By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
Over the years I have come to appreciate this diet with its numerous aspects that can help not only your own well being, but it actually can contribute toward more sustainable agribusiness model.
I found that it is mostly a waste of money to subscribe to or purchase various diets that are mass marketed. This method I follow eliminates that requirement and the food actually tastes better in many ways.
So, I offer you another choice, and free of any program costs or subscriptions.
For the obligatory disclaimer, I am discussing the diet that I personally use. For each individual reader you might wish to consult with your doctor about diet and exercise.
Where to begin? Some of these tenets I understand will conjure in the mind of some political connotations they might not agree with. Personally, I think my health is more important than politics. It can have however benefits that help the individual just as much as the environment or other issues that have unfortunately become politicized.
The simple basics that I will discuss in more detail are as follows:
- Do not salt your food
- Buy organic food only
- Buy food directly from the source if at all possible. Eat what is harvested that week.
- Avoid processed or manufactured food
- Dine out rarely (cost and quality)
- Avoid refined sugar
- Drink only filtered water for hydration, and often
- Eat vegetables and Fruit as your main courses. You can consume as many vegetables as your appetite demands without much worry.
- Limit corn consumption to sparing levels after being freshly harvested
- Avoid grains
- Avoid dairy products
- Avoid red meat
- My primary source of protein is wild caught, US or Canadian salmon as well as other fishes and shellfish. I do not source any seafood harvested outside the United States or Canada.
- Eat rice sparingly
- Eat potatoes sparingly
- Eat egg whites from chickens raised in a healthy environment, egg yolks sparingly
- Use only olive oil in cooking and then sparingly
- Lastly, and this is very important, you should view a nutrition label as a Warning Label. Processed food will have a Warning Label. It is a good rule of thumb to help determine what is best not to eat. The presence of a warning label indicates a manufactured food. Of course there are some items such as the olive oil or the eggs that will have the warning label, but for this diet there are some exceptions that are not as easily avoided.
Organic foods are those, basically, that are grown without commercial pesticides or herbicides and are not Genetically Modified (GMO). Herbicides and Pesticides increase crop yields and when margins are growing smaller for farmers it is very tempting to resort to these. Their use is credited with reducing famines in many areas as well as bringing the promise of lower food costs to consumers. It comes at a price however. That cost is your health, the nutritional quality of food, and stress to the environment.
When you go organic, understand that your individual food costs will rise in the short term. There are two basic reasons for this. Consumers will pay more due cost push involving reduced crop yields per acre and demand pull where wholesales and retailers know that consumers will pay a premium for organic foods due to health consciousness and prior expectations. This however is not a complete cost as it can be offset by adopting other strategies that I will discuss among the other tenets.
As for GMO foods, corporate food giants claim GMO food is safe. I don’t agree with this position but taking them at their word they are nevertheless engineering plants to be in some incidences resistant to a scorched earth herbicide containing glyphosate, among other strategies. Glyphosate has been found in many studies to be carcinogenic and can possibly lead to neurological diseases. Why expose yourself to this and other dangerous chemicals? When running single crops continually and going through constant cycles of herbicide applications the soil becomes depleted of nutrients and requires increasing levels of fertilizer to achieve sufficient production levels per acre. Farm runoff from irrigation carries often high levels of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides that have lead to environmental disturbances downstream. At the very least it causes food to become increasingly bland due to the absence of micronutrients and other traits of rich and health soil as a substrate. Anecdotally, one year after returning from overseas (where organic farming was standard) after two weeks I called a friend of mine and asked him if he thought the food back in the US now tasted bland after we returned. We were both in agreement. I think we lost some of the flavor of foods when we went to large scale agribusiness models.
Another aspect that is a worry with GMO crops is that they have singular genetic identities. There is little if any diversity. This can lead to vulnerabilities. A case in point is the demise of the Gros Michel banana cultivar, a former mainstay within the fruit industry. Being essentially identical to its cloned namesakes divided through many countries, it became commercially extinct after the outbreak of Panama Disease destroyed almost the entire species throughout the world. It was replaced with a lower quality cultivar, the Cavendish, which took its place as the staple banana crop. The Cavendish requires artificial ripening. Now, there is worry that this too is vulnerable to another pandemic, Tropical Race 4. The planting of a wide variety of crops in many small, extended locations, can act as a hedge against extinctions.
