Thursday, January 14, 2010

What to Eat? Maybe a Metre of Meat

It has come to my attention over the past few years that us North Americans have, at some point along the way, probably while our governments were building super highways and capitalists were plotting ways to turn the nourishment of Mother Earth into commodities and value-added 'products' and women were fighting for equal opportunities, lost one of the most fundamental and natural instincts shared by all living creatures (and plants if you want to stretch all the way to the sun). We have lost our 'instinctual knowledge' of what we should eat, how often we should eat and how much we should eat.

This should be a HUGE red flag for us as individuals and as a society.

Not instinctively knowing what to eat in a Westernized society that offers up a seemingly endless supply of options for the palate, leads to the obvious: we must choose what we will eat - every day, at every meal. And therein lies the problem. For, if we don't know what to eat, who are we to consult about making the right food choices?? Government Agencies? Doctors? Nutritionists? Dietitians? Grandmothers? Food companies? Farmers? The TV? Grocers? Athletes? Slim People? Biologists? Anthropologists? Journalists? Health Magazines? Suzanne Somers?

And so you see, the choices just continue. Now, in addition to making a decision about what to eat, you also have to decide who to consult about what to eat. This, for many, may seem to be an easy thing (ignoring the fact that we are all more susceptible to food marketing than we'd like to believe). Anyways, I suspect most people would trust the wisdom of nutritionists, doctors, the Canada Food Guide (or other government food pyramid) and maybe, just maybe, their grandmother. I, for one, have certainly sought out and followed the advice of two nutritionists in the past, at times when I was looking to lose some weight. I also accepted the Canada Food
Guide as a decent guideline of what to eat. I mean, really, they are the experts right?

****I'm going to pause here and note that I cannot guarantee the accuracy of what I am write from hereon in with respect to the particular details of a nutritional concept or what I've taken from the various sources of information I've been reading. Please forgive me if I say something that is not accurate - if I have misinterpreted something it serves only to reinforce how confusing this whole subject of nutrition is to the average eat such as myself**** (END OF PAUSE!)

But now, as I delve deeper and deeper into all things 'food' I find myself more confused than ever as to what I should and, perhaps more importantly, shouldn't be putting into my mouth. I suppose what has happened, in short, is that I've become much more skeptical of 'experts'...even the ones that seemingly have no hidden agenda, like Health Canada. It's not that I am skeptical of their intention to provide good nutrition advice, but rather I am skeptical of the basis upon which they've drawn their conclusions about what a diet should consist of. So you see, I'm not suggesting any mal intent whatsoever, but I am suggesting that, perhaps, we should not take it for granted that a reductionist scientific approach to nutrition is an appropriate one. Nor should we assume that just because we've had an agriculture for the past ten thousand years, that the genetic make-up of our bodies has caught up/evolved to properly digest things like grains, sugars and dairy, to speak nothing of the lab-produced 'food-like' products that are so commonplace in grocery stores now.

So anyways, yes, I've become a skeptic of my own well-entrenched beliefs about what to eat. Part of this growing skepticsm is because I've been actively searching for more information about 'what to eat' and have encountered some people along the way, including my holistic nutritionist and some thoughtful friends, who have turned some of these beliefs on their head. Part of it also stems from an observation that no matter what I eat, I still seem to struggle with my weight (unless I'm on PEI where, oddly, pounds just seem to melt off), and part of it comes from an observation that we're getting bigger and bigger as time marches on. But mostly, I suppose, my skepticism arises from the realization that the industrialized agricultural system that we have today, the one which is often heralded as being a triumph of science (e.g. the Green Revolution), is completely backwards - harmful to everything from the soil, to the waters, to the animals that are a part of this industrialized system, to the people - the eaters at the end of the line. And so I conclude that if a scientific approach to agriculture can lead us so astray, surely it is possible that we've been lead astray in our approach to nutrition?

So, ultimately, I find myself torn between two almost polar approaches to eating: vegetarianism and the Primal Diet . Should I listen to the wisdom of Frances Moore Lappe, who argues in favor of a vegetarian diet in the quintessential book 'Diet for a Small Planet'? or should I follow the wisdom proffered up by Weston A. Price and followers of the Primal Diet which, from what I can surmise, argues that we are genetically still built like hunter-gatherers and therefore cannot optimize digestion of grains and other products of agriculture?

Truth be told, I've not read Lappe's book thoroughly - I skimmed it at best. It's not that I'm not interested in the possibility of going vegetarian. In fact for the past couple of years I've really been less interested in eating meat - especially red meat. It's easier to prepare tofu for one person, it's often cheaper to be vegetarian and I don't have to be concerned with eating factory farmed meat. Plus, it's often cited as being more 'environmentally' friendly than an amonivore or carnivore diet (whether this is an accurate claim is another point that I'm confused about) But then this past fall, while I was following my Locav-or-ganic Challenge in Vermont, I found myself eating large amounts of meat - as that is what is grown/raised in the state - meat and a LOT of cheese! Vegetables as well, of course, but grains are hard to come by in Vermont, so I treated myself to lamb and artisan cheese.

