My in-laws are here for the week and because my father-in-law loves reading, he’s been scouring my bookshelves for any new and interesting books. He reads very quickly, so I put a few on the side table – one’s that I was interested to get his take on. He loves non-fiction, so I supplied him with a few recent reads, such as The China Study, Wheat Belly, and The Blood Sugar Solution.
If, like me, you’ve read these titles (and I make it my business to read practically every food & health-related book that hits the shelves), you’ll know that these authors are making sweeping and often incendiary statements: red meat will give you cancer, wheat will make you fat, corn is bad, and all kinds of sugar should be completely avoided. Add to this the voices of other recent authors who are doctors or nutritionists, and we a taken to a place where it’s unsafe to eat almost everything you’ll find at a regular grocery store (wheat, corn, brown rice, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, dairy, meat and fish to name but a few of the supposed culprits.) While there is important information and great wisdom in most of these books, which is substantiated by numerous studies and research, I think it’s important to realize that it’s never a one-size-fits-all deal. Some of these authors are a little too zealous in their arguments for my liking: they take their stance and have us believe we have to adhere to their strict dietary recommendations, or else we’ll get sick. Many of these diets aren’t doable for most people and so we set ourselves up for failure and wind up feeling terrible because we’re so weak-willed. Instead of believing every argument, we need to question what we’re being told, become our own “expert” and above all, use our commonsense.
I think there are some gaping holes in many of the arguments that are put forth in these books. For example, in Europe (particularly in France), wheat is a mainstay of everyone’s diet – most eat baguettes and/or croissants for breakfast and yet, for the most part, French people aren’t fat. A recent study was done by Cornell University looking into this very issue: Why all those baguettes, brie and red wine don’t cause the French to pack on the pounds. The conclusion was that in France they listen to their internal cues about when they are full, whereas in America we use external cues such as: when our plate is empty or when the TV show is over. One could also argue that the wheat in Europe is a different strain (not the high-gluten dwarf wheat that’s grown in the US), but apparently this “dwarf” wheat is pretty much global now. Whether it’s meat, wheat or dairy that’s being vilified, there are cultures that have subsisted for thousands for years (very healthily) on these very foods. I understand that there is a vast difference between factory-farmed meat and organic meat, between growth-hormone dairy and organic dairy, and between ancient strains of wheat and the “dwarf-wheat” we eat today – things were very different even one hundred years ago. However, I think we have to be careful of dramatically eliminating all of these “dangerous” and “fattening” foods in one fell swoop.
In most cases, it boils down to commonsense: If we eat too much of any one thing, there will be health issues. In Wheat Belly, the author is absolutely correct in pointing out that in the US, we eat a tremendous about of wheat with every meal, and in The China Study, the author points out that many Americans eat beef or pork three times a day, everyday – this kind of diet is unbalanced and will obviously lead to obesity, heart disease and cancer. Corn and high fructose corn syrup is another ingredient that we are eating way too much of because it’s hidden in virtually every product you see on a grocery store shelf – this alone, according to Michael Pollen, is the cause of many of our health problems. However, for many people, especially Europeans, a small amount of any of these foods, especially if they are of the healthier variety, will not cause any problems whatsoever.
My in-laws come from a farming family, as do many of their generation. My mother-in-law told me that they all ate beef, pork, bread, potatoes, dairy and vegetables everyday. No one was fat and for the most part they lived long, healthy lives. My mother-in-law also explained that her mother, Cleo, ate all of these foods and even fried everything in lard, however, she was slim and lived healthily until the ripe old age of 97. The reason, my in-laws point out, is that she was really active for most of her life. In those days, on a farm, you had to work hard physically everyday. People used every muscle in their body to haul coal, weed fields, stir the butter, pick up heavy loads etc. Today we sit almost all day long, barely having to flex a muscle. We don’t even have to go out and shop anymore because everything will get delivered to our front door. We get up and sit at our computer, drive to work, sit at a desk all day long, drive some more, and then sit and watch a computer or TV screen for the night. I know many of us walk during the day, cycle and exercise when we can, but by and large, we are a sedentary society, and therein lies a big part of the problem. The other part of the puzzle is that our grandparents and generations before them ate “real” food – food that was not over-processed, enhanced, flavored and preserved within an inch of it’s life – the human body doesn’t do so well with the the over-processed food that we find so convenient today.
My dad confounds everybody because his philosophy is to eat everything in moderation – and eat it he does! Foods that a “health nut” like myself would deem as practically poisonous are thoroughly enjoyed by my 87-year-old dad. He is a chocoholic, hates vegetables, and adores cheese. But, my dad is so incredibly active: he works out almost everyday, takes the dogs for a long hike, and works in the yard and more. I know that there are always exceptions to the rule, and he may be one of the, but I do believe that he’s doing something right. Sure – he might be even healthier were he to cut out sugar, dairy and wheat, but I can’t be sure about that.
I absolutely believe that almost everyone could benefit from eating less. I also believe that almost everyone could benefit from cutting down on meat (save it for a treat), fish that contains mercury (tuna, swordfish etc), wheat (especially refined white flour), dairy, and most definitely sugar. My commonsense tells me that eating as much variety as you can, especially the foods that nature has to offer (fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes), should take up the greatest portion of my plate. Organic, humanely raised meat is so expensive that is should be eaten in very small quantities and saved for a treat, and one should check the ingredients carefully on all other foods – look out for the hidden sugars.
Many people now have food allergies and or are intolerant to certain ingredients – gluten and dairy being the main ones. There are many studies and opinions on why there was been a sharp rise in food allergies and I believe it has much to do with the way our food is now produced (either genetically-modified or it’s had vital digestive nutrients stripped out of it), and there is subsequently a growing market for these foods. The gluten-free market is set to become a 6 billion dollar industry with every major grocery store carrying a huge selection of breads, cookies and cake-mixes. Thank God that folks with Celiac disease can now enjoy these “normal” foods, however, those of us who just feel better when we avoid gluten should be aware that we can’t just pig out on these foods in the hope we’ll be thinner and healthier – not the case. We still need to look out for hidden sugars etc. After the recent scare about arsenic in brown rice, I thought – not another issue, because so many of these great gluten-free products contain brown rice flour!
I also believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of food. We should be able to enjoy the burgeoning Artisnal foods that are becoming available to us locally: bread, cheeses, chocolates and pastas too. Unless we have a serious health concern such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, we should be able to enjoy a great variety of foods without thinking that we are going to drop dead after a couple of servings.
It’s important to understand that we all process foods differently. Why can some people eat a cheese-stuffed baguette or a plate of brownies and not put on a pound? Why can some people eat pasta without getting bloated? It all depends on that lovely old-fashioned word: your constitution. It also depends on your lifestyle. If you work in a mine, hauling bags of coal day-in-day out, or if you work on an organic farm, your dietary needs will be very different to a girl like me, who sits tapping away at her computer all day long.
Finally, the awful, but obvious truth is as follows: If we want to lose weight, we need to eat less. We try to skirt around the basic fact that if everyone who needed to cut down every portion they ate by 50%, they’d be much better off. Portion sizes in America have grown to a gargantuan size over the last 5o years. Compare a muffin or a sandwich now, with one that was eaten in the 1030′s. Even our plate sizes have grown. I have a set of vintage dinner ware, and the entree plates are the size of today’s salad plates. If you love muffins, eat half and save the other half for tomorrow. If you love a sandwich at lunch, ask the deli to make you a half -sandwich. I think we can still have our cake and eat it too – we just have to use our good old commonsense.