We all love food. No creature on Earth is indifferent when it comes to filling up on the finest available fare. But what is food exactly. Until recently, even the medical community didn’t pay much attention to what FOOD is exactly. In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan suggests we “Eat Food”. He goes on to say further that most of what we see on the shelves in our markets is food-like substance. He proposes that we ask ourselves one simple question about the food staring at us from or plate. “Would your grandmother recognize this as food?” For some things we feed ourselves (or worse yet, our kids) it is pretty easy to identify the food-impostors. The problem is when we think we are buying something healthy and it’s really just a stripped down food item with a bunch of healthy sounding additives made in a laboratory, molded in to shapes that resembles real food. And you thought you were playing make-believe when, as a child, you whipped up a batch of those play doh hot dogs for all to enjoy.
Healthy People on Real Food?
I recently attended the Healthy People Conference at Loma Linda University. This years slogan was “The Food Factor”. This struck me as a bit telling of the ten-foot-pole with which modern medicine and public health at large deal with the actual food of the population. Sure we’ve had Registered Dietitians and Clinical Nutritionists in hospitals for decades now but they either deal with the single macro/micro nutrients or caloric intake of their patients. It was quite a sight to hear how top authorities in medicine and public health were fumbling with the terms”organic” and “non-GMO” as if these were two of the most mysterious of medical technologies.
Being the guerilla health and fitness warrior that I am, I decided to take up the phrase of our 40th President,”Trust but verify“. I started asking some of the MDs, PhDs and MPHs buzzing around the expo hall what their definition of Real Food is. The responses were as varied as if I had asked their favorite color. It got me thinking that if these medical professionals had no idea what real food is, how can the general public have a clue?
The next day, I took to the books on my shelves and scoured the internet to see how others identify real food. Here are some popular definitions of real food from health and fitness professionals in print and across the internet:
The Visualization Technique
Can I imagine it growing?
Even the most conscious calorie-counter or label-reader still gives little thought to the fact that their food was once alive in one way or another. We are overwhelmed by the subjective experience of eating (as we should be; food is meant to be enjoyed) that we fail to consider that our food was once a living, eating and breathing organism. It is important to not only scrutinize the food you eat but also the food your food ate….and the food your foods food ate….and so on.
Just as it is impossible to be healthy by eating sick animals, it is equally impossible to be good stewards of the life gifted to you by your food by their ultimate sacrifice if you are not fully aware of the pice paid. I hope someday we would require that food packaging include an actual picture of the animal, or plant growing in nature; not so that we be discouraged from eating it, but so we fully appreciate the sacrifice made so that we may be nourished. The harsh reality of this world is that it takes life to give life.
In her brilliant book, Feeding the Whole Family, Cooking with Whole Foods. Cynthia Lair of cookus interruptus asks, “Can I imagine [my food] growing” as a handy little way to teach young and old how to identify real food. This is a great stand-alone question to keep in mind as you stroll down the aisles of your mega-mart. For me, this goes a bit beyond the popular suggestion to shop the perimeter of the store…after all, you can find this and this along the perimeter of the store even though they are perfectly stable in the center aisles. Real food goes bad quickly. Grocery stores now place food-like substances along the perimeters right next to real foods in order to trick the eater.
The Paleo Paradigm
If it wasn’t around 10,000 years ago, it’s not real food.
Mother Nature has experimented with an infinite number of genetic traits and characteristics in every branch of the genetic tree. We all know all of life evolved from single-cell organisms. Some grew legs, some wings, others fins. Some adapted to eating flesh while others put more genetic stock in to their GI system, giving them the ability to digest and absorb plant nutrients efficiently. We as a species distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. Since then, our genome has changed very little with respect to how we eat.
Mark Sisson explains in his book, The Primal Blueprint, that our primal ancestors who hunted and gathered this Earth around 10,000 years ago were bigger, stronger, faster and more full of life than we are today. Although we possess greater knowledge today, they had bigger brains than the modern human.
So what changed 10,000 years ago? Agriculture. We thought we could beat the system. We stopped moving around as much and tried to replaced our animal-based calories with plant-based calories. I say attempted because we need only look at the health of both us and the Earth to see the result of that 10,000 year old experiment. Our general state of health and the now barren “fertile crescent” serve to exemplify the gradual taking of life that goes along with mass agriculture.