Processed food truly is in my view one of the biggest risks to human health currently accepted by society. Not as dangerous as cigarette smoking obviously but it is as insidious in many ways.
Volumes of information can be written for why processed food is bad but I will attempt to provide a few ideas that should hopefully be convincing enough.
It might sound strange but processed food existed in a fraction of a percent of human existence. Formerly it was confined to preserving steps such as salting meat, pickling, and similar efforts mainly designed to preserve food due to lack of refrigeration and freezing technologies widespread enough to matter. We worked past this obstacle and nearly all of us in the Western World have these devices in our own homes. At that point we could have broken away from salted foods and our food in general would have been healthier over the course of the seasons than before. Instead we fell victim to our own need for further conveniences.
Processed food for our discussion does not only mean bacon, sausage, processed cheese, and lunch meat. Basically it means anything in a can, box, or bag that contains anything other than single ingredient foods. What I mean by this definition is a food that has been manufactured or altered from its natural state. Examples include peas in a sauce instead of just frozen peas, carrots with added sugar and salt, TV dinners, and even food with preservatives added. Basically this means everything within the center of the modern grocery store.
It truly astounds me how most Americans have become conditioned to purchase processed foods over whole foods. It seems my generation was the last in the country that remembers as a child when dinner consisted of an fresh green beans, mashed potatoes, a slice of bread, and rainbow trout (during fishing season). Now, for many it is Green Giant Vegetable BlendTMTater Tots(R),WonderTM Bread with “I can’t believe it’s not butter(R), and Gordon’s(R) Classic Crispy Battered Fish Filets.
There is so much wrong with the latter dinner. First, most canned foods, if not all, are GMO; worse they are often packed with preservatives and high amounts of salt or other forms of sodium. Excessive sodium intake is linked to pathologies such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Every one of the courses in the latter meal contains significant levels of salt. In the former, only the bread contains some added salt. The problem lies mostly with what I will refer to as Manufactured Foods.
A typical manufactured food consists of litany of chemical additives and often times are conglomerates consisting of other manufactured foods. Food scientists are employed to bring forth traits that marketers want to be accentuated or diminished according to requirements of the manufacturer. Some are to enhance flavor, color, shelf life, form factor, or reduce costs. This comes at the direct expense of food quality and nutrition. In fact, lower quality main ingredients (such as the fish) can be utilized because flavour enhancers will mask any taste deficiencies.
A run of the mill fish stick seems to be a cheaper source of fish than buying whole filets. But it is not the case most of the time. First the fish stick has a much smaller portion of fish per weight because the manufacturer adds cheap filler ingredients such as grains or corn. To make it more palatable salt is added. The fish will also often times be the cheapest kind the manufacturer can source. So per dollar you might actually pay more for fish sticks in terms of fish per pound than buying the same fish as a whole food. But the health costs are much worse.
Good fish consists of species such as salmon and halibut. Bad fish consists of bottom dwellers such as catfish and tuna which is known to have higher concentrations of mercury. Not that these fish are worse than a fish stick, just the nutritional value is lower. Catfish tends to be farm raised. If you eat salmon, wild caught, from the US or Canada, you get a litany of benefits. Fish sticks give you salt, grease, fattening breading, and at one time Trans Fats, which overrides any benefit the fish provides. And, you are more likely to have fish that comes from countries having questionable food practices. In fact, you have to be careful about some of the origins of your foods.
We have discussed in detail on this blog of the various outrages caused by horrific scandals in China with food brought into our country. Frankly speaking I do not trust anything that comes from there with regard to food. But, if you choose to avoid this by purchasing food that comes only from America you will be given a shock when you find out that a label that claims it is made in the US is sometimes actually substantially from China or other countries. For example, the shrimp might come from Thailand as a frozen package but once it is cooked in Ogden, Utah and sold by a grocer it becomes a product of the US. With manufactured food, especially from corporate food makers, it is going to be especially difficult to determine where the food came from when it contains conglomerations of other manufactured foods from who knows where.
