By Lindsay Ford, MS, RD
Why is it that food has become a topic like religion or politics?! You just don’t talk about food because “it’s too personal” and potentially offensive. I get the feeling. To me, it doesn’t seem right when I listen to podcasts and I’ve got Joe Doe encouraging gluten-free, dairy-free and bulletproof coffee and my life will be epically changed. It doesn’t feel right to me when I hear a client of mine “trying” intermittent fasting when they have no idea why they are doing it or the potential risks (aka… what kind of message are you sending your kids? Just saying).
With both of these scenarios, I get heated inside just like others get fired up when they see Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Again, something doesn’t feel right when it comes to talking about food.
Ironically, here I am writing this piece as a Dietitian trying to help people figure out how to nourish your body.
I am a Dietitian trying to help you understand what foods to put in your body. It is quite hilarious if I think about it. People never used to see a nutritionist. People figured it out. People used to fuel off of the land on which they lived, people trusted their body’s cues and don’t even get me started on “exercise.”
Exercise never used to exist. It was never called anything… exercise was movement that was necessary to forage food, hunt food and honor what was necessary for survival. I guarantee you Mr Hunter Man never said, “I am going to be out this morning exercising for deer. See you later.”
In fact, our human history tells us many stories and many lessons.
It is what brings me to this piece’s purpose: provide you, the reader, with thought-provoking facts and information that is based all on the human body, food and eating. Perhaps it will actually help bring some clarity to our modern day diet culture.
First, let’s review the human body.
If we take a look at our physiology and anatomy we come across something that isn’t discussed enough: The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis.
In a nutshell, this hypothesis looks at and explains the metabolic cost of the human brain in context to other expensive organs of the body. Simply put, the brain requires over 20 times the energy as a unit of muscle tissue.
Consider your brain a very expensive caloric investment. The “cost” per say of the human brain is also why the human gastrointestinal tract, in comparison with other animals, is of smaller size and quite compact in the body.
Humans historically have large brains and small GI tracts. Our intestinal tract is still amazingly large, but in comparison to other animals our brain is larger and our intestinal tract is smaller. Numerous archaeologists view this anatomical truth as a way to support eating a high-quality diet, including animal foods.
These high quality and energy dense foods supply the brain with the energy it needs as well as the energy needed to supply other “expensive” organs: the heart, kidneys, liver and gastrointestinal tract. Get this, these five organs, brain included count for about 7-8% of your body’s total mass; however, they account for roughly 70% of your basal metabolic rate.
It isn’t just about muscle mass – it goes much deeper than that and part of the reason why so much research is targeting gut health, thermic effect of food, brown fat vs. white fat and more.
If we specifically look at the diet and the gut, history shows animals with large “guts” and complex fermenting chambers (think the cow) need to eat foods that are of low digestibility (i.e., cellulose/grass) so fermenting can take place and the nutrients can do their job within the body. Animals, such as humans, that need to consume high digestible foods (e.g., animal proteins, seeds, fruit, animal matter) require simple stomachs (secrete acid to neutralize the food) and proportionally larger “guts” so the lining of the gut can absorb the broken down nutrients.
This proves we are built to eat both animal and plant-derived food. We are physically capable of digesting a wide variety of foods… pretty awesome if you think about it.
Secondly, let’s review what other cultures typically eat or used to eat.
I think it is safe to say people used to consume the foods and beverages that were native to their land, sea and climate. It is pretty much common sense those living close to water, including streams, would eat what they could out of the water. In regards to the catch, how something was caught was most likely taught by ancestors and required skill, repetition, daily movement and specific tools.
The interesting thing about this is that medical anthropologists that study bone matter can actually tell if a human was the subject of a hunter-gather society or one living in a farmer society. Guess what? Those that lived in the hunter-gather society were typically strong while those living the farm life are as Lierre Keith says of The Vegetarian Myth, “falling apart.” This brings me to my next thought, “who are these people and what did they eat?”
Take the blue zone of Okinawa, Japan and the native Ryukyuan people. They are some of the longest living people in the world while also having a productive life with minimal signs of civilized diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
They typically consume 20% less calories than the average Japanese and consume a variety of the following foods: sweet potatoes, purple sweet potatoes, seafood, bitter melon, turmeric, miso, carrots, radishes, mushrooms, seaweeds (kombu and wakame), small amounts of soy, legumes, soups, broths, eggs, pork, rice, homemade noodles and minimal amounts of added sugar and aim to finish eating when they are about 80% full. This 80% theory is called hara hachi bu. I like the sound of that.
Let’s look at another island… the people of Ikaria, Greece. We see a traditional Mediterranean diet and go figure this island was excluded from the shipping industry due to the difficult location, strong winds and lack of natural harbors. This was and is a huge win for the health of the people due to reliance on the land, sea and work outdoors versus adherence to pseudo-food.
