We so often talk about eating local food, but today we want to expound upon the importance of eating high quality food in general.There’s a ton of information out there these days about how to eat well, but much of the information comes in and out like tired, outdated fashion. A lot of myths have been debunked but the media is far behind, and science is still truly at the tip of the iceberg where the interactions of food and the body are concerned.
However, not too long ago people were relatively healthy. The irony of the fads of dieting is that they come at a time when a lot of food isn’t even food. Lean Cuisines, low-fat and low-sodium products, vegan substitutes, and many other fashionable food oddities have been the go-to of those seeking to live a healthier lifestyle. But our modern conveniences and technological innovations have made us forget what it takes to be truly nourished.
Our ancestors placed a lot of importance on food, and their principles make it very easy to eat well. The common misconception is that tribal peoples were sickly and had short life spans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tribal peoples that managed to survive the harshness of the wild could live to well over 100 years old, and even today tribes living off their natural food sources demonstrate remarkable health not found within our so-called civilized society.
If you want to eat to be fit, to expand your healthy diet, or even to restore lost health, here’s four ancient staples to build your diet around:
1) Pasture Raised or Wild Caught Proteins
In an age where the factory farm makes it possible for mega-chains like McDonald’s and Burger King to flourish, more people are becoming aware that low quality meat from abused animals fed ravaged grains grown on mono-crop fields in toxic soil is not worth even the dollar it costs. When we sacrifice quality for efficiency and profit our bodies pay the difference in health problems and chronic conditions. To ensure you’re giving your body the best, get your proteins from a source you can trust, be it a local farmer, market, or right from your back yard.
Seafood is the healthiest protein available, particularly bivalves. While wild caught, sustainable seafood can be hard to find, bivalves and certain shellfish like lobster are not only highly sustainable, they’re incredibly nutrient dense. They provide our bodies with iodine, Vitamins A and D, and other trace nutrients.
Meat from pastured animals is leaner and more nutrient dense than animals raised on grains. A cow grazing on grass will provide meat that is rich in important CLA's (Conjugated Linoleic Acids) which play a notable role in weight management, promoting fat loss and increased lean muscle. The dairy from these animals will be fresh, clean, and loaded with calcium and Vitamins A and D. Pastured dairy is not full of pus. On the contrary, it is because animals in factory farms are fed unnatural diets that their stomachs become upset and the infections in their udders warrant excessive use of antibiotics. The solution to this is not to stop taking dairy and meat altogether, but to source your meat from someone that properly respects and cares for the animal.
2) Whole Fats: Cholesterol, Saturated, Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated
American doctors have recommended a low fat diet regime for a couple decades now, which runs entirely counter to the diets our ancestors relied upon to thrive. Low quality, ultra-processed oils and butter substitutes have replaced what was once a common source of dense nutrition. Your brain is the organ that most needs fat for nourishment, so make sure you’re feeding it with a variety of fats from quality sources.
Items high in saturated fats include tropical oils and animal fats and are essential for the brain’s development and maintenance. They also keep hair, nails, and skin strong and vibrant, and protect all organs in the body. Cholesterol is often seen as something to stay away from, but science now shows that cholesterol in the body acts as a reparative and protects the body from injury. When we have high cholesterol, it actually indicates that there is a problem in the body, not that we are eating too much of it. It is not the cause of heart disease, but actually works with the injuries of the body to repair it. (Myths and Truths About Cholesterol)
Foods high in monounsaturated fats like olive oil, avocados, and nuts offer similar benefits to saturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats from foods like soy or canola oil are not the healthy alternatives proposed in the last 20 years. They go rancid very quickly and must be handled carefully, and not heated to high temperatures. They should also compose the least amount of one’s fat intake as they are shown to contribute to many of the major health problems Americans face. Given that most fried food is now fried in soy oil instead of lard and almost every boxed product in the store contains polyunsaturated fats, we can see how the relationship to higher heart disease is linked to this increase in low quality standards for our fats, and food in general.
Please refer to Mary G. Enig, PhD and Sally Fallon’s article The Skinny on Fats for more in depth explanations of the body’s relationship to fats.
3) Fermented Foods and Bone Stocks
After the Industrial Revolution, the two foodstuffs that took the hardest hit were fermented products (like lacto-fermented pickles) and bone stocks. High heat pickling in vinegar solutions made it easy to produce pickles en masse, and broth cubes made of MSG and artificial flavorings replaced the nutrient dense stocks of old. Fermented foods are essential to creating a balanced and healthy flora in one’s gut, protecting it against yeast and harmful bacteria and boosting the immune system. Bone stocks and broths are rich in calcium and magnesium and are (as one might guess) excellent in preventing osteoporosis. They also can be rich in gelatin, which soothes the lining of the stomach and aids the body in receiving nutrients. Both these foodstuffs acted as supplements of a sort (much like one-a-day vitamins do now, but with far more nutrient accessibility) and include such things as fermented dairy and condiments, and broths made from marrow bones or whole chickens.
These two foods should have their own blocks on the pyramid, they were so important in ancient cultures. Grains, beans, and legumes especially benefit from sprouting or fermenting, as they are naturally endowed with protective enzymes that prevent the body from receiving their nutrients and cause them to pass through our system. For example, the Mayans treated their corn with lye before grinding it into flour and making tortillas, thus deactivating the protective enzymes and allowing for their bodies to access the wealth of B vitamins present in the grain. Ethiopian tribes ferment teff to produce injera, a sour flatbread; Indian cultures fermented lentils for their dosas and idlis; traditional North European cultures created loaves of whole rye bread after soaking the grain, grinding it wet, and allowing the resulting flour to create a batter allowed to ferment with a wild sourdough culture.
4) Organic Produce
It’s almost amusing that “organic” is now a label we place on foods that, 50 years ago, would have been considered conventional. Conventional now refers to pesticide laden produce, Genetically Modified Organisms, and low quality. Why is low quality considered conventional, normal even? See, pretty funny.
A further irony is that many small, sustainable farms don’t have the funds to pay for the label, yet they often have much higher standards than USDA organic standards. A good way to ensure you’re getting good quality produce is to stick to local sources. This also helps your body acclimate to its surroundings, so that in the Boston winter you get hearty, nourishing squashes that build and protect, and in the summer you get brilliant strawberries that cleanse and refresh.
The human diet is complex and ever-changing. There is no one-size-fits all, so if you strive to eat from each of these groups as a whole then your body will let you know what it needs when it needs it. I often have days where all I want is fruit, or sometimes my dinner consists of raw milk cheese with salami, pickles, and sourdough (all fermented foods). The goal here is balance, and eating with these four groups in mind sustains that balance. What follows? A happier mind, a more vibrant and energized body, and a satisfied stomach.
For more information about the dietary practices of our ancestors, check out Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price, or visit www.westonaprice.org to learn more about current scientific research into the dietary practices of ancient cultures.