I’ve spent so many years of my life trying to figure out “how to live.” As in, how are human beings meant to live? It’s no secret that the way we exist nowadays is about a million miles away from the lifestyle of the original model, and so many of us have a pervading sense that something is, well, kinda off. It hits us when we take the time to read ingredient labels and wonder what the hell TBHQ is and what exactly it’s doing in our crackers. It hits us when we feel our palms sweating against the steering wheel in the midst of a long and nerve racking commute to and fro the job we’re not especially passionate about, anyway. It hits us when we regard the mushrooming muffin swelling o’er top of our jeans and wonder how the heck another diet has failed us- again.
For the brave pioneer, these experiences set your feet upon a path in search of answers. How we are living is not optimal- that much, we think, is certain. So the question is, how should we live? What is the optimal lifestyle for a human being, and how can we attain it?
You had to ask, didn’t you?
By now you’re months, maybe even years into your search for answers. Lucky for you, this is the age of the internet. Now that you’re unable to use the toilet without bringing your smartphone along for the ride, you’ve got a lifetime of health related facts, factoids, and total utter bullshit to sift through- all at your fingertips. Now, this is no doubt a good thing. Information is empowering and the more of it you have, the better choices you can make for yourself. But it does have it’s downsides…
Remember how the “news” used to be that show that aired around dinnertime on one of the major networks? The events of the day were pre-digested by the powers that be and spit out onto our plates by a handsome, trustworthy anchorman. And we believed him! Why wouldn’t we? What else was there to think? Things were so easy back then. Now we have cable news networks that all hate each other, online newspapers, blogs, Twitter…it can be overwhelming, and hard to know what’s true and what’s false.
In much the same way, we’ve traded our implicit faith in USDA nutrition guidelines and the advice of medical doctors for an online chorus of voices belonging to people we’ve never met, some without any training whatsoever. And this is where things can get tricky. In my Facebook newsfeed alone I am bombarded with health advice from all angles. One self-assured gal implores me to eat a vegan diet, heavy on greens, seeds and soy cheese. Another insists we are born to eat fruit, fruit and more fruit…look at us for pete’s sake, we’re primates! We should likely be swinging from tree to tree to procure said fruits! Yet another amateur guru is certain we should be burning 1,000 calories at a time during regular cardio sessions at the gym while subsisting on miniscule portions of primal-style fare. Then there are those who are sure I’m destroying the planet and offending my northern European genes by indulging in coconuts and avocados all the way up here in the northeastern United States. And I can’t forget to give a shout out to all my homies eating a pound of butter fat per day, just like the good dentist of yore, Weston A. Price, suggested (not).
Ok, so there are different diets to choose from. No matter, maybe you can just pick one and see how it works for you. So let’s see, let’s read up on veganism. Says here that meat and dairy is clogging my colon, ruining my heart and making me fat. Says I ought to eat a lot of green leaves like spinach and fake meat made out of processed soy instead. Okie dokie, can do. But say, that reminds me, didn’t Weston A. Price discover that tribal folks in Africa who get the majority of their calories from dairy fat had virtually zero incidence of heart disease? And really great teeth to boot? And I just read that spinach is so high in kidney stone and autism causing oxalates that it should really never be eaten. Wow! Thanks for nearly killing me, Popeye!
Ok, let’s look at something else then. Let’s try Paleo. So the idea is that though we may be living in a condo a stones throw away from a Winn-Dixie, our digestive tracts are still back in the cave. Looks like dinner tonight is going to be raw venison, a handful of bitter greens and a pint of warm blood to wash it all down. Then in the morning, Wilma and Betty can brew up fresh coffee with half a jar of coconut oil melted in it, just like our ancestors used to drink! Though, coffee and oil hardly seems like a suitable replacement for the time-honored most important meal of the day. But it says here that my usual toast or bowl of cereal is not only going to wreck my diet, but is going to kill me as well. And a mug full of caffeine and saturated fat will not. Who knew?
Funny thing, that reminds me of the Pritikin Diet. Remember it? It’s old school, but it was pretty much all grains, all the time. And many followers successfully reversed their diabetes, obesity, etc…all by eating today’s much maligned whole grains. That could be why your grandfather looks at you like you’ve lost it when you give him one of your well-meaning anti-carb lectures while he’s trying to enjoy his bowl of oatmeal, thank you very much.
And here we come to an impasse, friends. Not only are there endless diets, or excuse me, “lifestyle changes” to choose from, but each camp is staunchly opposed to the other and dead certain that adherence to the principles put forth by a competing dogma will surely doom you to hell for all eternity. Oh wait, I think I accidentally started talking about religion. What I meant to say was, proponents of each dietary creed are all very sure that eating in a way other than what they prescribe will damn you to an existence riddled with cancer, acne, heart disease and in general, not a whole lot worth living for. And the enlightened ones will look pitifully on the poor wretches who haven’t yet understood the truth, and evangelize through blogs, books and television shows. Hmm. I guess I’m talking about religion after all.
