Today’s nutrition advice can be mind boggling. Paleo vs vegan, low carb vs whole grains, or meal replacement shakes vs whole food home-cooking? Unfortunately there is no magic answer. Any, or all, of these things could work for most people, at least for a short period of time. SO how can the Health Coaching community help? By encouraging our clients to stop, look around, and think.
Our ancestors (even as recently as our grandparents or great grandparents) were much more in tune with the natural rhythms of the world around them. This big idea extends to more than their food choices. Sleep patterns tended to follow the suns cycle: in summer they slept less, in winter they slept more. They functioned in small, tight-knit communities in which common goals (safety/protection, child rearing, and hunting/gathering) were done together, a nod to the whole ‘it takes a village” idea. And their food choices were based on the seasons and the availability of ingredients.
Modernization has its benefits. IPhones and air travel. Antibiotics and anesthesia. BUT, when it comes to food we have truly dug ourselves into a hole. Author Michael Pollan brilliantly wrote on this topic in his best-selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (http://michaelpollan.com/books/the-omnivores-dilemma/)
I will do my best to summarize some of the same ideas here.
Observation #1: Nature has a way of guarding certain foods, making the calories “harder” to consume. Case in point, nuts. Have you ever shelled your own nuts? It can be fun or frustrating depending on your personality. The point is, it’s supposed to be hard to eat nuts. They have a hard-to-penetrate outer shell that protects the fragile, fat-filled goodness inside. The type of fat in nuts IS nutritious, but that isn’t a green light to eat them with abandon. Nut butters makes the calories even easier to consume, the fact of the matter is nuts and nut butter can be a great source of non-animal protein and a lovely treat once in a while, but they should be respected for the high calorie/high fat food they are. I once did the math and realized I was eating 500+ calories a day just by “snacking” on nuts. And I wondered why I couldn’t lose that last 10 lbs?!
Killing or raising an animal is hard. The vital minerals, protein, and fats found in meat can be part of a deliciously balanced diet, but our forefathers did not eat meat 1-3 times a day, and some days, not at all. One large animal might be preserved to an entire feed a family all winter. Every civilization has examples of using the last scraps and bits of an animal, meat was once, not too long ago, considered precious and expensive. Bone marrow, long simmered stocks, and organ meat sausages are thankfully making a comeback, but the fact of the matter is we simply eat WAY more meat than should physically be possible in the natural world. Rethinking your meat consumption is the #1 way to make the biggest impact on your grocery budget, environment, and overall health. This may mean eating less, or eating better quality (i.e. pastured, grass fed, locally raised) OR finding ways to make less meat last longer. Your great grandmother would be so proud watching you use every part of that whole chicken. Many cultures use animal products as seasoning rather than the focus of the meal, and the idea of “weekday vegetarianism” is taking off (https://www.ted.com/talks/graham_hill_weekday_vegetarian)
Perhaps the best example of nature’s ‘rationing’ wisdom is honey. I get asked about honey all the time. Everyone seems to agree we should eat less sugar, but surely I can’t mean eating less honey??! It’s healthy and natural right??! Well, yes. But it’s also GUARDED BY A SWARM OF BEES!!!! Literally. When you see the smiling bear on the grocery store shelf you tend to forget how hard that honey was to bottle. Honey has been mentioned throughout history as the ultimate luxury food, a true indulgence. The calories from honey are meant to be hard to get, and once you have a chance to enjoy delicious honey it deserves to be savored. (Maple syrup is yet another example, but minus the dramatic bees)
Observation #2: Fruit. I love whole fruits. It’s nature’s candy, right? Perfectly packaged with lots of water, fiber, and essential vitamins… a true joy to partake of. One of the first tastes a baby recognizes is sweet. Sweet flavors make us want to eat, and that’s good for a baby. It is also good for adults in the summer. Right when fruit naturally comes into season is when the days get longer and we need to start working hard to prepare for winter. Bears are the posterchild for this concept. They will gorge on anything they can find as they gear up for hibernation: salmon, berries, eggs, insects, even grass! Human go through a much less intense, but similar experience, during summer when the days get longer and we are more active.
Our bodies are smart and they have looong memories. Fruit is a summertime food, and eating it in abundance all year long is confusing. Fructose is digested completely differently than other forms of sugar. It was meant to be a “sometimes” food and our body is specifically designed to store the sugar from fruit as fat. Our bodies knew that fruit mean winter is right around the corner… AND the kicker? Fructose does not cause the same satiety signal that other foods do (protein, fats, and sucrose). Without getting too science-y, fruit literally overrides the part of our brain that tells us to stop eating... the goal is to binge. Areas of the world where certain fruits grow can directly relate to how much sunshine it gets. Wild berries, relatively low in sugar, grow wildly throughout North American, Canada, and Europe… same with apples, and most melons. These fruits are lower in sugar and higher in fiber. Bananas, pineapples, mangos (and sugarcane!) grow in tropical climates where its summer all year long. See how smart Mother Nature is?
Observation #3: Greens vs grains. I am not anti-grain, but I AM pro-greens. The difference is the abundance in which one is provided by nature. Greens grow easily and everywhere. Anyone with a small backyard garden can attest to the plenitude of zucchinis, tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, and cucumbers that one single planting can provide. It is almost impossible to eat them all. You can forage for mushrooms, wild garlic, onions, and herbs bitter greens. Tubers are hiding underground ready to be plucked just in time for the cold weather that kills the more fragile greens that happens come fall and into winter. Potatoes, carrots, turnips, yams, and squash start to thrive right when the spring/summer plants fall away.
It’s like Mother Nature is shoving these plant foods in our faces…but, are we eating them as often as this abundance should suggest? Most likely not. It is unfortunate that the foods that are the most available to us is the least likely to be consumed on a daily basis. ironically, the foods that we have to work really hard to cultivate have become the new staples. Corn, wheat, rice, and oats can and should be part of a varied diet, but they require more land, labor, and processing to be consumed. They began to crowd out vegetables at the turn of the century and we have never looked back.
Hope you can reflect on the wisdom that is all around us. Once we begin to look at the world as one interconnected planet where plants, animal, and humans are meant to co-exist, sustain each other, and thrive, we can begin to move back towards worldwide health and happiness. Head to your local farmers market, friends garden, or hiking trail and observe the natural balance of things we have been given if we choose to partake.