When was the last time you really paid attention to the Food Pyramid? Did you even know it’s now called “MyPlate”? We thought so. After all, U.S. government food icons have been a moving target for years, with many headlines blaming it for our expanding waistlines and poor health. With so many people adapting their own guidelines for eating, from vegan to Paleo to gluten-free, the Feds’ recommendations have, rightly, lost their influence. So here are some ideas for how to build your own ‘plate’ based on success stories from the past few centuries and all over the world.
First let’s look at the government’s recommendations. The pyramid was all about cutting out fat and eating carbs–starches, fruits and vegetables–and lean protein. Myplate made a huge shift. It recommends mostly carbs–fruits, vegetables and grains (and suggests 50% of grains should be whole), lean protein and some dairy. Really? Considering fruits are often loaded with fructose, the sugar that quickly adds fat to our bodies, and we live in a society overloaded with sugar, that doesn’t help. Further, have the Feds forgotten that Americans have brains? Because healthy fats, ignored in all their recommendations, are what feed our brain power.
Based on what scientists have studied around the world, here is a more proven approach: Start with vegetables–this is not up for debate due to their health benefits and disease-fighting fiber, vitamins, minerals and other complexes–then focus on healthy fats and a wide variety of proteins. One of the most crucial aspects of healthy fats is to maintain a balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Right now America’s diet is lacking in Omega-3s due to processed foods. Try to balance your diet with Omega-3-containing fats from fish, such as sardines and salmon, grass-fed beef, eggs from pasture-fed chickens and nuts and seeds including walnuts, pecans, chia, flax, and hemp. Add other healthy oils by cooking with coconut oil and olive oil at low temperatures. Read more about cooking oils in Goodbye Canola, Hello Macadamia. (see Sources below).
This is not new information, quite the contrary. About 100 years ago Weston Price, a dentist, travelled the world documenting the relationship between nutrition and physical degeneration in 14 traditional cultures. Price took care to observe what these healthy cultures were eating as he suspected the key to good health (and good teeth) was in good food. All the native populations he studied made great efforts to obtain seafood, especially fish roe, which was consumed for the health of their children. Even mountain dwellers would make trips to the sea to bring back seaweeds, fish eggs, and dried fish. Shrimp, rich in both cholesterol and vitamin D, was a standard food in many places, from Africa to the Orient. (Did these cultures have excellent health? Need something to tie together the fact that Price used them as a platform. And also the other historical notes that follow.)
Price documented that native diets were rich in fat, especially animal fat. Whether from insects, eggs, fish, game animals, or domesticated herds; they knew that consuming fat was key to staying healthy.
Explorers besides Price have also found this to be true. Anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who lived for years among the Innu and Northern Canadian Indians, noted how the tribes would hunt down older male caribou, prized for their 50-pound slab of back fat. Saturated animal fats contain high amounts of fat-soluble vitamins, as well as beneficial fatty acids with antimicrobial properties, which we need. Here is a simple experiment: Leave a cup of skim milk and a cup of heavy cream on the counter and see which one turns rancid first.
Another healthy suggestion comes from Olde England. Eat vegetables, oily fish, fermented foods, organ meats (they ate the entire chicken), whole grains, and snack on foods high in micro and phytonutrients, such as nuts and seeds. Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham are a nutrition/historian team that understands the history of good health and diet. Their research on the mid-Victorian poor in the U.K. (~1870) shows that this culture achieved good health through their diet. Their findings conclude, “The incidence of degenerative disease was 10% of ours. Their levels of physical activity and hence calorific intakes were approximately twice ours.” Or in other words, foods that all these people ate were natural and unprocessed, without preservatives, additives or colorings. They used honey and syrups as sweeteners. There was no white flour or canned foods. Their milk products were not pasteurized, homogenized or low-fat. Animals were raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, the plants were grown on pesticide-free soil. In short, these people always ate organic and non-GMO.
You can develop a truly healthy diet based on the examples of our ancestors. To get the balance your diet needs, prepare soups and sauces that sneak in fish, and organ meats and vegetables like kale and brussel sprouts. Other ingredients, like tomatoes and spices, can dominate the flavor and texture. Your new food masterpiece may be eaten as is or as a condiment. Or try it as a sauce over spiralized vegetables like spaghetti made from zucchini.
My last recommendation? Forget the Feds’ MyPlate and develop YourPlate.
- Price, W. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Keats Publishing, 1943
- Clayton, Paul, and Judith Rowbotham. "How the mid-Victorians worked, ate and died." International journal of environmental research and public health 6.3 (2009): 1235-1253.