One thing that needs to be understood about manufactured food. It is designed and engineered to appeal to the human physiology in ways to keep people motivated to buy more of their products. It sounds conspiracy like, but it actually is true.
The human species has evolved to have yearnings for certain traits of plants and animals as food. We naturally like the taste of fat, salt, and sweet items. We also receive pleasure from wide varieties of flavor as well as eating certain types of food and the resulting physiological processes they generate. Taking the sweet craving in terms of how we existed thousands of years ago we are motivated to eat berries and fruits when in season because the aroma of ripe fruit attracts us to eat these because our bodies use the nutrition of these plants. We are rewarded with a pleasant tasting meal. We can eat mangoes for weeks and not become four hundred pound couch potatoes because the season will change and they become unavailable. We then moved on toward other crops or meats changing with the season. We might have had a greater craving for fats and sought those out just before the onset of winter when food became more scarce, which in turn we stored out fat reserves to help us through the cold. Of course, different parts of the word have differing climates and hence different adaptations to what we ate. In the end, over time we ate a more balanced diet based upon our needs and environment.
Manufactured food on the other hand short-circuits how we are wired with regard to food. Sugary foods are craved by most people. Refined sugar is unlike what you will find in nature. The human body processes refined sugar much more efficiently into the blood stream and it, for lack of better words, is the crack cocaine of the sugar world. It is ubiquitous in manufactured food and contributes much to obesity, diabetes, and other ailments due to constant consumption through out the year, as opposed to just seasonally.
In addition, where food manufactures are marketing “low fat” foods they often substitute the fat with sugar. The caloric value of the food product might actually be of little difference. Also, eating sugary foods can lead to spikes and valleys of energy which can be detrimental to internal organs. It increases the amount of calories taken in by food if the sugars are replacing proteins and natural sugars occurring in fruit which take longer to absorb. The addition of fat into manufactured food increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis. So why is it in there? It is because people have been conditioned into craving it and the food manufacturers recognize this.
Trans Fats, which are about to be effectively banned from food in the United States, explains very well what has gone wrong with food as a whole in the United States.
Trans fat does not exist in nature, it is created by man. They are created by taking an vegetable oil that is a liquid at room temperature, heating it to a certain temperature and under specific pressures, then adding hydrogen gas. The result is a fat that is stable and mostly solid at room temperature. A benefit this provides food scientists is extended shelf life and removes the need for cooling to keep the manufactured food stable along with adding differing form factors. By adding a trans fat the cost of selling the food is lowered and various other flavorings are possible.
This was an enormous boon for the food manufacturing industry, lasting decades. Unfortunately, it was very unhealthy as the medical community discovered it was directly related to cardiovascular disease. At first the call was to limit the amount of trans fat in one’s diet, but ultimately it was decided that no amount of trans fat was healthy. The manufactured food industry fought this tooth and nail in one form or another often times involving their friends in government to mitigate the situation. It has become so interlocked into the foods manufacturing world removing it was going to be especially difficult.
Soon, the public began to recognize the risk associated with trans fat and began to move their purchasing practices to reflect this. There was also a marketing strategy to label foods as containing no trans fats. But, the insidiousness began to prevail. The food industry lobbied the Food and Drug Administration, as well as politicians, to limit the labeling requirements. It was finally agreed to that if a product contained less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving it could be labeled as “Zero grams trans fat”. This is deceptive and the food industry knew it.
Consumers were now given a false sense of safety in the Zero Grams Trans Fat label, especially when coupled with a big 0 in bold font. It did not mean there exists no trans fat in a product, just that it was less than half a gram per serving. Manufacturers then were permitted to act with chicanery to win the Zero Grams award. They could change the serving size accordingly, as denoted on the Warning Label, to make the portion size smaller or they could list components of food ingredients separately so as to lower the listing of partially hydrogenated oils further down the list of ingredients, making it seem less significant. What was the consumer left with? They had to then look at the ingredients specifically for the word “hydrogenated” to see if there actually were trans fats inside.
