Battling a cold virus recently, and suffering defeat, brought me to wonder–can the way we choose to feed ourselves really help to keep us healthy? For myself, when I feel the very first ticklings of a cold coming on I can sometimes fend it off by eating dishes heavily laced with garlic and ginger. Even just slurping up good old chicken soup can help. Sometimes. Maybe.
My regular diet is fairly omnivorous and marked by ongoing attempts to get as many vegetables into it as I can. (I’m glad I like them!). But is there really an optimal diet for human beings? Leaving aside issues around unequal distribution of wealth and resources, industrial versus sustainable farming (which my fellow blogger Rebekah has written about quite admirably here), and the possible moral issues posed by the consumption of animals and their products, is there one correct way to eat in order to maintain health? As with so many things, there’s more than one opinion about this question and plenty of advocates for any stance that you can imagine. Let’s investigate some of these through resources available at DCPL. Be aware that some of these titles refer to weight loss, but I suspect that this marketing slant may come more from the publishers than the authors. The primary emphasis in these books seems to be the restoration, and maintenance, of optimal health through a “correct” diet.
First up is the Traditional Foods diet. This school of thought advocates a return to the diet of our ancestors and incorporates pasture-raised meats, wild fish, and organic fruits and vegetables along with whole grains. The idea is to eliminate from our diet all overly processed food and, basically, anything that–as Michael Pollan would say–our grandparents (or great grandparents!) wouldn’t recognize as food. A typical meal of Traditional Foods will probably look a lot like your childhood Sunday dinner–that is, if you grew up as I did with a mother and grandmothers who cooked from scratch. Where the advocates of Traditional Foods may lose some people is with their emphasis on organ meats. That can be a hard sell if you didn’t grow up consuming them–as we don’t much in this country. An even more controversial aspect of Traditional Foods is its advocacy of raw milk consumption. The Food and Drug Administration warns that raw milk can pose serious health risks and retail availability of raw (i.e., unpasteurized) milk for human consumption is strictly controlled in most states with many banning it altogether. Raw milk’s defenders argue that processed milk lacks key nutrients and helpful bacteria that keep people healthy. In any case, the debate rages on. If you want to find out more about the Traditional Foods diet, you would do well to start with Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. This book is encyclopedic in scope and depth and includes not only many recipes, but also a vast amount of background information to help get you oriented. For an updated approach to the topic, check out Jennifer McGruther’s The Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle. The author lives in the mountains of Colorado and her specific approach and choice of local ingredients will vary from what is available here and in other parts of the world. Regardless, the book is very informative and is packed with stunning photographs.
A subject of recent debate is the Paleo diet, which seems to have as many passionate detractors as defenders. The Plaeo diet takes the idea of eating only what our ancestors ate even further back than the Traditional Foods diet does. Basically, if an ancient hunter-gather didn’t eat it, then you shouldn’t either. The diet guidelines call for meat, fish, non-starchy vegetables, berries, nuts, and seeds. A strict interpretation of the diet eliminates all grains, potatoes, and dairy products. The lack of processed food in the diet seems more than laudable, but the sometimes staggering quantities of animal protein might give some (including myself) pause. If you think the Paleo diet might be for you, pick up Your Personal Paleo Code: The 3-Step Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Stay Fit and Healthy for Life by Chris Kresser. Kresser’s approach is a bit less strict than some and his guidelines allow you to tailor your diet to include some grains and dairy. For a somewhat stricter interpretation of the Paleo approach, try The Primal Blueprint Cookbook by Mark Sisson with Jennifer Meier.
The central tenet of the Raw Foods diet is that any food cooked at 115 degrees or above has lost much of its nutritional value and may actually be harmful to consume. Advocates for this way of eating recommend raw, or minimally processed, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Some variations of the diet can include eggs, dairy products, fish, meat and some fermented foods like sauerkraut or kefir. The diet sounds great for those of us who adore fruit and vegetables. Less entrancing, at least to me, is the idea of consuming raw animal protein. I consider myself a relatively adventurous eater, but I have never summoned the courage to order steak tartare and I find the prospect of consuming sashimi without its usual pillow of rice more than a little daunting. Still (and keeping in mind that most raw foodists do include a small percentage of cooked food in their diets) boosting our intake of vegetables and fruit is probably a good idea for most of us. If you’d like to try this approach, check out Brad’s Raw Made Easy: The Fast, Delicious Way to Lose Weight, Optimize Health, and Live Mostly in the Raw by Brad Gruno for an in-depth look at the thinking behind the diet and tips on using it successfully. Also popular with the Raw Food crowd are the books of Ani Phyo. Wellness coach and host of the popular YouTube show “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen Show,” Phyo presents her take on the Raw Foods lifestyle in Ani’s Raw Food Essentials: Recipes and Techniques for Mastering the Art of Live Foods.
How do you eat for health? What are your thoughts about an optimal diet?