Eat Less Shit

In The Food Post, I laid out an argument for how our food system, globally, is seriously broken. I listed things to do in order to become more resilient to a food Black Swan. But I didn't dig into the details of what that means for the modern diet, except in general terms.

That's a warning because nothing pisses people off more than having someone tell them how to eat. Especially an annoying middle-class foodie with a dozen kinds of fancy salt. The whole thing is so fraught with social and political consequences, that it's akin to suggesting that someone would be a better person if they changed their race or religion. It's OFFENSIVE.

If you're prone to this sort of reaction, get ready to be pissed off.

Life is too short to eat shit

This is one of my personal maxims (what, you don't have personal maxims?). It means that I don't want to take time out of my life to:
  • Eat crap that makes me feel bad and doesn't even taste that good
  • Swallow the bullshit from government, education, and the corporatocracy
  • Consume unhealthy media in the form of music, movies, or news
The Mind Virus post deals, in part, with the second two.

This post touches on the first one...

Everyone's on a Diet

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” 
― Michael PollanIn Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

The term 'diet' has been co-opted by the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry to mean "how to lose weight with what you eat." But the team has another more basic and more accurate meaning: What you eat. Everyone who eats has a diet because a diet just means all the things you eat.

Historically, there have been lots of different diets in the world. There are people who don't eat meat, people who eat nothing but meat, people who eat dairy, people who eat seafood. Culturally, most of these traditional diets have worked pretty well for the people who were eating them. This is in part due to natural selection over time. If your system couldn't handle the diet of your region, you wouldn't have a chance to pass your sensitivities to your kids. This is why people of different backgrounds have different dietary needs or are more or less prone to things like lactose intolerance or wheat sensitivity.

In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan points out that a couple of generations ago, we didn't agonize over what to eat. We learned what to eat by seeing what was on our plates in every season. And we learned to feed ourselves by watching and helping our mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers) grow and catch and hunt and cook and brew and preserve what we ate.

It was only later, in recent decades, that we became confused. In part because of more traveling and cross-cultural marriages and mobile populations. But also because the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth at the time decided to apply technology to the age old processes of obtaining, and preparing, and consuming food. And so we invented the only diet in the history of mankind that actually makes people sicker and not healthier: the Western pattern diet (AKA the Standard American Diet -- S.A.D.).

Despite natural variations, some more extreme than others, the vast majority of traditional diets had several things in common:
  • No refined sugar
  • Mostly whole grains
  • Lots of veggies
This is the exact opposite of our modern diet, which is defined by tons of refined sugar and processed grains and a dearth of veggies. Moreover, we have lost our connection to most food traditions. For those of us in the West, there often isn't a cultural sense of "how our family eats" and what remains is often corrupted by the modern diet. For example, my mom is German (born there and has a green card). I grew up eating lots of German food. Unfortunately, I also grew up with soda and chips and no "real" sauerkraut (live cultured) or wild game -- which is what counteracts the potato heavy elements of that diet. So what traditions I have were often corrupted by time savings convenience foods and tempting snacks.

Extremism, it's nutritious and delicious


Ironically, the American diet is so patently, obviously harmful at this point that many people are looking for better alternatives. The problem here is that this has breed a whole host of extreme diets. From people who insist that all animal products are bad to those who claim that our hunter ancestors never ate a seed so neither should we. We've gone from shilling weight loss diets to shilling health diets... to the tune of over $20 billion a year!

Obviously, a lot of people's paychecks depend on us all believing there is one right magical formula or way or ingredient that will make us healthier and thinner. You should be suspicious of this. In fact, most weight loss-focused diets are also filled with the kind of industrial crap that caused the problem in the first place. And the extreme health diets may work for some people but not for others.

The truth is that there's not one right diet for everyone. Different people are going to thrive on different foods, based on their heritage, but also on what's available to them and how the foods they eat go together. But just because there's no one right way, doesn't mean there isn't a completely wrong way. And on this I think we all agree -- the S.A.D. diet is completely the wrong way. Any time a new health diet comes out there are some people who claim to be doing so much better than they were. They're probably right. If you stop eating processed crap and replace it with ANY kind of real food, you're going to be in much better shape. Whether that real food is seeds and nuts or meat is less relevant than what those calories replaced.

