It is kind of strange that prior to coming to the US, “eating” had never been much of a concern to me. I just eat what my family cooks and what is available at the food centers outside. Paying attention to “eating” only became important when my wife was having our first kid.
The worries of “Eating” can be quite different for different peoples. If you are poor and have trouble putting meals on the table, just being “full” will be more important. If you cannot afford meat usually, anyone who can make meat cheaper will be a savior to you (like this Singaporean woman in Rwanda). If you are more well-off, you start about caring about proper nutrition, health and even ethics of eating. It is hardly a surprise that the richer you are, the more questions you ask and hence the more picky you become over food.
What is our natural diet? Again this appears to differ depending on which group of people i is in focus. The Eskimos live well off an almost 100% carnivorous diet and East Asians are perfectly happy with their high carbohydrates (rice). Here’s the deal, combined, humans eat everything from seeds to plants to just about anything that moves. Pests and vermin like rats, grasshoppers and cockroaches included. We are omnivores. Anyone arguing against this fact is just picking bones out of an egg. (Omnivore’s Dilemma is a pretty good read.)
We are primates, and evolved from apes. (Creationists can move aside for now.) If so, our original diet would have been mostly fruits and insects, maybe the occasional bird or rodent. At least until we came down from the trees and started prowling the savanna. There is a hypothesis that we came down from the trees and went swimming first, during which we lost our hair, but I digress.
Anthropologists are still finding clues and evidence but I generally accept the idea that we became humans by mastering fire as apes and learning to cook both plant and meat. And this is what tribal groups all over the world still eat. A mix of cooked and raw plants and animals (insects included).
As we spread across the planet, diets started to vary based on locale. By this modern age, to ask about what our “real” natural diet is just plain stupid. “Natural” is dependent on time (when you want to look) and location (where you live), and essentially just a question of “who you ask”. The best “fits-all” answer will just simply a mix of plants and animals.
GMOs or not?
As we changed, so have our farmed foods. We have bred plants that not only look different from their ancestors, but they taste different, have different nutritional profiles and in general have become easier to digest. Those big tasty leafy lettuce are far from natural. They are a result of agriculture over thousands of years. So is broccoli and just about every plant we put on our tables. We have also bred toxins out of plants to give things such as almonds and canola oil (no… it is not toxic despite the pseudoscience floating around, well unless perhaps you drank the whole bottle at one shot). Animals too have changed. They became more fatter, in some cases bigger and usually more docile.
In other words, we can eat many foods now primarily due to genetic tinkering, which kind of blows the whole idea on eating non-GMO foods pointless by definition. “GMO” has too large a coverage. Would a GMO crop created to yield more nutrition be bad? How about one that is engineered to grow in low quality lands?
This is not to say I don’t have concerns about BT-corn or that the industry had been less than transparent, and cooperative for that matter. I support the idea that insecticidal GMOs should be considered unsafe until proven otherwise. Long term studies need to be done.
I think that it is no longer viable for humans as a civilization to turn our backs on GMOs. Overpopulation and the changing climate have taken the luxury of slow crossbreeding out of our options. However I think that it is still within our means to take steps to ensure that GMOs are safe for consumption.
In recent years, I can see (anecdotal) an increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans around me, in office and among those I call my friends. There are plenty of reasons to become one, but one particular reason bothers me.
That would be what I consider a backlash over the gradual distancing of a person and food sources over the years for various reasons. That is, people becoming vegetarians for “humane” reasons. This comes across to me as weird, largely because I have seen the act of slaughtering animals for food since I was a kid. For someone like me, it is food. For the aborigines in Australia (Pollan’s documentary “Cooked:Fire” showed this), suffocating and clobbering an overgrown lizard with a stick is absolutely natural. There is nothing ethically wrong about it. People are just trying to eat.
Meat had been part of our diet for eons. One can argue it is more unnatural to go 100% meatless than to have a mixed diet. Note that I don’t disagree that a plant-based diet can be good, especially in the light of modern cultivated products. I just don’t agree with the concept that “killing for food” is inhumane. I consider this as a kind of human arrogance, that we can reject nature because we are human.
Am I just an evil person then? I beg to differ. To me, the ethics of eating meat is not so much as not to kill, but to kill for a good reason. “Food” (or self-defense) is a perfect reason to do so. Note that other predators do kill for sport or for no good reason at all (just look at the nearest dog or cat). The act of killing should be as swift and painless as possible. I also support the idea of giving farm animals basic respect and rights. I agree that factory farming should be done away with or at least greatly improved on in terms of animal comfort. On top of being “humane”, better animal treatment also yields better quality food products.