The foods commonly consumed are the following: goat’s milk, goat’s milk yogurt, herbal teas, coffee, local honey, fresh breads (e.g., sourdough), moderate amounts of wine, beans, legumes, potatoes, abundance of garden vegetables, liberal amounts of olive oil, wild-caught fish and small amounts of meat. Interestingly, a high percentage of Ikarians have their own garden and a strong foundation rooted in harvesting wild herbs such as marjoram, mint and rosemary. Again, I like the sound of this.
Lets review our elite marathon runner: the Kalenjin tribe of Kenya. This tribe produces the world’s best runners. No joke. There are always variables when it comes to this degree of excellence such as genetics, altitude training, technique, body type, socioeconomics, ability to endure a high degree of pain, and of course the diet.
This tribe honors a diet rich in sweet potatoes, cornmeal, ugali, starchy foods mixed with vegetables such as stews, goat, chicken, beef, fermented milk (think kefir), milk, tea and fruit. A 2004 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, found elite Kenyan runners were consuming roughly 10.4 grams of carbohydrate per kg of body weight and were typically training two times per day. This is a lot of carbohydrate. The other macros, fat and protein, were on the low side compared to what we are used to and there is a minimal amount of energy coming from added sugar or processed foods. Huh… this is interesting. Again, another culture that avoids and/or does not have access to unnecessary food-like products.
To stay on track, let’s talk about America for a bit. A few weeks ago, I visited Lexington, Virginia. I was able to walk through the historical farm of Cyrus McCormick – the birthplace of the mechanical REAPER. I know…you have no clue what this is. I didn’t either. It is safe to say this machinery changed agriculture forever as it took McCormick 28 years to develop this horse-drawn thing that harvested guess what… grain. Yep, everyone’s fear food these days.
Interestingly, this machinery won numerous awards and gained worldwide recognition between 1850 and 1860. A replica of the reaper, which I was able to see, literally changed the way America farmed as it ensured grain could get into the mouths of people all over the world in a much more efficient manner.
We all know what happens next… our way of eating drastically changed as the agriculture advancements continued. We started to rely more on convenience foods over the years with little appreciation or understanding of the hunt, gather, and catch.
We no longer had to eat what we had in our region… we could and can eat foods from all over the world. How it gets from there into your belly is a long, long story that requires government, politics, money and technology. To a degree, I believe our bodies haven’t quite adjusted. I have to wonder if our bodies are in a small degree of “shock” due to all of the rapid changes in how we source our food.
So, the struggle is real.
What do you really need to eat?!
This is difficult to answer because guess what… we don’t have to play Katniss Everdeen and hunt for squirrels to feed our body. Most of us don’t live in a food desert. Most of us don’t understand what it is like to go through genuine feast and famine year after year.
It comes down to making choices. It comes down to making wise choices that support the body, soul and mind. If I had to encourage you to eat a certain way without knowing a thing about you I would tell you the following:
1.) Quality matters, hands down. Strive to consume a diet founded on seasonally and regionally based foods that include both animal and plant sources.
2.) Honor making varied food choices versus getting hung up on supplements or super-foods. Variety is essential for getting the nutrients you need while ensuring pleasure notes are sparked in the brain.
3.) Take a strong stance against our diet culture that tells you that you can’t control yourself around a pint of ice cream or you should eliminate gluten from your diet. In order to honor this mindset, avoid using language like, “I will never eat ____ again.”
4.) Do your research before you decide to eat a certain way. The last thing you need is a nutritional deficiency that could have easily been prevented. I’ve seen this in far too many people that try vegetarianism.
5.) Understand food is good and necessary for life and your movement. Our food culture is screwed up, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fuel your body with necessary energy to go about your day and support your sport.
6.) Some of you shouldn’t try to be intuitive eaters unless you have followed a meal plan. Yep, perhaps you need a specific plan in order to get to a point of feeling what your body needs. Not sure if that is you, but using “I’ll only eat when I am hungry” as a mantra can result in pure ridiculousness.
7.) Last but not least…start with the basics. Are you getting at least 7 fruits and vegetables a day? Are you consuming protein at every main meal? Are you getting enough carbohydrate to optimally recover and support gut health? Is there enough fat in your diet to support vitamin absorption, brain fuel, insulin regulation and general satiety? Do you drink enough water in a day? Start answering these questions with positive action.
It is hard to conclude such a complicated matter, but sometimes it comes down to the foundational things. It is rarely the “sexy” thing that makes the difference.
I am hopeful this has given you a little food for thought that cultivates mindful and intentional eating behaviors moving forward. Oh, and if anyone asks you what you eat you can tell them it’s personal unless you are looking for a solid fight to pick, haha.
LIke what Lindsay has to say? Need a little help with your nutrition? Why not book a Nutrition Consult with Lindsay.