OK, so here comes the lecturing part of the post. A few disclaimers:
  • I don't care how much you weigh. If you don't eat shit and you get up and move around a little bit, you are ahead of 80% of the Western world. What the scale says isn't relevant.
  • I don't care about your sacred cows (whether literal or figurative). If a certain healthy diet works for you, groovy. If a different healthy diet is better, also fine. If you're eating shit and arguing with me that you're perfectly healthy... well, come back and talk to me in another decade or so. I used to smoke, drink, party all night and then eat ramen for breakfast and still make it to my early classes... but time marches on for all of us.
  • I'm a hypocrite. Of course I am. I don't always follow my own advice. If I did I'm sure I'd be even more insufferable than I am now. I'm not going to lie to you. Sugar tastes yummy, I crave cheese potato chips, and sometimes I eat shit. These are the goals I set for myself. I don't always reach them.

The definition of "shit"


This should not be difficult. The fact that it is difficult is a reminder of just how far we've come from real food traditions and our own physical health. Here are a few guidelines:
  • To credit Taleb -- if people weren't drinking it 500 years ago, don't drink it! This means that water, unsweetened tea / tisane (aka herb tea) / coffee, beer, wine, spirits, kefir, and yogurt, are all fair game. Milk is OK if it's whole (and preferably grassfed, non-homogenized, and even unpasteurized). Cocoa is fine if you drink it unsweetened like the Aztecs did. Mineral water is fine, though carbonated water without minerals is bad for your teeth.  The ancients used to enjoy fruit juice by eating fruit, which is the recommended method. And nowhere on the list is any sweetened soda. In fact, soda is shit. Diet soda is even more shit. Sweetened teas and waters, energy drinks, and meal replacement drinks -- also shit.
  • If it has ingredients, rather than being an ingredient, it could be shit. If it's got more than say five ingredients, be very suspicious. If any of the ingredients would be unfamiliar to your great-grannie, it's shit (thank you to Michael Pollan for this one).
  • If any of the ingredients are "flavors" or even "natural flavors" that's a clear marker of shit. Because if it were a real ingredient it would be listed (annato, beet powder, garlic juice).
  • If it has HFCS it's shit.
  • If it has partially hydrogenated anything, complete shit and dangerous shit to boot.
  • If it has any health claim (low fat, low sugar, low sodium, all natural) be suspicious. It's probably shit. Remember you've never seen a label on a head of broccoli saying "low fat, low sugar, low salt, all natural" -- broccoli has no PR. And organic gluten free cookies are better than non-organic ones, but they are still industrial food from a factory and not real food.
  • If it's part of a media tie in or has a mascot -- it's poo... shit for children.

Avoiding shit

This resembles our fridge right now
If you want to feel better and live longer and have fewer healthcare bills, eating less shit is one way to make that happen. But it's not easy or convenient or particularly cheap -- not in the US at least. Of course, the more time and effort you put in the less expensive it is (sigh). So there's probably a balance that works for you. There are lots of ways to change your diet, based on where you're at in regard to what you eat. No matter what kind of diet works best for you, the first key part is avoiding the bad stuff.

First, keep it out of the house. If you can resist temptation once, at the store, you won't have to resist it over and over again at the cupboard. That means don't shop hungry. In fact don't go anywhere there's lots of unhealthy food on an empty stomach. There's a lot of temptation out there and only so much you can resist. If I avoid the break room on Fridays (where there's free doughnuts) it's not because I'm unsociable. Yes, we often eat too much, but a banana now to avoid the doughnut later is a pretty good trade.

Buy real food for your house instead. Then when the munchies hit, you'll be faced with lots of healthy choices. Bad food is like that hot friend who's a huge psycho mess, but who hogs all the attention. When bad food isn't around, you'll appreciate the veggie-next-door quality of better options. You'll have a chance to get to know the real broccoli and appreciate it's personality. As you buy more real ingredients, start working your way to the better versions of real ingredients. Organic, local, pastured, grass-fed. It really does make a difference. It matters to the planet and it matters for your health.

You have to learn to cook. I'm not a natural cook (baking is my thing). My spouse is the chef of our family (literally) and has taught me a lot over the years. Still, even if you never get beyond following basic recipes, this eating real food thing is not going to work if you can't cook. If you have enough money, you can pay people to cook this kind of food for you, but it's expensive to eat this way already and even more expensive to have someone else provide the labor.

Related to the previous, if you want it, make it. This is another Pollan trick. If you want a treat, you can have it. But only if you make it from scratch. If you want french fries, get ready to chop and deep fry potatoes. If you want cake, great get out the mixing bowls. I have to say that this works better if you aren't a particularly skilled baker. I could probably make a cake or fruit crumble or cookies every weekend. It's still harder than buying it though. And when you make it you control what's in it. I routinely cut the sugar in all baked good by a third. Never miss it. Plus I use real butter rather than partially hydrogenated heart attack goo and often swap sprouted wheat for white flour. I've also done a lot of gluten free baking, which is challenging, but rewarding.