You’ll meet fellow seekers along the way. You’ll recognize them by their inability to eat anything without first scanning the ingredient label and consulting with 8 different gurus online. You’ll meet people who swear that a diet that saved one person’s life almost ended theirs. The most obvious sign that a person is on the path to dietary truth is signaled by their ping-ponging between absolute certainty and bewildered confusion. They thought juicing was the best thing ever (and made sure everyone else knew it, too) until they understood that the body needs more than water and a few scant micronutrients to live. They thought gluten was the worst thing ever until they gave in, had a pastry and felt great. They arrive at every holiday meal with a new restriction, as their disdainful glance shifts from the turkey to the potatoes, then back to the turkey again as the years go by. You’ll see them plead in the comment section of popular blogs “But I thought you said sugar was bad!” or “You said if I fermented the cabbage all the thyroid inhibitors would be neutralized!!!” or “I used to respect you but now that you’re promoting THAT, I feel far superior to you and will never take your advice again!”
Guys. This is crazy.
Leafy greens have some bad stuff in them, but they have good stuff in them as well. Don’t avoid them. Don’t over eat them. Eat however much you feel like. Don’t overthink it.
Dairy tastes good. If it doesn’t give you an upset stomach, go for it. It’s full of powerful nutrients. Heck, even my cats and chickens love cow’s milk and I bet their genes have no clue what in hell it is. And if it does give you a stomach ache, don’t eat it. No matter what some tribe in Kenya eats.
Grains are relatively new to the dinner plate in terms of human history, this is true. But it doesn’t mean we can’t digest them. Our bodies are more intelligent than we give them credit. Besides, look at all the long-lived rice eaters in Japan and the baguette eaters in France. Or even the pasta eaters in a village down the road from me, Rosetto Pennsylvania…
The “Rosetto Effect” was a study done over the course of fifty years that compared the rate of heart disease between the people living in the homogenously Italian-American village of Rosetto PA and the neighboring village of Bangor. These villages lie in the Slate Belt region of eastern PA, and all of the men in these communities did back-breaking work in the slate pits for a living. In Rosetto, most households contained three generations and every week the meals were the same. Spaghetti and sauce on Mondays, roast chicken and vegetables on Tuesdays, veal and peppers on Wednesday, and on and on into perpetuity. Well, almost into perpetuity. More so into the mid 1960’s. In spite of eating all these rich foods and many folks being “overweight,” the incidence of heart disease in Rosetto was almost non-existent. “Olive oil” you might be saying knowingly. Nope! Since olive oil wasn’t an easy find here in Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, almost all cooking was instead done with pork fat. Despite working hard and eating a high fat, high carb diet, the people of Rosetto enjoyed far better protection against heart disease than their counterparts in neighboring Bangor. That is, until the mid 60’s, when modernization came to Rosetto. Young folks grew tired of village life and packed up and left for the ‘burbs. Families were split up, the old routines and familiarity were traded in for new opportunities and conveniences. It didn’t take too many years of that for the rate of heart disease in Rosetto to climb to and match that of folks in Bangor.
Maybe what we’re doing then, in our search for the right diet and lifestyle subconsciously has less to do with choosing the perfect foods and more to do with trying to find a place where we fit and a routine we can count on. The conclusion of the Rosetto study was that the familiarity, routines, certainty and sameness of daily life that those villagers experienced was the most likely reason why they remained so healthy. It was their sense of belonging that gave them meaning and calm- not veal fried in bacon grease. Humans are always looking for certainty. We want solid ground to stand on and the assurance that we are going to be looked after. When we find an internet guru with all the answers or a compelling diet program boasting convincing results as well as a supportive community of fellow followers, it’s easy to see how those things can be seductive and comforting. It’s equally understandable then, how deep the disappointment and resentment can be when those diets fail us, or the people we look up to don’t turn out to really know it all. It pulls the rug out from under us.
The age we currently live in is quite a bit different than Rosetto in the 1950’s. And it’s a hell of a lot different than the cave in 30,000 B.C. I believe the key is adaptability. When people look backwards in time for the answers to today’s troubles, I believe they are missing the point. History is not over. Through the ages we adapted from eating one diet to the next, always taking advantage of what was around us and seeing what worked.The strength of human beings is that we are opportunists. We figured out how to eat grains and boy howdy did we fill up the store house and live easily through the winter, finally. We figured out how to milk a goat and good thing because without chevre, beets aren’t much fun to eat. We’ve done all sorts of things to change life as we once knew it- from learning how to wash our hands to flipping on a light bulb. These are certainly different times than the ones our predecessors lived through, that’s for sure. And that’s not a bad thing.
After many years turning my nose up to the so-called perils of modern life, I’ve decided that there is no way we are “supposed to live.” There are only ways in which we can live, and true progress means keeping the good ideas from the past, discarding the outdated and unnecessary aspects that will not survive in our current landscape, not getting hung up on the details and bravely pushing forward. We can’t go back to the cave anymore than we can go back to living in Rosetto PA in the 1950’s…and really, would we want to? I don’t know about you, but I like the Internet. I like knowing what’s going on in the world, not just what CBS evening news feels necessary to report on. And I like that I live in a village about 15 miles north of Rosetto and that I can order Thai take-out whenever I damn well please. Let’s take advantage of the fact that more resources are available to us now than at any other point in history and live wisely. Let’s realize that there is no “perfect” way to live, disease can befall any of us and the way we feel is at least as important as the way we eat. Let’s listen to the voices of others but take it all with a grain of salt and trust our own intuition above all. Let’s adapt with grace.
Though, fear of TBHQ might not be ill placed.