I grew up thinking the food pyramid was right. I started wondering if it could be right sometime in high school. Do we really need that much bread? Does the “Nutrition Facts” label say it all? Since then, my thinking has been influenced by the following books and sources. A common theme among them is support of “real food” in some way — unprocessed ingredients that weren’t developed in a lab. I’ve organized them into groups based on the foods they advocate and those they restrict.
All Real Foods
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan — A celebrity author on the subject of modern food, Pollan makes the argument that our industrial agricultural system produces a lot of garbage, particularly in the form of petroleum-grown corn processed into bulk components (high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, cornstarch, etc.). He shows how this method reduces nutritional quality of the produce, damages the environmental health of the region, and produces other problems. He shows how most organic food is not that different from conventional food, and then contrasts this with the “beyond organic” approach of farmer Joel Salatin and others who produce less conventionally. The third section of Pollan’s book describes his highly unsustainable attempt to forage his own meal, leading us to conclude that perhaps we shouldn’t try to be hunter-gatherers again (in case you were considering it!)
Real Food by Nina Planck — Planck is a very successful advocate of local, high-quality, whole, “real” food. By this she means meat, whole raw dairy, lots of fresh vegetables, abundant natural fats (fish oil, olive oil, coconut, pastured butter and lard especially) and whole grains (in moderation). She’s organized quite a few farmer’s markets and generally wants people to understand that healthy food comes straight from the source of the food, not processed into fifty ingredients and then put into a protein bar.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver — A fiction author best known for her book The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver essentially took her family back to the farm and lived a year on local food. They either grew their food or bought it close by, with a few key exceptions. They succeeded and demonstrated the beauty, fun, health, and hard work of such a lifestyle. However, this book does not at all prove the idea that this life is possible for everyone. The main problem for most aspiring “gentleman farmers” is that they don’t already have land or a nice ongoing income from another career. I’m not saying it’s a bad lifestyle because everyone can’t do it; however, it was a bit too ideal of a situation to be widely relevant.
The Weston A. Price Foundation, primarily through their website — This organization is a major source of inspiration for “real food” advocates today (like Nina Planck). Along with promoting fresh, pastured, beyond-organic ingredients, they also advocate the belief that traditional methods of preparing food make them more nutritious and digestible, and that in forgetting these traditions, we make ourselves sick. These methods especially include sprouted grains and legumes (reducing some of the “anti-nutrients” specified in the paleo diet and boosting nutrient content overall), raw dairy (not pasteurized, which preserves important enzymes such as lactase and other important components that don’t show up on a nutrition label), bone broth (boiled bones as a soup base) and fermented foods (for increased digestibility and probiotic benefit). I think supporters of these techniques are on to something; however, I also consider them the most countercultural. The food preparations they advocate are the most time-consuming and can hold the highest risk of food contamination if not done correctly. In our mass-produced, fast-paced food era, I am not sure we will ever get back to these home-spun ways as a society.
101 Cookbooks by Heidi Swanson — a prolific vegetarian cook who shows how much amazing food you can make in a plant-based diet. She uses an amazing variety of ingredients, combines them terrifically, and photographs them beautifully. She does all of this without seeming overly sentimental or egotistical about it (a very important trait, in my opinion!). Her work definitely inspired my own cooking from the beginning.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer — Mostly known as a fiction author, Foer is a strong advocate of vegetarianism. He has struggled not to eat meat for long stretches of his life, but believes it is morally wrong to eat animals. He considers it needless killing because to him, we eat meat for no other reason than that we prefer its taste to other alternatives. His book is shocking and it was so painful for me to read that I didn’t finish it. He describes in gory detail the realities of factory farming, shrimp trawling and other awful meat production practices. He does not emphasize that alternative methods exist, but he makes a valid point that these practices are intolerable.
Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin — If you want to hear someone’s strong opinions, this book is for you. Salatin is passionate about farming “beyond organic,” which means doing everything possible to create the perfect conditions for beef, chicken, pork and other creatures to live in symbiosis with each other and with the overall ecology of his land. His main focus is improving the soil and the grasses, which nourishes his cows, and they return the favor through their manure. Chickens feast on worms from the manure, pigs happily root through it when it’s time to turn the compost from winter, along with a lot of other healthy biodynamic interactions, and Salatin is thus enabled to produce abundant pastured meat and eggs in an idyllic Eden. He argues that this method of farming is better for the environment than any other method; it replenishes the soil, promotes biodiversity, and allows living things to live as they were meant to live. It sounds too good to be true, but from what I can tell he isn’t lying. I haven’t visited the farm in Virginia, but lots of people do. Salatin also rants about how our society is overly disconnected from nature, decadent, wasteful and lazy. For the most part I simultaneously agree with him and find him annoying because he seems to know better than everybody else without help from anybody else. If you read this book, expect a lot of information about raising animals ALONG WITH opinions about how to raise your children.
Digestive Health with Real Food by Aglaée Jacob — This book is specifically for those who suffer from IBS/IBD, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other digestive problems. Jacob is heavily influenced by both “real food” and paleo advocates, and even though her website looks a little kooky, her book is very well-written and gives wonderful detail that I haven’t found elsewhere. I relate to her background on the subject as well: she was trained as a nutritionist in conventional medicine, but through years in practice she didn’t see results from her patients through her standard advice. She’s turned to a paleo approach for most people, and a more specific and restrictive diet for those who have a digestive disease, and has seen much better results. I am currently following her recommendations to find out if it works for me. People like me don’t have a lot to lose from following a strict (but still healthy and sufficiently varied) diet if there’s a chance it will actually solve our problems.
A TED Talk by Allan Savory — Savory’s lifelong work has been to improve the ecology of grassland and reduce desertification. Desertification is possibly a huge contributor to climate change, and climate change can contribute to further desertification — a vicious cycle. Early in his career, he believed this required the reduction of grazing animals, and he directed the widespread killing of elephants in Southern Africa to improve ecological health. He now regrets this more than anything else he’s ever done. His research has shown that moderate grazing drastically improves plant life in many ecosystems, and mankind can play a role in optimizing that effect. In essence, we can herd animals, eat them, and benefit the environment at large. (Meanwhile, growing grain and vegetables is more costly than some advocates of vegetarianism say!) Together with Joel Salatin’s work (and dependence on the principle of managed grazing), this provides the best argument I’ve seen for environmentally sound dependence on meat as a central part of our diet. It suggests that humans do have a place in the ecosystem, after all.
The Paleo Diet as taught by my coach in Crossfit Fundamentals — This diet teaches that grains, legumes and dairy have a detrimental effect on many our health. They aren’t downright dangerous, but they contribute to common health problems over the long term and limit our ability to function ideally. They point to excessive carbohydrates, phytates, lectins, lactose and gluten as the most critical sources of damage to the digestive system through these groups of foods. I continue to do research on these claims and will report my findings. The primary two critiques of the Paleo diet have to do with its anthropological claims (and I agree, these are fishy), and that there is no standard scientific backing to its nutritional claims (here I believe there may be confounding factors at work, and paleo may deserve credit for improving health despite them). I’ve been watching the paleo diet very closely, and there are an abundance of websites and blogs out now with paleo recipes, testimonials about how the diet has worked for them, and how IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE! Haha. And whenever someone tells me that, I feel the need to be extremely careful. But as even critics admit, paleo is not the worst way to eat!
On a side note, I find this New York Times article, and the drove of comments it received on Facebook, pretty interesting. Is the no-processed-food idea going mainstream?