With so much being written recently about what to eat, and what not to eat, I sometimes have a hard time trying to keep it all straight. Is wheat ok? Dairy? Red meat? Kangaroo? Ok, maybe that one doesn’t come up too often in my neck of the woods, but it gets frustrating sometimes that the medical community doesn’t speak with one voice, and we are all left up to our own devices to figure out what is really true, and what is only pretending.
I’ve heard about the Paleo diet, GAPS diet, raw food diets, and of course vegetarian and vegan, plus tons of others that I don’t even remember the names of. And it seems to me that many of these diets or lifestyles are just as concerned with curing specific symptoms and conditions as with the taste or morality of any particular dietary choice.
I’m not trying to cure any specific physical ills, for myself or my family. And I’m not an absolute moralist when eating. I have no guilt when eating the meat of responsibly raised animal, though I can no longer bring myself to purchase factory meat from overcrowded, over-medicated and diseased farm factories.
So if I’m not trying to cure any particular ills, nor eating to follow any particular guru or published health plan, what are my guiding principals? What’s the plan, why even worry about what I’m feeding my family?
My biggest concern is looking forward, both to my future as well as my children’s. The leading causes of death today in America are cancer and heart disease. And that’s just the number of people who actually die from those two diseases, how about the millions of people who develop cancer or heart disease, but are kept alive by modern medical attention, and then die of some other cause?
Cancer and heart disease, those appear to be the two biggest health concerns of modern life if you can avoid getting run over or randomly shot.
There are two other subjects that jump out at me and seem obvious when looking at this chart. First, this chart doesn’t seem to include the catastrophic health consequences of diabetes, and complications surrounding the enormous boom our society has seen in the incidence of that horrible disease.
Diabetes is listed as the 7th highest cause of death, but I think as more and more research is published that we will see that the complications and end result of diabetes will show up in other categories on charts like this one. That is, if you suffer from diabetes, you are also more likely to die from heart disease, so which category does that fall under?
And second, the three leading causes of death in 1900 were all infectious diseases, which have been reduced to such a large extent that they no longer seem a real possibility for most people. I find it very difficult to look at this type of data and not come away with the conclusion that antibiotics and immunizations have been a tremendous boon to the health of our society, the numbers speak for themselves. By and large, people in our society simply aren’t very likely to die of pneumonia, tuberculosis or other infectious diseases, and that’s a good thing. And now we can add Covid19 to that list.
I realize that what follows is a bit of a simplification, but it seems to me that two of the biggest changes our society has seen in the past 100 years or so, aside from antibiotics and immunizations, are the detection and classification of heart disease, and the rapid growth in use of highly processed industrial food products, like canola oil, Crisco, margarine, tv dinners and drive through restaurants. I can’t do much, and don’t intend to try, to change the way heart disease and cancer are diagnosed and treated in this and other industrialized countries.
But what I can control, and intend to do so, is what I eat and what I prepare for my family to eat. If you believe, as I do, that the industrialized food products of the last few generations are at the root of our current batch of health problems, then the obvious solution is to remove as many objectionable items as possible from your daily selection.
So how do I know which products to skip and which ones to include in my diet? I just use my 150 year rule, but I could probably use the 100 year rule, or 200 year rule, they are basically the same thing. If I can imagine the food in question being eaten 100 or 150 years ago, then it’s probably ok for my family to eat.
That doesn’t mean that I think it is necessarily healthy for me, such as homemade ice cream and cookies, but it means that I am a lot more comfortable with those foods than the modern processed and industrialized versions of the same food, from an ingredient perspective, not a calorie perspective.
If the food item in question didn’t exist in the early 1900’s or late 1800’s, then I automatically question that food choice. Was it considered food 150 years ago?
Let’s try a few examples…
- Crisco – no hydrogenated oils or fats for me, thanks but no thanks
- Beef or Pork – pretty sure pastured animals were around 150 years ago – absolutely
- Margarine – why you should never eat margarine – nope
- Fast Food – drive up restaurants in 1890? – I try to avoid it
- Eggs and dairy – seems like they would have been around – yes please, but only the full fat real deal for me, no low fat dairy and no eggs from chickens held captive in horrific conditions
- Diet Coke – with artificial sweeteners? – I try to avoid simply because I believe water is better, but I am seeing a few researchers that I respect saying that artificial sweeteners have gotten a bum rap, so… maybe a few but not as a daily staple
- Fruits and vegetables – of course, preferably not having been sprayed with poisons first
- Grapeseed, corn, soy, vegetable, canola oils – read up on these nasty oils – not in my house
- Flour – it’s been around for quite awhile, but I prefer the varieties that are older, not the modern wheat developed in the 1950’s and 60’s, this is a trickier subject so be careful.