Having been introduced to the Primal Blueprint (I've been calling it a diet, but it's really more an all encompassing lifestyle addressing things such as sleeping patterns, exercise, etc.) via various sources over the past few months, I've come to think it might just make sense. The Primal Blueprint and this dry but very information video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth, have both partially convinced me that, in fact, it's not animal fats that we should be concerned about having in our diet, but rather the sugars and starches that wreak havoc with our insulin levels (and, in turn, our blood sugar), because when that happens our body goes into fat-storing mode. Sooo, basically, these kinds of carbs are going to end up being fat on the body. And as for eating meat, well it's a pretty well known fact that meat and fats increases satiety - so you don't eat as much and feel full for longer. They also don't affect your insulin levels.

Some people will, by this point, note that the Primal Blueprint sounds an awful lot like the Atkins diet and the Protein Power Plan. In some respects they'd be right, but for me the real attraction to the Primal Blueprint is that it doesn't just say 'eat meat, avoid grains' and you'll be fine. In fact, it says, eat lots of vegetables (not the starchy ones though), eat meat, eat fruit, eat berries and seeds. More importantly, it focuses on HOW the food you eat is produced. Just as cavemen didn't eat factory-farmed animals and fruits laden with pesticides, nor should us modern humans. So 'going primal' requires a shift to eating meats that have been pasture raised, free-range eggs, raw dairy (if you're going to eat dairy at all), and organically produced, fresh vegetables and fruits. All of this is clearly appealing to me, given that I've decided to continue my Locav-or-ganic challenge while I write my thesis here on the outskirts of Kingston, Ontario. It fits in nicely with what I'm attempting!

Is Primal another 'fad' diet? Some might argue so. And they may very well be right. I'm certainly not 100% sold on Primal. What I will note is that the mainstream nutritional advice is only about fifty or sixty years old (nutrition is a fairly new branch of science), so if you want to take a long-term view of human history, the Canada Food Guide is a fad diet too!! Not that I want to trample of the Canada Food Guide whatsoever- it is well-intentioned and may very well be the 'right' way to eat...all I'm saying is that we shouldn't assume that one way of eating is a fad and another, by default, is not a fad and therefore 'right' just because it's been around for a few years. I mean, really, wasn't there this whole idea the Earth was flat for quite a while..I bet when Galileo first threw out the idea it might be round, most people thought it preposterous..and labelled it the Italian equivalent of a 'fad' idea. So, maybe in general we'd do well to caution against carte blanche acceptance of anything. Granted, we don't all have the time to go about questioning every single thing we're told - that's where discretion and prioritization come in to play. I place priority on my health and am not completely sold on the mainstream nutrition advice (yet).

And so, over the next week or so, I shall ease myself into the Primal way of eating. I'm not saying I'm going to stick with it for life. I know some people will argue that it's just not a sustainable, sensible way of eating, given what is on offer out there in restaurants and grocery stores. And they may well be right, but I'm already an abstainer from bread and pasta, and it's hard to get local quinoa! So the real troublemakers in my diet are sugar (there's still chocolate in my pantry) and oatmeal, which I eat every morning and may well continue to eat, given that it's got a low GI and is gluten-free. Others will argue that the long-term effects of eating large quantities of meat on the heart, liver, colon, etc. are worth careful consideration and, again, I might agree (in fact, I've definitely argued this in the past with Atkins followers who weren't eating lettuce but were chowing down on sausages). But, in the end, I've decided to give it a test run. I figure, in the short-term, it really can't do that much harm and, well, what if the mainstream science is wrong and Primal is the way to go?

I finish this blog exactly where I began: confused about what I should eat. And that frustrates me to no end. Each of us should innately know what is right for our bodies, but it seems as if this abundance of food and choice, the food marketing and promises of 'convenience', the supplements, the celebrity diets, etc. have all lead us down a path of 'forgetting' - forgetting what to eat and forgetting how much to eat. And, above all, forgetting that there was a time when food was supposed to bring you health. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could remember that which we've forgotten?

*As to the name of this post, it's a tribute to the Amadeus Restaurant in Kingston, which serves up a metre of meat (sadly, I doubt it's local) as pictured below (I went last night with some meat eating friends). May the Meat be with you!


Anonymous said...

I may not agree with you about giving up grain, but, I'm not going to argue with you because I don't really have any reason to eat bread (and by bread I mean real bread, not Ben's Bread), other than the fact that my parent's, grand-parents, grew up eating bread.

I just started reading In Defense of Food this morning, and at the very beginning the author discusses how odd it is that nowadays we have to consult doctors, nutrionists, journalists to find out what we should be eating. And, if a package makes a health claim, then we probably shouldn't be eating it. If it comes in a package we shouldn't be eating it. I'm attempting to eat real food as much as I can. I'm luck that I have a father who runs a restaurant very close to my apartment. I'm also lucky that I have a friend who sends me great books like In Defense of Food in the mail!

Thanks Shan and good luck with the new 'diet'/way of eating

Rob said...

I am with you - my bet is that corn and highly processed grains = sugar and that it is this that makes us fat. The irony is that Low fat Yoghurt is packed with cornstarch!

I like your broad view of the primal diet. It is working for me and I even fall off the wagon now and then without too much damage

Shannon Courtney said...

Rob, have you ever made homemade yogurt? I have a yogurt maker and it's wonderful to make plain, tart yogurt without any additives in it!

Shannon Courtney said...

PS -thanks for the comments and encouragement from you both!

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