabling greater spread of disease, not eating as much meat (iron deficiency was a real problem in agricultural societies with low meat consumption), and of not being able to easily move to more fertile areas when famine and drought became issues. They also had a less-varied diet, particularly if they survived primarily on grains.

What can we learn from this?

Well, obviously there are modern “foods” that we should probably be avoiding. We’ll get to that in a minute.

We can also see that living primarily on grain is probably a bad idea, nutritionally speaking, and that our modern wheat tends to be even worse. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to avoid grains (although there’s nothing wrong with choosing to do so, in my opinion), but it does mean that we need to be more aware of our grain consumption and not just buy into the USDA food pyramid.

We can also see that a varied whole-food diet is ideal.

Oh, and that natural fat probably isn’t the enemy. That’s an important one. Don’t forget that one. Please. Seriously, forget everything you’ve heard about fat (except that trans fat is bad. Embrace that one) and get used to the idea that natural fats are good, good, good.

So what should we avoid?

  • Highly processed foods. Yes, you can argue that cooking or combining ingredients is processing. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. Baking your own whole-wheat bread is so different from buying some white bread that has to be enriched because it’s so nutrient deficient, or not even being able to read multiple ingredients on a mile-long list. Learn what’s in your food.
  • Very sugary foods. This one happens pretty naturally when you cut out processed foods. I’m not saying fruit is bad, or that using a little organic sugar or honey or maple syrup in a homemade dessert is going to kill you. I’m talking about high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and ridiculous amounts of any kind of sugar on a regular basis. I promise, even if you eat lots of fruit you’re going to get a lot less sugar from a whole food diet than from eating sugary processed foods.
  • Refined carbohydrates. I’m not going to tell everyone to go Paleo and or very low-carb (although I personally enjoy Paleo), but you’re probably going to get a lot less empty carbohydrates and probably overall fewer carbohydrates if your grains are whole, you reduce sugar, and you eat produce. Refined carbohydrates include white flour (white bread), white rice (not the worst thing to eat, but not the best), and white sugar. You can do away with these totally, or replace them with their whole, healthy alternatives like whole grain, brown rice, and organic sugar or sugar alternatives like honey.
  • Vegetable oils. Oh my gosh ew. Who looked at corn, squished it, didn’t get any oil out, and thought, “Oh, I’ll just get corn oil through a crazy process instead because we need this stuff.” Most vegetable oils are hydrogenated, oxidized, and/or high in Omega-6’s. The first two are bad and we need the third only in the right ratio. This goes for oils like canola too, and heaven forbid you should touch Crisco (aka edible plastic). Just, ew.
  • Overly processed dairy and dairy “products.” I’m not saying you have to go raw, but choosing to get dairy from grass-fed cows would be a really good idea. And if your milk is not homogenized, even better. Along with that, get your meat from pastured animals if you can.

There are a few other things that you may, individually, choose to do away with due to sensitivities or personal convictions about them. These may include going raw with dairy or doing away with dairy altogether, not eating legumes, or other choices based on food sensitivities/allergies, autoimmune conditions, and your own research.

So…What should I eat?

  • Meat. Meat meat meat. I like meat. And other animals products like eggs and cheese. Mmmm, omelets. Sorry, vegetarians, I’m just not in your camp. Please don’t call me names. BUT I would highly advocate getting your meat and other animal products like milk and eggs from ethical sources rather than from CAFO-farmed animals. This could look like raising your own, finding local farmers and butchers that grass-feed and free range, and even buying a half or whole grass-fed cow every year.
  • Produce. If you grow it yourself or buy locally, even better. Fruits and veggies, people.
  • Whole grains, especially if they’re sprouted, soaked, and/or fermented. You can even buy grain and do those steps yourself at home. Soaking is good for legumes, too. Or you can skip the grains altogether, but that’s up to you. Again, I like Paleo, but I don’t think everyone has to eat that way.
  • Natural fats. No, saturated fat from meat is not going to clog up your arteries. The evidence for this was never that good, but the government went ahead and turned Americans into a giant (failed) health experiment. Read this book if you don’t believe me. In fact, eggs (yolks and all) have even been shown to improve cholesterol profiles. What are natural fats? Meat from pastured animals and their fat products such as lard and tallow (CAFO-fed animals have less healthy fat profiles), fish and their oils, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and avocado oils, and nuts and seeds. Let me know if I forgot something. Saturated fats are especially good for high-heat cooking, by the way. I keep a jar of bacon fat in my fridge.
  • Natural unrefined sweeteners. Organic sugar, honey, and maple syrup (real maple syrup, not the stuff that says it’s syrup but is actually high fructose corn syrup). Maybe stevia too. I’m not huge on agave, and definitely not a fan of fake sweeteners like Splenda/sucralose or aspartame.

What do I do about this?

I know that can be a little overwhelming, and you don’t have to start at once. Pick one or two. Are you going to find a local butcher and start buying meat there? Are you going to throw out your vegetable oils and replace them with coconut oil and olive oil (please do!)? Are you going to learn to bake bread? Are you going to start reading labels and learning what different ingredients are? Are you going to start getting recipes from sites that advocate whole food cooking and trying them? You may do only one or two things at a time, but eventually you can get there.

Just think about what you could grow and prepare yourself (regardless of the climate you live in), and try to eat like that. Could you make olive oil? Well, yes, if you grew an olive tree you could press your own olive oil. Could you make enriched white flour? Well, no, not really.

What steps have you taken towards eating real food?