The Skinny on Food

By | November 14, 2012

For much of my adult life, I have been obsessed with food—not food per se, but rather the beliefs, preferences, and obsessions that govern what we eat.  My exploration has helped me see through them and make some sense of my relationship with food.  Following is what I’ve found: food simplified.

There are only three ways to prepare food:  raw, cooked, and fermented. All other methods are variations thereof. From a nutritional perspective, the most-preferred methods are in the order listed. Exceptions to eating foods raw are those that that are too tough to chew and can be softened by cooking, such as cartilage and bones, fish skins, and vegetable matter. Cooking can render some roots, stems, and leaves edible by breaking down their cell walls.  Fermented foods are the least desirable for human consumption, as they are such a recent occurrence in our evolutionary that we have not adapted to them. Some of the acids and other byproducts of fermentation are metabolic stress factors.

From a metabolic perspective, there are only four types of foods: sugars, proteins, fats and greens.  Humans have evolved consuming all four of them, however in quite different proportions than Westerners currently consume them.  Sugars, which include starches, are the cornerstone of our contemporary diet. Yet they played a very minor role in our evolutionary past, and in the diets of both contemporary and historical hunter-gatherers.  Fat was their main source of energy, with protein playing a secondary role.  Excessive sugar consumption (starch is quickly converted to sugar in the digestive process) over a period of time usually leads to any of a host of metabolic dysfunctions, which includes obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease.

Fruit, often consumed only seasonally by hunter-gatherers, is an expendable part of our diet.  Our sweet tooth evolved to help assure that we got an adequate supply of Vitamin C and bioflavonoids, which we need on a regular basis but can manufacture or store only to a very limited degree.   Greens can meet our Vitamin C requirement during the off-fruit season.

Fat, our traditional primary energy and fat-soluble vitamin source, came from fish, water mammals, browsers, and insects in pre-agricultural times.  The fat from those sources is low in saturated fat and high in omega fatty acids—the opposite of the typical fats we consume today, which are sourced primarily from vegetables and grain-fed animals.

For the vitamins and minerals greens provide, they are an essential part of most diets. In addition, they provide the fiber necessary for proper elimination. Meats and fats provide very little fiber.

No food type alone will sustain a human in a healthy state for an extended period of time.  However, some peoples have subsisted mostly on animal matter, and almost entirely an animal matter for periods of time. Notice that I said “animal matter” and not meat/muscle tissue.  If we had to live on animals, we would need to discard the meat and eat everything else: skin, organs (including eyes, ears, and glands), connective tissue, and brain. We would then have the variety of nutrients necessary for sustaining life, along with adequate protein and fat.  Eating the meat alone could eventually kill us, not only for lack of nutrients, but because of the depletion of nutrients and the retention of uric acid and other toxins from protein metabolization.

We evolved as omnivores, and all of the historical and contemporary hunter gatherers I have studied follow omnivorous diets.  True vegetarians (most supplement their diets with animal-sourced products) suffer health consequences over time unless they are judicious in providing themselves with the essential nutrients their diets intrinsically lack.

That’s it—the skinny on food as I know it.  Of course there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dietary practices based on beliefs and pseudoscience that run contrary to some of what I have presented here.  That does not surprise me, as our relationship with food has become so disconnected from our core reason for eating: hunger, and our core reason for what we eat: foods that are seasonally available.


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