I’m going to write about a bunch of stuff that I only half understand, or actually probably quite a bit less. Cool? Alright, here goes.
Just in time to probably be unable to do anything about it, I’ve started getting intensely interested in learning about nutrition and living healthily. I’m not sure exactly why I’ve just gotten into it so hard, but I think maybe it’s because of bread. I’ve been thinking a lot, on and off, about bread lately.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a long, long time, you may remember a time in my first year at college when I had just discovered something called the paleo diet. The premise of the diet is that you should eat what humans evolved to eat, and humans did all that evolving before the following things existed, making them verboten: grains, processed vegetable oils, and refined sugar. So I did a little one-week trial of the paleo diet where I hardly stuck to it at all and didn’t notice anything change very noticeably in my health, and then I guess I forgot about it. But over the last year or so it’s been creeping back into the forefront of my consciousness, for two reasons. One—Since I finally read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a few other books about food, I haven’t been able to shake the notion that I’m almost certainly not eating how I should be, and that I should figure out the right way without too much delay. Two—It keeps popping up here and there in things that I read. Since one of my big convictions is that our modern civilization is deeply wrong in almost every direction, the stuff I read has a certain tendency to mesh with that idea, and the way of eating that makes the most sense from that viewpoint is basically paleo. So whenever food comes up, which it does fairly often since it’s so important to the world and its ecosystems, I’m likely to end up reading something about paleo (or one of its close cousins). As a result, for a while I’ve been carrying around a vague idea that paleo is the right way to eat, but I hadn’t actually gone to the trouble of figuring out whether it was actually true, or what the science is.
With that notion in tow, I started minimizing the bread I eat. Not based on any careful reading of anything in particular, just out of a knowledge that grains are somehow supposed to be bad, and industrially made bread is even worse because of all the chemicals and processing involved, and anyhow I get a huge scoop of rice at school lunches so it’s not like I need more carbs. But having given it up, I noticed that I missed it. Those who’ve seen me eat dinner at Grandma & Grandpa’s house will probably remember some of the many occasions when I took home the loaf of poppy-seed-adorned bread that Grandma & Grandpa got specifically for the meal, though you may not know that I often finished the entire loaf during the car ride back home, sometimes alongside a can of root beer. I really enjoy bread. So I thought it was high time to figure out whether it was responsible for me to keep eating it.
You could pretty reasonably ask, Why? Clearly I’m the kind of person who can eat pretty much anything, in tremendous amounts, and never gain a pound. So why should I want to diet? Basically, because being overweight isn’t the only way to be unhealthy from your diet. It’s just the most visible. In fact, from what I’ve read, it’s pretty likely that most of the ways of being unhealthy that we see in civilization are results of eating bad stuff. Things like: diabetes, heart disease, and most cancers; also things like: acne, headaches, and feeling sleepy during the day. I generally feel pretty healthy, but even that’s not a guarantee of anything because some of these diseases of civilization just wait and build up without you noticing until one day you go to the doctor and she tells you, “You have diabetes.” Or later on in life, “With your arteries, you’re set to have a heart attack within the year.” And I realized a few months ago that my relationship with food here couldn’t possibly be healthy: the lunch ladies noticed that I eat a lot, so they started giving me extra of everything (including the rice I mentioned), and since I hate to let food go to waste I ate it all every day, and since it’s what you do I came back home each day and had a nice big dinner too, followed by snacks here and there until bedtime. At restaurants I’ve gained a reputation as the garbage disposal—I make sure none of the food gets thrown away, sometimes by asking for a doggy bag but usually just by eating it all (and then realizing when I stand up how bloated I am).
So I finally started reading about the paleo diet, and also some of its kin, like the Weston A. Price Foundation’s diet and the (ambitiously named) Perfect Health Diet and various little variations on the paleo diet created by bloggers around the internet. I wasn’t disappointed; it basically all makes sense, and all the forums about the diet (of which there are a lot, most of them built around the idea of helping people learn more about why things work the way they do and how to do the diet) are full of people talking about how much better they feel when they eat paleo-style and how much weight they’ve lost and kept off (or, if they started already thin, sometimes about how much muscle they’ve put on). The caveat here is that I haven’t really looked into the opposite viewpoint very carefully so far, but that’s next on the list.