Please do not read this and think Mark and I think that plants are not real food. The simple truth is that we humans do a lot of thinking. Our brains are calorically expensive to run. Feeding our bodies solely on plants is something to which we are not well adapted. The artificial abundance of plant calories available in the food supply is detrimental to our health. (remember the plant material I speak of is mainly grains and not leafy vegetation) If you wish to go out to a meadow and shovel fistfuls of wheat in to your mouth, by all means, do it. Chances are you won’t enjoy it. It is only through our supposed ingenuity and invention of the millstone that we have artificially made something otherwise unpalatable, in to the staff of life.
I’d be remiss if I led the reader to believe that Marks book is simply a diet book. He succinctly explains in great detail how to enjoy the luxuries of modern life while maintaining the health and happiness of our ancestors by applying the 10 laws of the Primal Blueprint.
The Healing Effect
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food
Until the modern age, food was regarded as the primary source of medicine. It is only through our conscious dissociation between what we eat and how we subsequently feel that has allowed us to ignore this eternal truth. Hippocrates is credited with having said these famous words thousands of years ago. By contrast, the US Surgeon General didn’t officially acknowledge the value of a good diet with respect to ones health until 1988. Still today the best your doctor can do in the way of dietary guidance is regurgitate some industry funded and government endorsed research that employs standardized formulas and one-size-fits-all guidelines shown to be good for “most people”. I don’t blame the doctors nor the system however it’s foolish for us as individuals to gamble with our health and hope we land somewhere at the top of that bell curve shown in the study. Your food is the most intimate object your body will ever encounter. Why we let somebody else tell us what our bodies need is beyond me.
The traditional Whole Medical Systems of the East are uniquely suited to explain and execute therapy through real food. The Indian subcontinent spans such a range of elevation and latitude that it contains every type of climate on the rest of the planet. Through this diversity the indigenous people have had thousands of years to experiment with the myriad of vegetables and herbs native to their land.
Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine alike designate certain qualities, characteristics and actions to foods. If you have a cold, only a warm food such as chicken soup can help you come back in to balance. It is an intuitive and uncomplicated way to look at food and realize its full potential. These intrinsic qualities and potencies are mitigated as the food is removed further from its true nature. This could be done by genetically altering the genome, growing it out of season, feeding it something other than its natural diet, etc. This disconnect with nature can also take place if food is heated beyond stability. This happens with oils, milk (through pasteurization) and bottled water baked in their plastic containers in warehouses across the country. These otherwise real foods are chemically altered to improve shelf life and inflate a profit margin for some entity involved.
Integrity of the cycle
Normally I try to abstain from “circle-of-life” type arguments because I just end up breaking in to song and never get any work done. This time, there simply is no other way to describe the holy dynamic that is the way in which we nourish ourselves and sustain our own lives. Try as we may, we can not scientifically explain how intense energy burning light-years away from us becomes the infinitely unique life-form you think you are. When does life start; be it you own, your foods, your foods food, your foods food food, and so on? If you want to feel alive, you have to eat that which is filled with life.
My definition for real food involves understanding this cycle. There is a set amount of life-force available in the world. This is a concept known as Chi (or Qi) in TCM and Prana in Vedic traditions (Yoga, Ayurveda, etc). Since the creation of the universe there has not been any addition no subtraction of life-force to the system. If you care not to have such a broad metaphysical approach, suffice it to say that as far as the individual is concerned, the amount of life-force he or she will take in and give out is part of a zero-sum game. That said, if you trace back the journey of the meal you will eat tonight, you could give an honest evaluation of how it got there and who exactly profited and lost in the process. By my standards, if anybody involved disproportionately gained or lost, from the fowl to the farmer, your meal is not made of real food.
This seems a little stringent but consider it on a grander scale. If anything is done to synthetically amplify the eternally present amount of life in a fruit, vegetable or animal, the nutritional integrity is compromised. The profit of the farmer or food supplier must be paid by someone else in the system. Who pays that bill?…you do. After the food-like substance is “laundered” through your body, year after year, your medical bills start to pile up. Remember, there is and will always be a set amount of life-force available in the universe. If somebody tilts the scale in their favor, someone else will come up short. It may take years and sometimes even generations, but as we continue to insist that we can sustain life from lifeless food, we will be met with the cold reality that is our collective decline in vitality and health.