How to eat was mankind's major concern for millennia. And over those millennia, we developed certain techniques to make this process easier. We bred domestic animals so that we had ready supplies of milk, eggs, and meat. We planted grains, squashes, and beans and bred them so that they'd be easy to harvest and prepare. We milled, sifted, and cultured grains to make them easier to digest. We learned about plants that could cure ills and others that could cause them if not prepared properly. It took a long time, but our knowledge of how to eat kept getting richer and richer. This knowledge was interrupted, of course, by fads and superstitions. But the core principles, evolved over untold generations, remained.
But since the Industrial Revolution, we are eating in ways that were never possible before. We can spend weeks, even years, without being seriously hungry. Only some of our food is perishable. We eat a multiple of fats, starches, sugars, and other compounds that didn't even exist until recently. We eat foods packaged in plastic. We eat frozen food in the summertime and fresh fruit in the dead of winter.
We live in a world of plenty--indeed, of overabundance. And because of this, we have forgotten how to eat. We live longer, due to advances in medicine and safety, but we are overweight, overstressed, and preoccupied by a myriad of things that have nothing to do with what was once our major concern. We have forgotten how to mill and soak grains, pickle vegetables, smoke meat, preserve fruits, and all the other processes we developed over centuries to make our foods less perishable and more nutritious. We have forgotten how to live with hunger and how to subsist on a limited diet, skills that are no longer strictly necessary but are almost undoubtedly beneficial to our health. We have forgotten the joys (and stresses) of raising, harvesting, and cooking our own food--and of going to the market to buy what our neighbors have raised, harvested, and cooked, talking to them about it all the while.
But most of all, we have forgotten the principle of irregularity. Nature designed us as irregular eaters. We have had to cope with irregular seasons, bad weather, bad harvests, drought, famine. Times of plenty alternated with times of need. There were times when no meat was available and others when all one ate was meat, and the same could be said of almost any other food group. (Our exercise was irregular too--nobody ever ran three miles a day at a steady pace before our time.) And our bodies were designed not only to withstand this irregularity--like other animals, we were given the ability to convert excess fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into whatever our cells needed--but to thrive on it.
How, then, can we relearn what we have forgotten over the past hundred-and-fifty years? How can we relearn to eat the way nature intended us to?
This is not a simple task, and I won't pretend that I have mastered it. But here are a few things you can do.
- Eat irregularly. Don't eat the same thing all the time. Vary your meals. Keep your body off-balance and your taste buds interested. (At the same time, don't indulge in exoticism. Eat close to home.)
- Feast. And don't snack. Eat large communal meals most of the time. Savor your food.
- Go hungry sometimes: fast intermittently and irregularly. You'll be amazed at the energy change.
- Exercise irregularly. If exercising is boring, change the way you exercise. And whether you run, swim, bicycle, or lift weights, don't do it at a steady pace. Go as fast as you can sometimes and leisurely other times.
- Try growing and raising some of your own food.
- Go to the farmer's market as often as possible and talk to the farmers about the things you buy there.
- Eat responsibly. Avoid factory-farmed meats, eggs, and dairy. Eat seafood only if it's sustainably grown or wild caught and not in danger of overfishing. Buy locally grown produce and avoid pesticides.
- The grains and legumes we eat were introduced to the world relatively recently. It's better if you soak or sprout them before cooking to break down indigestible and even harmful compounds and maximize their nutritional benefits. But don't get too hung up on this stuff--a slice or two of angel food cake won't do you any permanent harm.
- Eat fruits and vegetables seasonally, according to what's available; pickle or dry in times of plenty.
- Eat refined starches and sugars in moderation. Our contemporary diet features far more of these than any traditional diet ever has.
- Ignore myths about cholesterol, saturated fats, and other totally natural foods that are supposed to be bad for you. Human beings are tremendously resilient. You can live a perfectly healthy life eating plenty of saturated fats, like the people of the Caucasus mountains, or next to none at all, like the Japanese. On the other hand, it might be wise to avoid non-traditional fats, including the denatured vegetable fats that people use for deep frying.
- If you eat dairy, raw milk from a clean and reputable source is a good thing. In addition, cultured dairy products are generally healthy and tasty.
- Try to avoid foods that nobody who lived 200 years ago would recognize. Foods less than 200 years old (soy milk, baking soda, white rice) are less nutritious than their traditional counterparts (real milk, yeast cultures, brown rice). Substitute perishable food for non-perishable food.
- Study traditional diets and methods of food preparation and see what you can learn from centuries of accumulated wisdom.
- The more ancient a food, the better. Nuts and berries, wild game, and some tubers and fruits have remained unaffected by civilization. Try to fit these into your diet on occasion.
- Eat probiotically. Foods rich in bacterial cultures--sourdough, vegetables pickled without vinegar, undistilled vinegar, raw milk, yogurts, cheeses, bacterially cured meats--can be hard to find or strange to make, but are worth the effort.
- Remember that most Europeans in the middle ages drank wine and avoided water. Wine, beer, and other mildly alcoholic beverages are probably good for you.
- Many mild illnesses have herbal or food-based cures. Learn them. For example, take a couple teaspoons of anise seed to combat indigestion.
- Make exceptions to every rule.
This post has been influenced by the following books. Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is a fascinating investigation of the way we eat. Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions is terrific for detailing traditional methods of making nutritious food, but it is full of needlessly alarming warnings against perfectly harmless stuff, her recipes can be a bit more complex than necessary, and her advocacy of animal fat is a bit extreme. Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint advocates a return to pre-civilized habits of eating and exercise in a rather knowledgeable and fun way, but doesn't acknowledge the fact that we have indeed evolved in the last 10,000 years. Reay Tannahill's Food in History is a fantastic way to begin to learn the history of food.