So what does this tell you about the manufactured food industry at the very least? It should become evident that the priority was not public health with regard to trans fat. Since trans fat does not exist in nature it didn’t need to be extracted from corn oil or anything else before it was introduced into the mixing bowl, they chose to put it in, and to leave it in. It’s the money, of course like any other business, but this was of greater priority than keeping your heart healthy. How’s that for saying they truly value you as their customer.
I remember all the strife among many consumers trying to get trans fat out of their diets by shouting at government or spending all this time looking at warning labels, and reading ingredient lists that are mysterious to all lacking a degree in organic chemistry. From an outside point of view it was truly bizarre. Yet the solution was so simple it truly was a non issue:
If you eat only organic whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, and fish, it is impossible to have any trans fats in your diet! It is that simple. Plus, you don’t have to worry about all that other garbage they put in that is also detrimental to your well being.
Food manufactures also are close to politicians and use the political process to further actions that are not necessarily in your best interest. Two years ago I wrote an article describing how the largest food manufacturers spent millions of dollars to effectively hijack the GMO Labeling Initiative started from a grass roots initiative. (See the article for details) People were muted in their choice in my state, and it was due to lobbying by corporate food. Politicians do not always have your individual health in mind when they craft legislation or shy away from the implementation of good legislation that the food industry fears. In short you cannot trust politicians for making good choices for you.
There is more to this as well. It is economic as I said before. With many brand name manufactured food products, a rule of thumb with them is that about twenty percent of the cost is advertising and marketing, twenty percent is packaging and the rest is cost of goods sold, retailer markup and profit for the maker. Since there is competition in the market toward lower prices that puts limits on value added manufacturing techniques to raise prices for the food, the elasticity can often be best obtained through cutting costs of ingredients and/or quality.
As I mentioned before manufacturers want to source the cheapest ingredients possible. That is why they often turn to corn for fillings and manufacturing corn products. They lobby government for corn subsidies which makes corn cheaper for them, encourages more harvesting of corn, and the demand for greater yields increases pressure toward GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. But, reliance on corn products can increase pathologies as it has a high glycemic value and possibly leads to obesity in many. For those with environmental concerns, corn is an intensely thirsty crop requiring significantly more water per pound of yield than many others.
The number of large food manufacturers and agribusinesses are shrinking through consolidation. This means that farmers have fewer buyers to purchase their crops and become subject to dominance by these few entities who can dictate terms that are not always in the best interest of their families or consumers.
Lastly you have to look at the packaging and advertising costs. It is truly extraordinary the amount of cost relating to packaging. The amount that you are paying for packaging is the amount you waste on food purchases as is the waste spent on advertising. You would be quite upset if you bought an apple that was placed in a plastic bag with a logo on it and the clerk at the check-out stand told you it would cost half as much more because of the packaging. That is what is happening to you now with manufactured foods. Surely the manufacturer is providing you with economies of scale due to their large purchases of ingredients, at a much lower cost than what you could buy if you bought the veggie or meat from the same source as they did. But, you lose all of the savings in the marketing, packaging, fillers, value adding, and most importantly your health.
Later, you have to throw away all that cardboard, paper, plastic and who knows what. Soon, your garbage can is full, and you are still paying for the biggest garbage can your city will provide. So, you do the right thing by throwing it into a recycle bin that the city requires you to pay for. Mountains of food packaging piles up. Some of it remains for many, many decades to break down while buried in the city dump: for what? so that you could spend five minutes eating Hot Pockets and other products.
