A family tending to a victory garden during WWII. Read more here.
March was National Nutrition Month and nutrition is one of the foundations of good health because, as the age old adage states, we are what we eat! The problem with thinking of food as nutrition is that every time a new study showcases a new nutrient or part of our diet that’s “bad” for us, another whole food gets thrown out. Although some foods do need to be thrown out of the American diet, with all of the conflicting nutritional science out in the world right now, it is becoming exceedingly difficult to sort out what nutritional facts are true, what is just trendy, and which trends might actually, in fact, be true!
We see examples of these conflicting nutritional guidelines everywhere. From news articles, the latest diet trend books, to tv shows, and even doctors give conflicting advice. It’s no wonder Americans today have no idea what to eat to be healthy! Take for instance the Paleo diet. The Paleo Diet, created by Loren Cordain, is cited on the Paleo Foundation website as the most googled diet term in 2013 and 2014, according to the Google Zeitgeist Report. The diet is meant to mimic the way ancient, or paleolithic, humans ate before modern agriculture changed the way foods are prepared. It focuses on eating high protein, low carbohydrate foods, and encourages dieters to cut out many of the processed foods we eat today. Curiously, there is even a foundation to certify specific foods as “Paleo,” despite the fact that all processed foods would have been impossible for cavemen to make (the whole point of the diet is to eliminate foods that became possible due to modern agriculture). But, as with many other diets, the food industry has turned the health trend inside out in order to market more processed foods to consumers. You can now go to the grocery store and get a “paleo” protein bar that is made from a number of refined foods such as tapioca starch and “coconut flavor.” Neither sounds like an ingredient that an ancient human would have access to- let alone the facility needed to produce a snack bar. Although the basis of the paleo diet- to encourage people to seek out less processed foods- is positive, it also villainizes some wonderful foods that for many cultures are staples. These staples are whole foods and are not void of nutrition, such as legumes or potatoes, and are much, much, better than foods that have been chemically designed to imitate their natural counterparts. This idea of substituting processed foods for whole foods has long been a problem in modern American nutrition.
Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and professor of food studies and public health, explores the ways in which the low fat craze of the 1980’s actually made people in America fatter. In an interview with PBS, she explains the ways in which the food industry minimizes one enemy food group, fats, only to increase consumption of others, carbs and refined sugars. She says, “ the food industry would substitute vegetable fats for animal fats in such a profound way, and would also substitute sugars for fats, and keep the calorie content of the products exactly the same.” Thus, the low fat food was, and is, actually higher in carbohydrates and sugars than it was before. Even though people thought they were eating healthier since they were eating less fat, they were, in fact, eating the same amount of calories. Today, those very substitutes- carbs and refined sugars- are villainized and there are diets everywhere advocating high protein and fat.
In a new Netflix documentary, “Cooked”, Michael Pollan, a journalist and food writer, deconstructs the ways in which the food industry has dictated what we consider nutritious, and how we have a history of villainizing one group of foods and praising another. He advocates for a more transparent food supply chain and explores the ways in which this is possible through preserving food traditions. In a very interesting segment on the first episode, a food marketing guru urges people to eat whatever they want: apple pie, ice cream, brownies etc, if and only if, they make it themselves. He argues that if people lived by this rule they would eat a lot less. And they would eat a lot less processed foods. This proposal to make what you eat- not from a box, or a can, but to shop for and prepare these foods, forces us to come in contact not only with what we are buying, but it forces us to buy raw ingredients and participate in the transformational act of cooking and eating. Interestingly, this idea harkens back to pre- World War II America, when families cooked food from raw ingredients and often grew, or knew where the food they ate was grown. Pollan explains that during the war the food industry worked hard to develop foods that could be shipped to soldiers, required almost no preparation, and could be stored for long periods of time. These innovations changed not only the way soldiers ate, but went on to change the way that American civilians ate as well. Perhaps the most interesting part of these changes to our food system as a result of the war is that many senior citizens alive today lived through these transformations.
Although Pollan does not touch on this directly, we were struck by the fact that a person born in 1930, just nine years before WWII started, would be turning 86 this year. This means that many of our parents and grandparents started their lives eating very differently than we do today. Often, when we talk about nutrition we do not think about asking our seniors how and what they used to eat, even though this may be the soundest nutritional advice we stand to gain. This month, Nutrition Month, instead of reading about the latest diet trend or nutritional science, we encourage you to gather around with aging loved ones and talk about food and food traditions. Ask a senior you know to share memories about the foods they grew up with and what they remember about cooking with their loved ones. By sharing these conversations about food you can not only learn some tips about how to reconnect with your own food, but you can also help to strengthen community cross generationally.
Stay tuned into our blog for more details about nutrition and eating to learn about how our nutritional needs change as we age. In the meantime, check out these links below and read more about the Paleo Diet, Marion Nestle and the low fat craze of the 1980’s, and Michael Pollan’s call to eat more real foods:
Did the Low- Fat Era make us Fat? by Marion Nestle
Rules to Eat By by Michael Pollan