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“Food Safety Now!” Who wouldn’t rally behind such a cause? This has been the battle cry of those in the uppermost echelons of our food regulatory bodies and public health departments for years now. With each widely-publicized food-borne disease outbreak … Continue reading
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.
And so it’s finally here. The United States Department of Agriculture has finally released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 (DGA)…and not a moment too soon because I was still eating like it was 2005. So before we get in to the meat and potatoes…er fruits and whole grains of the guidelines, let us explore why we need a revised edition every 5 years.
“This periodic review is mandated under the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research
Act (Public Law 101-445, Section 301[7 U.S.C. 5341], Title III). The DGA is required to be based on
the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge and to be released by the Secretaries of
USDA and HHS every five years.”
I’ll leave it up to the reader to establish their own notion about just how efficient and non-wasteful it is to bring together two government agencies with a combined 2010 estimated budget of $977,700,000,000.00 for the purpose of determining specific and realistic dietary guidelines for optimal health. I would however like to point out that this takes place every 5 years. The variables analyzed are medicine, nutrition and epidemiology. The need to re-evaluate the DGA every 5 years suggests that any or all of these three variables are so radically changing within such a short period of time. If we are to place any faith in to these three sciences, shouldn’t they at least be true for more than 5 years? This to me is the most scary aspect to investigate. Oh, and by the way..according to the title, it’s only a healthy way to eat for Americans. Sorry rest of the world, get your own guidelines.
In case your eyes just glazed over reading all those zeros, that was $977.7 Billion dollars “invested” (not spent) on our nutrition and health promotion. With so much money invested in our health, you would think we would all be Jack and Elaine Lalanne. The reason money can’t buy us health is because we are still smitten with our own genius. We as a public of all ages have personally witnessed so much technological and medicinal wonder come about that we have relinquished our own common sense and turned supine whenever we hear the words, “according to a study..”. We as those who conduct and legislate on the basis of said studies have such tunnel vision that unless it can be proved with a scientific model, we pay little attention to it at best and demonize it at worst.
A Golden Recipe for Health
So why is it that a third of us are obese or overweight and half of us suffer from chronic disease? After all, we have $977.7 Billion spent…oh, sorry, invested in us each year. The message from those who stand behind these government guidelines, i.e. your doctor, personal trainer, dietician, etc, is that we just don’t listen to and follow their “golden recipe” for health and wellness. The equation at the foundation of all the mainstream health information is the following:
Health = [Calories in] ≥ [Calories out]
If we could leverage the luxury of a certainty afforded by such a simple equation, your perfect beach body would only be a math equation away. No matter how much you hated math in school, I highly doubt you would fake the flu to avoid this math test. Human behavior is actually very predictable. Give someone the Promise of a Positive outcome and they’ll do what it takes to get it. Remove either of the P words and the person is less likely to comply. If it is the case following this golden recipe to health worked with any substantial amount of reliability, more people would find it easy to make healthy choices and changer their behavior permanently.
A Health Conscious Population
The reason we have a health problem in America is not because we are undereducated or non-adherent. In fact, I would say that we are more health conscious a people than there has ever been. We have our non-dairy creamers, non-fat bacon and even anti-oxidant soda. We are so conscious of our health in this country that we spend and estimated $50 Billion dollars of our own descretionary money on fitness and supplements. Add this to the government investment of $977.7 Billion and you’ve got well over $1,000 Million (or one Trillion as we here in the US say it so that it doesn’t sound so bad) spend on preventing sickness and maintaining health. We certainly are “health conscious”.
Perhaps that is the problem. Our health, and more specifically should not be something we should have to think about so much. Feeding oneself is the most basic and intimate act one can perform. Whomever it is that you think you are has been killed off and reborn countless times over the course of your life. Your tissues are not as old as the amount of candles on your birthday cake. YOU are merely a highly sophisticated assimilation of external life that has been incorperated in to your own ego. On a very subtle level, this is the essence of nutrition and digestion. On very physiological level, our cells take in alien cells and send them to the gastric chop-shop inside us to be sold for their parts. Some of us need part X and others need partt Y-328938495D. DIgestion is not a “one-size-fits-all” process.