- Sugar – same as flour, been around for hundreds of years, but it was harder to get and more expensive, so it wasn’t used as much in our past, so in moderation and preferably un-refined, then I’ll let it slide, but moderation is the key here, not too much!
From this basic outlook of backdating my food choices, I have come up with 5 major rules that I try to follow as best as I can, which seem to have really helped me out when making the transition away from being a conventional American eater and consumer.
1 – First rule, there are no absolutes – In my house, there is nothing that is 100% wrong, and even that statement isn’t absolutely correct. Any ingredient that is deemed to be inappropriate or out of bounds can still be consumed, at the right time and place. Am I fan of sodas? No. Will I ever drink a Diet Coke again? Guaranteed. It’s more important to me to be a little relaxed about my family’s eating and strive for stress free than to be uptight and never make a single nutritional mistake ever.
2 – Avoid artificial sweeteners – that was the first topic I tackled when changing up my eating habits, and I think that I went a bit too far. I now believe that in general most artificial sweeteners have gotten worse coverage than they deserve in many respects, and I am no longer avoiding them at all costs, as I occasionally drink a Diet Coke or add a Splenda to morning coffee. But what I won’t do is swap out sugar in my cookie recipe with an artificial sweetener and think that I am doing myself some favor. Am I claiming that sugar is good for you? No, but I’ll take my chances with an infrequent sugary treat as opposed to a frequent artificially sweetened dessert.
3 – Avoid low-fat – that includes dairy, as well as any breads or other items that are labeled with low or no-fat. Again, I’m picking my fights here. I’m not giving myself license to gorge on fatty foods, but I’m not going to be scared of them either. When it’s time to drink milk, it’s whole full-fat milk for me, no imitation skim milk-water. This is another topic where balance has become more important to me the older I get. When I was younger I avoided fat like the plague, because I was told to and hadn’t yet read up on any research on my own. Then I swung completely in the opposite direction looking for the fattiest foods I could find. But now I’m comfortable somewhere in the middle. I do not want to make low-fat versions of normally fatty foods the cornerstone of my diet, nor do I want to consume large quantities of highly processed food items that are designed to be low-fat. My goal is to eat real foods in their natural form as much as possible, and when that includes dairy, butter, meat and the like, that means that I am eating fatty foods. But when I look at my daily diet, I see that about 1/3 of all of my calories come from fat, so really, I am not eating a high fat diet, or a low fat diet, but rather a moderate fat diet. But I really try hard not to eat the fake foods labeled low-fat, because they are almost always not real food.
4 – No more canola oil – this one really took me a while to figure out, how could something so seemingly benign be so awful? Well, do a little reading for yourself, and you will soon find countless horror stories about the atrocities committed daily by canola oil and other more modern highly refined cooking oils. Holy Cow. Seriously. I had no idea until reading about these oils just how physically disruptive they are. Gross. Not in my house. I now cook almost exclusively with olive oil, avocado oil and butter.
5 – Don’t be “that guy or gal” – I take my rules pretty seriously, but not everyone else does, I get that. So what happens when I go to a friend’s house? Or out to dinner at a restaurant? Should I take the host aside and present them with my questionnaire about the quality of their produce? What kind of oil do they fry in? Saturated fats vs. mono-saturated vs. poly-saturated? Can I get a special order please? No thanks, that’s not what I’m looking for, I don’t want to be “that guy”. If I am lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s home, and they want to cook for me, guess what, I’m putting it away. Unless they can’t cook and the food sucks, that’s different.
Bonus – Homemade is better – Even when eating foods that are normally considered taboo, such as bread, pasta or something fried, I have found that making it at home and not ordering out drastically reduces the negative footprint upon my body. Early in 2021 I tried out the Nutrisense CGM and ran a few little experiments on myself, such as fried chicken at a restaurant vs. homemade fried chicken, and the results were pretty illuminating. When in doubt, make it yourself!
So those are my Big 5, pretty easy to put into place. What about you? Do you have a short list of rules that make eating well in your house less stressful? Or did I leave something out that really needs to be in my top 5? Let me know below…