Food food food

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.

File under: food


Anonymous

History

It's balance. Michael Phelps the olympic swimmer eats 6000 to 8000 calories a day. Heavyweight weight lifters eat 10,000 to 14,000 calories a day. The difference is that they need that many calories for their lifestyle. I saw an interview of a heavyweight lifter regarding his breakfast . He normally ate 2 dozen eggs, 2 loafs of toast, 2 pounds of bacon, a box of cereal and a half gallon of milk. He need that many calories. You have an active lifestyle, walking running climbing mountains, etc. I would recommend " listen to the Hippo in the mud pond",, "If it feels good, do it. Grandpa

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Anonymous

History

I commend you for thinking through these things. If it makes you feel better (later after your travels) I hope you do it and stay healthier. Unprocessed is supposed to be much better for you.

One thing, though– it seems to me that in cave man days it would have been rare to have anyone live past 40, with the normal life span probably in the 20s or less even. Not likely that they'd have had to worry about "old age" problems at all. Just keeping from starving or being killed by wild animals.

As long as you are interested, why don't you research herbs and natural medicines used by early man, too. Go for the whole show. Or maybe that goes without saying on the paleo diet. Grandma

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Chuck

History

As it happens, the thing about hunter-gatherers living only to their 20s is a persistent misconception. When people quote a low number like that, it's almost guaranteed to be factoring in the fairly high rates of child mortality that hunter-gatherer societies often have. If you get through childhood fine, though, you have outstanding odds of living a much more decent lifespan than twenty: say, 72 (according to a study I found summarized by this guy again). That's better than the average world lifespan, and can probably be improved on further by the addition of sanitation practices, which are something that didn't catch on until people figured out germs weren't evil spirits. And during their respectably long lives, hunter-gatherers have almost none of the things I mentioned as diseases of civilization.

I do plan on reading about medicinal herbs. Actually, just yesterday I heard about a book I intend to read: The Forgotten Language of Plants. Seems interesting. Though it actually doesn't go without saying. The guy who wrote my favorite wild edibles identification books, Sam Thayer, says something along the lines of, "I take medicine maybe once every two years. I eat food every day." He was explaining why he only covers food uses of the plants in the book. Seemed pretty reasonable to me.

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Anonymous

History

You can invent the Paleo-scavenger diet. This could also be called the Black Bear diet. Live off the land unless you stumble upon a dumpster jackpot.

Dave

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Chuck

History

Update: after hearing about a book called The Jungle Effect, whose author studies five different cultures around the world that are outstandingly healthy and finds drastic differences in their diets, with just a few commonalities (like freshness, seasonality, and synergy), I've decided to say heck with it, I'll eat whatever I want, as long as it's fresh and/or free. Sometime I'll read a copy of that book and some other books then I'll start figuring out what kind of stuff I'll eat day to day.

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Anonymous

History

Since you will soon be leaving Korea, I want to let you know about Portugal. We should be arriving in Lisbon sometime in the afternoon of Oct. 20, according to our brochure. The brochure also says that we'll be staying at Hotel Mundial, Lisbon. It does say that on some trips an alternate hotel could be used, so this information is not set in stone.

We will be getting a final package of info from the touring company, Grand Circle, at least two or three weeks before we leave on Oct. 9. In that, the hotel information will be confirmed.

I guess this means that at some time before we meet, you should try to contact us or your mother (we'll give her the info) to firm up the hotel we'll be in.

We're really looking forward to seeing you there. Lisbon is a fun city. We should be able to find lots to do.

Good luck on your coming travels, and remember that you will be going to places that can be dangerous. Yes, most everyone you meet is helpful, but there are nasties in Russia, and I can confirm that personally. Brush up on your Russian–at least remember how to say get lost in Russian. Hopefully, the slang, not very nice way to say it. Grandma

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Anonymous

History

By the way, you were mentioning that you wanted to go to Krakow. May I agree wholeheartedly with that. We fell in love with that city and everything about it. While there, I hope you'll make the side trip to Auschwitz, because it is worth it even though very sickening.

Prague is also very much fun to visit. Enjoy! Gma

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Anonymous

History

Just be careful. All these diet things tend to be fads that come and go as new information comes out. It is all so intricate that nobody really knows,yet, what's the absolute right thing to do.

The dieticians I used to work with said their best advice was to 'eat a variety of foods.'

A friend of mine, when young and trying hard to do what was really healthful, became a vegetarian. I don't know if she didn't do it right, or what exactly happened with her, but she ended up with Epstein-Barr, and it took her a long time to recover – the irony being that she was trying to be healthy. Irene

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Anonymous

History

Don't forget those old time hunter-gatherers lived to the ripe old age of about 28 or so. That's probably not what you have in mind.

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Chuck

History

Yeah, it's frustrating to realize that no one really knows the ultimate answer. I think maybe better (perhaps more modern) overall advice than "Eat a variety of foods" would be "Eat unprocessed foods."

I heard about a book called The Vegetarian Myth. It's by a woman (named Lierre Keith) who was vegan for 20 years and then realized that her health had been ruined because of it. I can't remember how it manifested but I think it was to do with her spine. Then she also did an investigation into cultivation of the grains and vegetables she'd been relying on, and discovered that tons of animals get killed during the process of plowing, and also of course the conversion of that land from prairie to farm destroyed tremendous amounts of habitat. So now she's eating meat.

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