Advertising is almost as bad. You are paying money to people to convince you to buy their products. All these outlandish claims made, commercials that insult your intelligences, and those enticing your child to tug on your pants wanting you to buy it can be at the very least annoying. At your favorite big box store, you can walk through the center aisles of the store and be titillated with a sparkly radiance of colors to tempt every taste. It is to me like a row of Fiddler Crab males: the crab having one enormous claw that they vigorously wave, trying to entice a female to their burrow. It doesn’t matter that the crab might be useless inside the burrow, but he has that enormous claw so she is mesmerized into liking him. The fiddler is just like the food product, it is the packaging the matters and not the quality of “the goods”.
This is the ridiculousness that one must endure with corporate, processed food and it is entirely unnecessary. Do yourself a favor and take care of your health. This is why I write that if you only take one of my suggestions, please stay away from manufactured, warning labeled foods.
Dairy Products and Red Meat
This is a much simpler tenet, high levels of saturated fat. For this reason, your heart and arteries will love you if you cut these two items out of your diet. Of course it can be mitigated in some way by drinking non-fat milk. But consider also there exists significant amounts of sugar in the form of lactose. Dairy products such as cheeses and butter are frankly delicious and a staple in the Western diet. But they are unnecessary in health.
The best food an infant can consume is mother’s milk. Once grown, you have no nutritional need for milk, especially that of other animals. In drinking milk regularly you expose yourself to increased levels of cholesterol which can lead to the debilitating specter of cardiovascular disease and stroke, lactose intolerance, and weight gain. Milk can also contain saturated fat and sodium.
The marketing of milk, both advertising and political, has convinced the public at large that milk is a healthy part of a nutritious diet. I don’t agree with that assessment. Most of the marketing involves presenting healthy levels of calcium and certain vitamins. Actually, you can find just as beneficial sources of calcium from many leafy green vegetables and vitamins from other sources without having the taint of saturated fat or cholesterol. So why is dairy put into government nutritional guidelines such as the Food Pyramid? It is because the dairy industry and other interests lobbied the government to include it. It is not fully derived from good nutritional practices.
Another aspect about milk is that many groups of individuals lack the enzymes to properly metabolize it. Caucasians generally have better lactose tolerance than do Asians. It is probable that this is because Europeans have much longer relied on dairy over the centuries and they adapted the ability to adjust to its effects. But since many Asian diets are not as heavily reliant on dairy, those living there ancestrally are more lactose intolerant. The problem is that the incorporation of food guidelines started rather unknowingly to be of white, Western European, ethnocentricity which worked for Caucasians but may not have been the best advice to races who physiologically were not adapted to a diet that was dairy based. Yet, we assimilated this into our culture at the detriment to others. But nevertheless I believe the heath consequences to dairy consumption outweigh the benefits that it can provide.
Red meat has its own problems from a nutritional basis. Red meat has intrinsically saturated fat in high levels, contains elevated levels of cholesterol, and studies are showing that those consuming a diet high in red meat are prone to greater levels of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments. It also is calorie intensive which leads to a propensity to gain weight in many individuals. It does provide protein, a beneficial trait, but again for me there are better sources of protein such as legumes, egg whites, and healthy fish.
But what is the unfortunate reality for both dairy and red meat that is mass consumed in the United States is that corporate animal husbandry practices engender conditions that are sometimes disturbing. The animals in some cases are put into deplorable conditions such as overcrowded pens, fed antibiotics to ward off disease caused by cramped conditions, and subjected to diets that the cows really are not physiologically evolved to property digest. Cows evolved to be grass feeders not of grain or corn. This does affect the quality of the resulting meat or dairy. If you are unable to eliminate red meat from your diet I would recommend at the very least to consume grass-fed, organic animals and to do so sparingly. Yes, it is more costly, but the flavor is remarkably improved.
Eggs from healthy chickens or quail are a good alternative source for protein. Due to cholesterol levels in the yokes, you are best served to eliminate eating these or reducing their consumption accordingly.
Potatoes, Rice and Grains
I try to limit these significantly, as it is mostly due to their carbohydrate nature. Starches metabolize into sugars and can lead to putting on weight. Additionally, carbs have a property that can lead to hunger earlier than eating proteins. The hunger can then drive us to eat more carbs which increases caloric consumption daily. Excessive calories leads to weight gain. Obesity leads to diabetes and a litany of other maladies. Carbs are not evil as our bodies need them especially in converting to energy and other processes.