As you do more cooking, start working your way closer and closer to basic ingredients. If you buy canned soup, maybe you start by moving to healthier versions of canned soup. Note, this does not mean low fat soup or low sodium soup filled with unpronounceable ingredients, it means organic, with things in it you can recognize. Then make your own soup with purchased broth. And finally, make your own broth which you use to make soup. If you use cans of cream of something in your sauces, start making your own bechamel. Make your own salad dressing, your own dipping sauce, your own gravy. Of course, only you can say where to stop this process. We still buy quality dry pasta because, while we can and do make pasta from scratch, it's not like we always want to. And frozen veggies are often better than fresh out of season.

You have to cook regularly and make your own basics regularly for this to work. Have you ever watched a cooking show where they were like: "we add sliced ham, cured here in our charcuterie department, a few house-pickled ramps, and some curried fig preserves that we make." And you're like, yeah right, I'm going to make that on a Thursday night. The key is that the parts have already been made. Unless you have a huge extended family, you may never do as much of this as a gourmet restaurant kitchen, because if you make it you have to eat it. But the more you do, the easier all of this gets.

You also need to cook regularly to deal with all the fresh produce you should be buying. Unless preserved, real food goes bad fast. I spent all of Sunday putting up a bunch of peaches and strawberries into low sugar jam, preserves, butter, and pie filling. Note, low sugar means less sugar, not weird chemical sweetener, which I'd only eat if threatened by lions. And the pie filling isn't exactly a health food, but it's so much better than the chemically canned crap at the store. So when the urge for pie (or crumble or buckle or whatever) hits, we can more easily make something at home and avoid Little Debbie temptation.

Choose your packaged and canned food mindfully. We buy our tomato sauce and stewed tomatoes (though canning some is on my list for this summer). We have canned seafood. We buy a few Mexican sauces premade (enchilada sauce and jarred mole) because we love them but they are pretty elaborate to make. We have canned coconut milk for curries and smoothies. We've made our own mayo, but a jar of organic stuff is easier to deal with. And we've never had luck with homemade mustard. The point is that you be aware of these exceptions and make sure they are the exceptions.

No Shit!

Avoiding bad food isn't necessarily easy (though it becomes easier with practice) but I believe it's the single most important thing you can do to improve your life. It will make you healthier now and ensure better health into the future. It's an extremely wise financial investment (when you consider that in the US medical expenses are the biggest cause of bankruptcy). It gives you more energy that you can use to do magic or make changes in your life. It honors both your body and the planet. It's a core pillar of community, family, and love. And it's sustainability in every sense of the word.

Personal note: Yes, posts have been scarce on the ground. There's some major stuff going on, some of which is related to the subject of this blog. I needed some time to catch up on real life stuff, but hope that next week I'll have more bandwidth to write.

Comments

  1. All excellent advice.

    One of the key pieces of advice about cooking that I was given, was to master 5-10 recipes: a few main courses, a few side dishes, and then ring changes/make variants of those. If you know how to make a really good vinaigrette, for example, then you can vary it based on what's available: because you know the core principles. If you know how to sauté a pork chop, you know how to sauté a chicken breast or a steak. If you can roast a chicken with lemons and potatoes and garlic all in the same oven, you can do the same with a leg of lamb, and so on. If you know how to roast cauliflower, chances are you can figure out how to do that for any vegetables. You get the idea, I know... but it's amazing how many people read a menu in a restaurant and thing, "Oh, I could never master that... there's 30 dishes here, how do I keep it clear in my head??" But with a core suite of 5-10 recipes, you can vary your main meals and develop a cycle of leftovers, and eat what you buy—so it's much easier to buy what you eat.

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    Replies
    1. Yes. It reminds me of your comment about "grimoire-like cookbooks." Grimoire-like recipes are those that can be easily customized and transformed. For example, if you can make a basic chicken veggie soup from scratch, you can make dozens of varieties, using whatever's looking wilted in the fridge and with any number of flavor combinations or influences (from pho-like noodle bowls to Mexican tortilla soup).

      The easiest things to do this with are one-pot stews, soups, and casseroles and the 3-part dinners most of us probably grew up with (meat + starch + veggie).

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