There are a whole lot of scientific explanations for different facets of the diet. These are what seem to strike me as three of the most central parts. First: carbs are kindling and fat is firewood. Most people constantly supply their body’s fireplace with kindling, so it only burns that, and never lights the bigger fire below. (Imperfect analogy alert: kindling that goes unburnt becomes new firewood.) But a fire burns stronger and steadier on firewood. Eating fat turns out to actually be a good thing, contrary to what most people learn, because your body runs better on it.
Second: now that you’ll be eating more fat, it’s important to pay attention to what kind of fat, and the healthy answer is, “Not vegetable oils.” They’re modern Frankensteinish inventions of factory food technology and science is continually finding new ways they’re bad for you. Probably unexpectedly, and counterintuitively, what’s recommended instead is animal fats, like the ones that are inherent in meat, as well as butter, lard, and tallow. Other alright fats include the fat you get when you eat avocados and nuts and such, and coconut oil (which gets heaps of praise), and debatably olive oil.
And third: when grains grow on their plants, they don’t want to be eaten, because they spread by wind, not by getting eaten and then pooped out. So they make chemicals called lectins that give a stomachache to any animal that eats them. Then we figured out that if you cook grains the lectins aren’t powerful enough to bother you. But they’re still there, and they build up and cause bad health along down the line.
There are other things that I haven’t mentioned too, like getting lots of variety of fruits and vegetables because they’re good for you in a slew of different ways including providing you with vitamins and other micronutrients, and also trying to eat as fresh as possible so you know the provenance of everything. One of these little other bits is intermittent fasting, which is that thing I tried out the other day. I had actually been thinking about fasting even before I started reading so much about paleo. A blog post about fasting once a week got me thinking about it; the guy explained it as having lots of different good effects, like getting him to be less automatic in his behavior with food, and reminding him what the starved half of the world’s people chronically feels like, and reducing his ecological footprint. Then I found out that there’s a sizeable contingent of paleo people, as well as other people, who fast once a week because it’s supposed to do some good things for health, like slow down high-strung metabolisms and also apparently even lengthen lifespan. Though I kind of just went off half-cocked on the fasting thing, without a particularly clear idea of what I was supposed to be accomplishing, besides maybe shrinking my enormous appetite by a size or two. (In that I think I might’ve succeeded, at least briefly.) Maybe I’ll try it again, or even regularly, but I’m going to keep reading.
So I think I actually would like to try this out. But here’s the thing: I’ll be able to control it as an experiment for maybe three weeks. Then I have another week of school lunches, and then I’m off to a bunch of other countries. These are all countries with incredibly diverse cuisines that I want to try out. I’m not going to skip having pizza in Italy, or a baguette in France, or a pretzel in Germany. (Though sausage and sauerkraut are highly approved foods.) And perhaps more to the point, as a dumpster diver I won’t have the opportunity to be too picky about what I eat. Some days I’ll probably get lots of vegetables and maybe some freshly thrown-away meat (which I’ll cook very well, don’t worry), but other days I might find a bunch of bread or a bag full of donuts or something. So I guess maybe I’ll have to wait a little while before figuring out this whole health thing entirely. But I guess I’ll do what I can while I’m traveling. Go fishing in Mongolia, look for uneaten sausages at Oktoberfest, keep an eye out for fresh healthy stuff in dumpsters.
I’ll probably write a few more posts soon and probably none of them will be about nutrition. It’s just I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
Also, I mentioned a lot of stuff in this post and didn’t link to any of it. So here’s a whole constellation of links to keep you busy if you feel like reading some of the stuff that I’ve read.
- A pretty good introduction to one variety of the paleo diet.
- The same guy explaining about burning fat instead of glucose (from carbs).
- A different guy’s introduction, which I think I like better, though he peppers it with unexplained acronyms.
- The Weston A. Price Foundation has a largely pointless website, but this cookbook/advice book was interesting.
- The Perfect Health Diet.
- The blog post that got me thinking about fasting (by the same guy, from my college, who got me thinking about using computers excessively).
- Wikipedia’s page about intermittent fasting.
File under: food