Of course with grains comes a benefit of fiber and frankly I enjoy the taste of grainy foods. But I have found that other sources of fiber can come from vegetables.
Fish and Seafood
My preferred diet labels me a Pescetarian. Essentially this means a vegetarian who also eats fish and shellfish. Some pescetarians also eat dairy and eggs. I embraced this diet due mostly to health conditions but frankly it is also because I enjoy the food much more this way.
Being a child of the 1970’s and having a grandfather who owned a meat market red meat and potatoes was what we ate, and we ate a lot of it. But much later in life my health deteriorated and I had to make radical changes to live. Since I adopted this diet my bad cholesterol levels, hypertension, elevated triglyceride levels and other worries improved dramatically. Exercise and meds help also, but eating better is paramount.
Salmon provides excellent amounts of vitamin B12, D, selenium, niacin, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids–a beneficial fat that is linked to better heart health. Plus, it is simply delicious. I seldom pan fry fish, due to the use of small amounts of olive oil, but rather I serve it baked or broiled. Of course every once in a while I will treat myself to a delicious serving of sushi or sashimi. (skip the soy sauce please).
For many they ask how I do this as salmon is expensive. The trick is that I buy it in big lots. I wait until the salmon season arrives and I buy a large number of pounds in one big purchase. It is fresh off the boat so the cost is decent. (it was $6.50 a pound for wild-caught this year.) I take it home and carve it up into individual sized portions and send it straight into the freezer. We then eat it over the course of the next twelve months until it depletes and the next season comes along for the next buy. In doing this is save a great amount of money and I avoid the farm raised versions. Wild caught is markedly better fish in all respects. It is very economical to buy in this manner because come December, the price of wild caught salmon can double.
A small footnote about shellfish, you should again buy US or Canadian sourced due to better quality and regulations that are actually followed. But some shellfish has surprisingly high levels of cholesterol. Salmon does contain cholesterol but the omega-3’s help offset this and can lower triglycerides.
Despite what some might think when they hear the phrase Community-Supported Agriculture, it does not necessarily mean militant vegans or arugula snobs. Sure, there food co-ops in some areas that tend to get political with their food vending: dressing like hippies or having pictures of Hugo Chavez on the wall. I don’t go for that either, nor do I trap myself into some yuppie and swank farmer’s market to be among those professing their food arrogance by claiming they can tell exactly which state in India today’s saffron originated just by wafting in its fragrance. No, I am talking about joining a farm group that simply raises fruits and vegetables that provides healthy, truly fresh, and delicious vegetables each week.
With the CSA I belong to, I buy two “shares” of the harvest. This is $500 a share if prepaid before harvest. It sounds expensive but it really is not. For each share I receive a box containing whatever was harvested that week. There is always variety and the flavor is first rate since it was just picked and organically grown. So if you think about it one share can feed two individuals for a week. Depending on the harvest length the cost for me is between twenty and twenty-five dollars per week. Here you cut out all the middlemen, the wholesalers, the retailers, the brokers and so the price is lower and the quality is better. The food does not sit in transit for who knows how long. For me it is a better business model in many ways because everything stays in town and you do not waste money on advertising, marketing, or packaging. The farmer can also receive better prices. This year I am going to order another share and freeze what I can for the interim period between harvests.
As an added benefit to the CSA food, you will find that you do not need to overly season it, salt it, or do much to increase the flavor. The food stands for itself. As a result, the migration away from adding lots of cheeses, salt and butter, or liberating yourself from manufactured food is an easier transition.
If you are fortunate enough to have a good CSA nearby I invite you to enquire further with them.
I hope you found some benefit of reading about what I consider to be a beneficial food journey. If you don’t do it for economics, or the environment or any other cause do it for yourself. It doesn’t take a diet book, or counting calories, reading food warning labels, or watching some nutrition guru hock his wares in order to be healthy. It’s much simpler than it seems.
Enjoy your food. It is life.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.