Eating Nature’s Diet

With another school year drawing to a close, getting back to a healthy diet was high on my priority list. I knew I had been slipping lately, making one too many trips through the drive-through as we raced from swim practice to soccer or T-ball. I told myself that if I just made it to summer break, I could finally ditch convenience and focus on eating whole, healthy foods again. Graduation couldn’t get here soon enough.

The day after cheering on the class of 2019, I laid out three simple rules for myself:

1. No processed carbs,

2. No processed meats, and

3. No dairy.

This is essentially a version of the anti-inflammatory diet. For years I had been wary of fully embracing the ketogenic diet, or any other plan that restricted carbohydrates indiscriminately. I love beans and rice and steel-cut oats too much for that. But even eating a “healthy” breakfast of “whole grain” toast was starting to take a toll on my waistline. I would be hungry again an hour or two later, triggering a cycle of snacking. So all bread was out, along with the crackers and pretzels that seemed better than cookies or potato chips, but honestly weren’t. I would continue to allow myself as much fruit as I wanted, despite their high sugar count. My rationale: if nature made it (and not scientists in a lab somewhere), it couldn’t be that bad.

For me, the decision to cut out processed meats came after reading the book Animal Factory by David Kirby. Factory farming is probably one of the worst ongoing disasters in America, the consequences affecting not only our health but also our environment and local communities. Accelerating dramatically in the 1990’s, small farms have been largely replaced by gigantic concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFO’s) which pollute our water with animal waste and often sicken local inhabitants. Millions of cows, chickens, and especially pigs are subjected to appallingly miserable living conditions and doused with antibiotics to reduce the inevitable infections that come with crowding so many animals together. The “product” is cheap, tasty (but only when mixed with salt, sugar, and chemical additives and/or deep fried), and hazardous to human health.

I have stopped eating pork altogether, taking a page out of Leviticus. But I will still consume organic chicken and beef, and have recently started eating more healthy fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, and sardines. And eggs are most definitely in.

When many Americans contemplate a life without processed carbs, the first thing they reach for is the cheese. Last night I broke my cheese fast with a delicious wedge of manchego to go with my lazy dinner of celery, hummus, pistachios, red wine, and dark chocolate. But I don’t plan to go back to topping every meal, from salad to eggs, with shredded cheddar. And I’ve decided I can live without milk and ice cream. My morning coffee now gets a splash of almond milk. The idea that a healthy diet must include dairy is a myth subsidized by the industry and propped up by dubious politics. Dairy is highly inflammatory, and should especially be cut out if one is prone to acne.

So, if dairy, processed carbs, and processed meats are out, what’s in? Fresh vegetables: cucumbers, celery (often with almond butter), beets, carrots, tomatoes, onions. Nuts, but not peanuts (which aren’t even real nuts). I’ve added walnuts and pecans to my fruit and oatmeal routine, which might occur at any time of day. Dark chocolate (85%) and the occasional glass of red wine let me indulge without triggering inflammation. Two recipes I’ve found highly delicious are red lentil curry with sweet potatoes and super-easy crockpot chicken with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.

I’ve noticed that when I’m not eating processed carbs or dairy, I’m not hungry as frequently. I also don’t eat directly upon rising, but rather wait a couple hours to break the fast. Historically, only field laborers ate directly upon rising. But the breakfast wars remain controversial.

I’ve only been on this eating plan for a week, and I already feel thinner, healthier, and more energetic. I’ve also experienced more gratitude at the range of choices available to me, when our ancestors were limited to only what was in season locally. I’m sure I’ll eventually add back in certain carbs like whole wheat bread and waffles, and I’ve already indulged in some cheese, but I hope I never eat a hotdog again. I hope I can sustain this healthy lifestyle through both the enjoyment of delicious foods and the fear of a host of ailments (cancer, mad cow, heart disease).

What could sabotage this plan? Perhaps the unholy triumvirate of temptation, convenience, and cost. But I’ve found that it’s easier to resist the first cupcake than the third, and some healthy foods can be convenient (I’m fond of telling my children that bananas come in their own wrappers). While buying organic costs more, you save money on fast food and the 80% of the grocery store that’s now off-limits.

Despite the invariable costs, the benefits of healthy eating are more than worth it. Improving your diet also improves your mood, energy, skin tone, immune system, digestion, and mental clarity. In America we eat a poor diet of “cheap” foods and spend millions on energy drinks, expensive skin care products, and pharmaceuticals. The personal benefits of healthy living are clear, but I wonder, how many of our social problems could be improved with improved diets?

As soon as my high school students walk through the door, they are handed prepackaged bags of sugary juice, sausage, pancakes, milk — everything from my three “no’s” of dairy, processed meats, and processed carbs. Despite everyone at my high school receiving free breakfast, free lunch, and (if they stay) a free afternoon snack, they are constantly eating and constantly starving. They also have a hard time concentrating, which I’m sure is exacerbated by the very foods we are feeding them. It’s sad to see high schoolers already struggling with obesity and poor health.

The problem with the well-intentioned initiative of Michelle Obama to improve school lunch is that the new “healthy” choices just aren’t that tasty. Fresh fruits and salads and grains taste good; iceberg salad that was sliced a week ago and sad, shriveled carrots do not. Would it be too much to ask that students be given a hot bowl of steel-cut oats, to which they could add fresh fruit and nuts, in the morning? Or scrambled eggs mixed with freshly sautéed spinach, tomatoes, onion, and garlic (a new favorite of mine)? If this seems unlikely, then we as a society have sacrificed too much at the altar of convenience and profit.

I thank you for indulging me if you’ve read this far; I know how obnoxious it can be to read someone rambling on about what they’re eating or not eating. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. This blog is not intended to cure, treat, or prevent disease. What works for me may not work for others. But now I’d like to make a more philosophical observation.

Basically, we disrespect nature at our own peril. Scientists are just now discovering things like the importance of the microbiome to mood and overall wellness. It seems the overuse of antibiotics has come at a steep price. Years ago, scientists thought they had found a “formula” that was just as good for a developing infant as mother’s milk. It turns out they were wrong. As Michael Pollan notes in In Defense of Food, mother’s milk contains substances that are indigestible to humans, but vital food for a certain microbe that populates an infant’s gut and prevents harmful microbes from causing disease. No formula will ever be as good as what nature provides.

In what other ways do we disrespect nature? Feeding animals to natural herbivores in CAFO’s, a common practice that may cause Alzheimer’s. Tricking the female body’s reproductive system into thinking it’s pregnant for years, when in fact it’s not. Spending our days indoors when we are designed by nature to need fresh air and sunlight. Living sedentary lifestyles, driving for hours to sit at desks for hours when we were designed to walk, run, crawl, jump, swim, and climb.

Science and religion are often presented as being at odds, but in the realm of nutrition the natural law tradition embraced by the Catholic Church gets us to the same destination as the evolutionary theory of Darwin: humans were designed/ evolved to eat and do certain things that we can’t change, even with all our science and technology.

In the Bible God says: “Behold, I have given you ever seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed; they will be yours for food (Genesis 1:29).” For most of human history, we were hunters and gatherers. Only recently did we adopt agriculture and only very recently did we adopt the combination of a sedentary lifestyle and highly processed, chemically altered diet. The results: skyrocketing rates of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and host of other ailments.

I am reminded of the following lines from Wordsworth, which seem an adequate closing to these musings:

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

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