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If we are what we eat, then healthy eating makes for healthy people. We should watch our weight since weight seems to point to many long-term health problems. And if some of us have special dietary needs or cultural imperatives, we surely ought to take those into account, right? How should we eat when science changes its mind every week?
Basic background facts
Humans are omnivores. We have a variety of teeth styles, some for grinding, some for tearing meat, and some for biting into vegetation. We are set up to digest a wide variety of foods, unlike our dog and especially cat friends.
Now, some people have genetic makeups that narrow the human diet somewhat. Europeans in general digest dairy products and alcohol better than Asian people in general do. Some Mediterranean people can’t digest gluten; they really struggle when fed it. But as a species, we do pretty well eating a huge variety of foods. And we’re most of us not delicate little flowers.
Humans are tribal creatures, and they set themselves apart from other tribes in their language, their dress, their lifestyles and food. Think about the ethnic foods you enjoy–Chinese, Mexican, Italian, or Indian food. Each one is prepared differently using what the people involved had locally, and addressed particular needs. All the hot pepper dishes from hot countries, for example, help people keep cool!
In addition, people have economic and geographical constraints on what they can eat. If you live where there is plenty of salmon and people fish for it, you can get salmon to eat at a more reasonable price than if you are on the other side of the continent.
Peasants in medieval Europe generally ate very little meat because they were not allowed to hunt and couldn’t afford to keep a lot of livestock. The nobles hunted and ate a lot fewer vegetables and grains than the peasants did. Guess who had better colon health? Nowadays people who eat from the food pantry in town eat more packaged and canned foods than their wealthy neighbors, and less meat, because that’s what you get: cheaply donated, long-lasting food.
So, we have some customs and cultural ideas that somewhat restrict our eating, before we get to some of the myths of today. In looking at myths, we will discover the secrets of healthy eating.
This is for general use only. and is not meant as medical advice. If you need to eat differently due to a medical condition, please get referred to a dietician.
Everyone’s heard that low-fructose corn syrup is evil, right? But agave and honey are wholesome, while sugar is bad for you. And sweeteners give you cancer (should you be a lab rat).
OK, sugar does rot your teeth and we should ideally keep our intake of ADDED sugars down to 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 for men. But honey, agave, maple, cane and beet sugars all break down to glucose, which powers your nervous system. So do carbohydrates. The problem is not that the sweetener in your jelly is high fructose corn syrup. The problem is globbing a ton of it on your morning toast. Have enough to taste it but don’t fill your mouth with it.
Gluten and starches
Gluten is a protein in many grains and a problem to a tiny percentage of Americans with the genetics that leave them unprepared to digest it. There are many more people who guess that gluten is a problem for them, maybe because they saw it on Dr. Oz.
If you really don’t have a verified medical condition from gluten, relax and enjoy. Eating grains is good for you. They give you essential vitamins and carbs of course, and they are a great source of fiber. The rough fiber carries waste through your system faster, so it’s good for the colon. The soluble fiber, which makes oatmeal so gooey, helps carry off fats you don’t need. Grains are very healthy human food.
If grains are good, then pasta can’t be too bad for you either. What makes pasta dangerous is the stuff we put in with it, and portion sizes. Yes, a giant plate full of pasta with alfredo sauce has enough calories for a week, and we won’t even talk about the fat. Check out cookbooks for ways to add olive oil, vegetables and cooked chicken or shrimp to pasta for a healthy dinner.
Remember, you need complex carbohydrates to help power your nervous system since you won’t be eating a lot of sugars. Grains, pasta and such are good for you. Especially consider the whole-grain varieties that give you the extra fiber and nutrients. After all, it makes no sense to strip out all the nutrients and fiber from flour, only to add vitamins back in after the fact to make white bread.
Back over 40 years ago my grandfather was in a longitudinal study of men with heart conditions. The researchers told him to cut out butter and use this one brand of margarine so he did. He lived to a ripe old age and didn’t die of heart disease.
Now we are told that margarine is full of trans fats, which are the most evil fats there are. What’s more, trans fats are in a whole load of prepared foods and storebought cookies. We’re all going to die!
Maybe not. There are all sorts of studies about why we should and shouldn’t eat these or those fats. They’ve been back and forth on eggs’ lethality for years now and the same people eat eggs daily and keep showing up every day for life.
Diversity is probably the best thing you can do. Try not to load up on greasy stuff, do your eggs in moderation, and include nuts for snacks and olive or canola oil for cooking. Ease up on the fatty cuts of meat, and try to include some fish once in a while.
Fruits and veggies
Some people cut out fruits because of their sugar content. It is true that fruits have fructose in them, but they also have plenty of nutrients and fiber to go along with the sugar. Enjoy fruits as snacks or dessert; they help fill you up.
Vegetables also come loaded with vitamins, minerals and other building blocks for health. Some have proteins; others have carbs in them. Don’t completely ditch the humble potato for carbs, for example. Just ease back on the big dollops of butter and sour cream and you’ll be good to go.
A word about beverages
There’s something about beverages that makes us not want to count them as part of our diet. They apparently have no calories, are healthier than eaten food, and you can have unlimited helpings all day.
Wrong. Unless it’s water.
Juices are nice, but they don’t have the fiber of the fruit. They may have some of the 6-9 added spoons of sugar you get per day. Juice cocktails might as well be soda for sugar. And their calories do count. You’re better off eating the fruit itself.
I mentioned sodas in passing. If sodas don’t have calories, they usually have a lot of sodium. Either way they can make you gain weight. When we were kids they were an occasional treat. That is still appropriate if you enjoy that sort of thing.
Science rears its ugly head again and tells us that alcoholic beverages are made from fermented carbohydrates and still have calories. These drinks are the Cheetos of the beverage department. If you imbibe, remember the calories.
Summing up. healthy eating involves diversifying among the familiar food groups so we omnivores get our nutrients from a spectrum of sources. We tend to be better off not cutting a class of food out totally, but exercising moderation in what we do choose to eat.
Eating shouldn’t be difficult. We have access to a lot of good things to eat, and ways to prepare them. We ought to be able to try new things and enjoy this necessary part of life.
What is your favorite food? How often do you get to have it?