I have watched PETA videos. I have seen unwarranted cruelty, true. I have also seen some basic aspects of animal slaughtering being vilified. That guy slamming the animals on the walls…that’s just criminal. That guy doing the in-glamorous job of throat slitting and leaving them to bleed, that may look cruel but is necessary. To properly slaughter an animal, one has to bleed it dry. The first stage of decomposition of a carcass does not come from external agents. It comes from the blood after an animal dies. Blood may also contain other pathogens. The only way blood can be removed is to slit the throat and have the heart pump it all out in addition to using gravity. Gory business. For those concerned over the act of slaughter, perhaps Halal or Kosher meat can be considered before entirely dropping meat. These meats have strict rules over how the animals are killed.
To me, the ethics of eating meat also includes having the respect for life and the death it comes with. All living things are born to die. When we eat something that used to be alive, that being, plant or animal, becomes a part of us, and thus the cycle of life continues. Nothing unethical about this. This brings me to my next point, food waste. I do find it an affront to life to not finish all the food given, especially meat. An animal lived and died, and is now on your plate. The least one can do is to finish it all, as last respects. Our ancestors understood this. Sadly many of us no longer do.
That said, I do agree that we eat too much meat in modern diets. While I will not embrace a fully vegetarian diet, I am in support of reducing meat consumption.
Organic, Pasture or Regular?
One of the facts about modern grocery shopping is that all these “food terms” gets shoved into your face. Anyone who purchases meat will be familiar with the “organic” or “pasture-fed” label. Are they really better and worth the mark up?
True (or should I say original?) pasture-raised animals are nutritionally superior and it might be that what makes us sick from a modern “heavy on meat” diet is not really the actual act of eating meat, but rather the meat we eat. Meat that is raised on corn, given antibiotics and hormones and imprisoned in crowded environs. Common sense dictates the meat can’t be good. And science is increasingly providing this evidence. I also loved the TED talks given by Dan Barber, on similar topics.
Organic is a diluted term, now hijacked for marketing purposes. It no longer means the same thing as it did decades ago when it first started. Nowadays, I just regard it to mean “no hormones and antibiotics”. In short, eating organic doesn’t make one healthier. It just, theoretically, does not make you sicker.
What we see in the markets now, take it with a grain of salt. There are commercial feeding patterns that may deviate from what is expected from the label, but still qualifies it to be marketed as such.
Such are the woes of a modern consumer.
Raw or Cooked?
To first answer this, we need to look at what cooking does, to look at what fire does.
- Kill pathogens
- Make food easier to digest
Any other purposes to cooking are secondary and only came about due to civilization. Did humans evolve to cook or did cooking evolve humans? That is still up for debate but regardless what comes first I think both goes hand in hand. We evolved and are still evolving to adapt to our diet. An example would be that some Japanese can digest seaweed more completely than others.
Think twice when eating salad because the vegetables in them greatly increases the risk of food poisoning. Think thrice when eating raw meat because of possible parasites and other “stuff”.
And the point is that as humans, we suck at digesting food, both plant and animals but especially plant. There is a good reason why cows and many other herbivores spend all their lives doing nothing but eat, poop and sleep. Without cooking, we simply can’t absorb a lot of the nutrients from our food.
Unfortunately, cooking drops the nutritional value when it comes to certain nutrients, such as Vitamin C, which breaks down even in hot water. So the “art of cooking” eventually comes down to a balancing act of “increasing the amount of nutrients liberated” without “losing too much nutrients from degradation”. Making food taste good is secondary.
I would suggest though, to at least blanch one’s salad in hot water for a short while, to kill off the pathogens. A little nutrient loss there is a lot more acceptable than a potential trip to ER.
Perhaps the biggest source of our food dilemmas come from all the (mostly fad) diets floating around. How do I determine what is a fad diet? Simple. I regard any diet that restricts a certain nutritional group as one. Low carbohydrate, low protein, low fat, paleo, vegan? All are fads. They may have short term weight loss benefits but can come with long term problems, perhaps in non-obvious ways.
The bottom line is that removing entire nutritional groups can bring about malnutrition, if not careful. Any diet that requires supplemental nutrition just means it is incorrect done. We should be able to get everything we need from our meals. If we can’t, we are doing it wrong. The fact that pill making companies are still in business just goes to show how horribly bad modern diets are.
Such diets (such as high protein/fat + low carb) can also place extra stress on the liver and kidneys, which can be ok, even beneficial for a healthy individual, or for the short term. Long term? Everything can just go out of the window on this one.
To me, the only truly good diets are those proven by time. In short, eat what your ancestors (probably excluding your immediate family tree) ate and you can’t go wrong with it. Of course, a little bit of reading goes a long way to augmenting these diets with modern upgrades. In my case, one of which would just be replacing white with brown rice.
A little change goes a long way.
Still plenty more to write about but I think I’ll stop here for now…
When it comes to the “problem of eating”…I suppose I only have 2 words to describe it all.