The reason we are sick is because we have tried so hard to find, in classic utilitarian fashion, the perfect diet that will work for most people with the lowest possible economic impact. The same goes with Conventional Medicine. Not all therapies apply to all people but as long as there is valid and reliable peer-reviewed evidence to say that it’s worth the cost/benefit trade off, you get approval. True wellness requires personal inquiry and exploration. It is not something that can be taught to you by the shits and white-coats in Washington D.C.
The Meat and Potat….er….Fruit and Whole Grains of the Guidelines
Now that I’ve dealt with the philosophical aspect of this
The following is an excerpt from her blog:
Saturated fat: true killer or whipping boy?
Here’s what the USDA has to say about saturated fat:
A strong body of evidence indicates that higher intake of most dietary saturated fatty acids is associated with higher levels of blood total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Higher total and LDL cholesterol levels are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Ah, the lipid hypothesis in all its unproven, scientifically-feeble glory! We’ll look at the evidence they cite to bash saturated fat in a moment. But for now, let’s see their specific 2010 recommendations regarding this oft-feared nutrient:
To reduce the intake of saturated fatty acids, many Americans should limit their consumption of the major sources that are high in saturated fatty acids and replace them with foods that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. For example, when preparing foods at home, solid fats (e.g., butter and lard) can be replaced with vegetable oils that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Time to start frying your (yolk-free) eggs in soybean oil. Never mind that polyunsaturated fats actually increase oxidative stress (a major player in heart disease and cancer) and become particularly hazardous when heated, especially compared to heat-stable saturated fats. And never mind that most vegetable oils are disproportionately high in omega-6 fatty acids, aggravating the omega 3/6 imbalance that’s already rampant in American diets. If the USDA guideline team could peel off those lipid-hypothesis goggles for a minute, maybe they’d realize that the vegetable oils they’re recommending are likely to wreak some serious health havoc, regardless of what they do to cholesterol levels.
Worse, the new dietary guidelines give the green light to eat some of the worst industrial oils out there:
Oils that are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids include canola, olive, and safflower oils. Oils that are good sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids include soybean, corn, and cottonseed oils.
From this graph, we should learn that soybean oil and corn oil (for example) are more healthful options than coconut oil and butter, because they’re lower in saturated fat. It doesn’t matter that we have studies showing high-omega 6 oils like corn oil may promote tumor growth while—using the same study design—saturated fats do not. As long as the USDA is on board with the “cholesterol causes heart disease” theory, the only thing that matters about fats is how they affect lipid profiles.
Besides, saturated fat is saturated. And saturated things kill us.
Here’s something else that’s interesting. Let’s hop over to the fatty acid page in the Evidence Library for a second. Under the subheading called “Needs for Future Research” (AKA “Stuff We Don’t Really Understand Yet”), they wrote:
1. Determine the benefits and risks of MUFA vs. PUFA as an isocaloricsubstitute for SFA. Confirm the metabolic pathways through which dietary SFA affect serum lipids, especially as some SFA (e.g., stearic acid) do not appear to affect blood lipid levels.
Basically, they’re recommending we swap saturated fat for unsaturated varieties without being sure what the effects are, and that we slash all saturated fat consumption without being sure whether the reasons are biologically justified. I guess by the time the next tome of guidelines is released, the USDA will get to see whether their lipid recommendations helped or killed us off faster. Welcome to America, land of 300 million guinea pigs.
We spend quite a bit of money in this country. Much of it is for good and much of it could be allocated elsewhere if we just took a closer look at what drives the spending. Research is good as long as we don’t take it too seriously. When we stop abandoning our intuitive wisdom and losing faith in ourselves to know what is best suited for our bodies, we will get more healthy. There is no substitute for eating real food no matter how hard we try to prove otherwise in labs across the nation. Invest in yourself, turn within to ask your body what it is that it wants you to feed it, and live a healthy, empowered and long life. I write this on the eve of the 100th celebration of Ronald Reagan’s birth. His words about our reliance upon government for direction were never more true.
“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”