Have you caught Michael Pollan’s new documentary, In Defense of Food, on PBS? If not, check it out immediately — in fact you can watch it at the bottom of this post. One of Pollan’s main messages is that we all need to just chill out when it comes to food. “A trip to the supermarket has become a journey through a treacherous landscape,” says Pollan, because the science of nutrition has been “hijacked by nutritionism” – a focus on vitamins, omega-3s, antioxidants and other food components instead of on actual whole foods.
Once, Pollan explains, humans grew up immersed in a rich food culture, where people in a wide range of settings – from desert to jungle to tundra – “ﬁgured out a way to use whatever Nature had to oﬀer.” Food was understandable and approachable; we all helped grow and harvest the food, and learned how to cook it in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens, leading to strong local food cultures – all diﬀerent – around the world.
“Culture is the best guide we have to healthy eating,” says Pollan, echoing the guiding principles of Oldways. Relax. Eating well is a lot easier than most of us think. Eat a variety of whole foods, with cultural traditions as your guide, and the nutrients take care of themselves.
Can that really be true? Can we survive without tracking how many milligrams of calcium we have each day, without learning the best ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats, and without counting each calorie on our new iPhone app?
Yes. In fact, the human race has survived for eons without understanding anything about nutrition, simply by following a key tenet in the Oldways Common Ground Consensus Statement: Food should be “Good x 3”:
• Good for human health
• Good for the planet, and
• Just plain good – unapologetically delicious.
Here’s how traditional diets can help you follow the “Good x 3” idea, without getting a PhD in nutrition.
Good for human health. When you enjoy traditional diets (like the Mediterranean Diet, the Asian Diet, or the Latin-American Diet), you’re tapping into wisdom garnered over generations, centuries, millennia. Food cultures bring together knowledge about which mushrooms are poisonous and which are safe, and how to cook those local roots in a way that makes them digestible. Those who made the best choices in this trial-and-error process passed more of their genes and their food lore on to their progeny – and to us, for our beneﬁt.
Switching from the Standard American Diet to a traditional diet can bring quick improvements in health, in fact, as a recent study showed. In the study, 20 African Americans adopted a traditional African diet (similar to our African Heritage Diet) and in just two weeks improved several markers of good health.
Good for the planet. What’s good for the planet was, in the past, more immediately evident. Farmers growing their own food carefully shepherded the health of the soil and their animals; they didn’t create enormous mono-crop farms or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) with massive sewage lagoons. Caring for the earth was part of local food traditions, too. When we take the time to buy from local growers and know where our food comes from, we support this kind of traditional balance.
But can we feed everyone on the planet without today’s unsustainable factory farming methods? Evidence shows the gap between conventional and organic farming is shrinking, as we adapt some of the old ways of farming to ﬁt modern needs.
Good tasting – unapologetically delicious. Making food taste good was even more important in the past than today. Tip your hat to the geniuses around the world who ﬁgured out how to make animals’ brains and livers into savory dishes… who labored to turn the hard seed of the wheat grass into ﬂour and then into loaves of bread… who discovered how to pound cassava roots into doughy fufu. Today our factories simply add more sugar, salt, or fat, to manipulate taste, but back then ingenuity, familiarity with herbs and spices, and a thorough knowledge of cooking created good tastes in healthy ways. With a surprisingly small amount of cooking knowledge, you can follow in your ancestors footsteps and enjoy foods and dishes that are naturally delicious and healthy.
Watch Michael Pollan’s documentary online, on your local PBS station, or below — and see why he concludes by saying that “cultivating a relaxed, nonpunitive attitude toward food is essential.” Put down your obsession with tracking your diet, avoiding gluten, and popping supplements. Then have fun exploring our website to ﬁnd information about traditional diets and lots of unapologetically delicious recipes based on these old ways of eating.