Grandma didn’t need to know

We have so much information on nutrition available to us today. Newspapers, books, television, and of course the internet are full of it. Much of it is conflicting, much of it confusing. It seems incredibly hard to stay on top of things, and to know what’s best. Which sometimes make you wonder: Why do we need to know all this? For centuries, people didn’t know, yet they managed. Even our own grandparents didn’t know much about diet and nutrition, and they were absolutely fine. Why do we need to know?

It’s true, my grandparents probably didn’t know an awful lot about nutritional requirements or the nutritional properties of different foods. I was told to eat my carrots for better vision (true!), and to clear my plate for better weather (not true!). After that, there wasn’t much to say.

But then they didn’t need to know. When my grandmother was growing up, all food was organic. Pesticides and factory-farming where yet to be invented. Eggs came, of course, from free-range hens. All food was seasonal and local, fresh from the garden or field. Produce didn’t have to travel very far and so it stayed put to be harvested when ripe and ready, having accumulated plenty of vitamins and phytonutrients in the process. My grandmother didn’t care whether her carrots were wonky or the apples different sizes.

My family preserved the summer and autumn harvests of fruit and veg by canning, making jam and apple sauce, sauerkraut and pickles. Potatoes were dug up and kept in the cellar, where we slowly worked our way through the pile until it was almost gone by the time the next harvest came along.

Yes, sugar was in their lives – not least as a preservative for some foods – but if they wanted cake, waffles or biscuits, they had to make them. Such things were not available in the shops, and there wasn’t any spare money to spend it on such frivolities anyway. So they made their own cake, one a week, shared with the family on a Saturday or Sunday, birthday cakes as required, and once it was gone it was gone.

In her youth, my grandmother never saw a pineapple, avocado or coconut. Didn’t know tofu, soya sauce, miso or quinoa. But she also didn’t see crisps, bottled salad dressings, ready meals, pot noodles, chocolate spread and multi-coloured breakfast cereals.

Our culinary horizons are much wider, but so are our opportunities to make poor choices. My grandmother’s diet contained organic meat from grass-fed cattle, pork from pigs she had known in person, lashings of butter, lard and bacon, lots and lots of superfresh fruit and veg from her own garden. The food she cooked was stodgy and fatty and abundant – apart from wartime meals of course. And yet she was not overweight. Not everyone was slim back then, of course, but overweight and obese people were few and far between. Yes, people died from heart disease, diabetes and cancer then, too, but numbers have been growing consistently since the introduction of factory-farming, grain-fed cattle, hormone and antibiotic use in animals, pesticides, herbicides, environmental pollution, modern preservation methods such as radiation, high-fructose corn syrup, food processing on a large scale …

I grew up just when all that was changing. My grandmother carried on growing, preserving and eating food as she had always known how, so I still saw how it once had been done. But I have always known the shops to be full of convenience foods and as many sugary treats as I wanted. My mother – a young housewife in the Fifties – was thrilled when convenience foods became available. Not only was she not a keen cook, she also loved the modernity of it all. Cooking was so pre-war!

So, growing up I had my fair share of ready meals, fried and deep-fried foods, sugar and fizzy drinks. I always struggled with my weight, but I always had an interest in food and nutrition, so I read and learned and cooked and eventually got an education in diet and nutrition. Over time, I retrained my tastebuds, and most junk food doesn’t appeal anymore – no willpower required. That was quite a liberating experience. I am no stick-insect and never will be, but yo-yo dieting is a thing of the past.

What our grandparents ate is not a million years away. Instead of turning up our noses to the old-fashioned ways, maybe it would be worth looking at their menu with a fresh eye, give it a modern twist and enjoy the foods of our childhood again. Maybe it’s not necessary for everyone to go quite as far back as Paleo. Start by eating real food again. It’s a huge step in the right direction.

Enjoying the processed?

When asked what ‘processed foods’ are, most of us would probably think of ready meals, biscuits, crisps and other snack foods, chips, pizzas, fizzy drinks and the like.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “processed foods” are “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”

This definition seems to include pretty much anything we eat. Even if we do own a farm or garden, we never really eat anything completely unprocessed, even if we are consuming our food raw: We’ll wash and chop lettuce, we’ll shell and chop nuts, we’ll crack and whisk an egg. Usually our home-processing would go further than that: We’ll chop, whisk, blend, cook – and yes, we might also can, freeze, dehydrate or mill at home and throughout history, home-processing did not seem to cause any major health problems.

young woman shopping

Such problems arose only once we started processing foods on an industrial scale. Additives are now used to save money, prolong shelf life, preserve colour and texture despite processing, make sure that the same brand of food always tastes the same – and this doesn’t apply just to packaged food, but also restaurant chain foods. The food industry invests a lot of time and money into research to make sure that they find the “bliss point”: the right combination of sugar, salt and fat that will make the product irresistible to consumers.

Why do we like them?

And those efforts do indeed pay off. We struggle to resist donuts, crisps, chocolate, cheese or our favourite brand of lasagne. In part, this is due to our brain’s “reward system”. For our species to survive and prosper, we need to eat and procreate, so when we eat or have sex, we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do that again. Sweet and/or fatty foods are rich energy sources, so we evolved to particularly like them. When we eat sweet or fatty foods, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. It is, in fact, the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use recreational drugs and plays an important role in addiction. The problem is that when we evolved, sugar was hard to find. It’s not anymore.

Another reason why we struggle to say no to our favourite processed foods is that we grew up liking them. Taste preferences begin to form in the womb, are transferred through breast milk after birth – influenced by what the mother is eating – and then by what we are fed as babies and toddlers. Once formed, they become habits that are hard, but not impossible, to break.

Why shouldn’t we like them?

Industrially processed foods are thought to be at the root of most of our common chronic health problems today. They contain more salt and sugar than we are designed to tolerate, trans-fats, which we are not meant to be consuming at all, and a mix of additives that may perhaps have been tested and passed as safe individually, but nobody could ever test for all possible combinations.

Obesity, ADHD, heart disease, auto-immune diseases (including diabetes II, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancers have been associated with processed foods.

 

What is ‘processed’ to you?

The American writer Megan Kimble decided that an acceptable level of processing for her is what she could – at least in theory – do herself. People who decide to “eat clean” may not eat anything that has a nutrition label, some don’t buy products with more than five ingredients (all of which they can pronounce). The German doctor Max-Otto Bruker said: “Do not eat anything that is being advertised.” And if you think about it, when did you last see a commercial for apples, nuts, or cauliflower?

Despite our evolutionary predisposition and our early childhood experiences, we can learn to love real foods by forming new habits. Strangely, we seem to think that the food industry provides a lot of choice, but really it doesn’t. Processed foods focus on satisfying our reward system by supplying sweetness, saltiness and fat, paired with a certain texture that researchers have found is well received. The world of real foods offers actual variety, and frequent exposure will help appreciate it and form new healthy eating habits.

People who prefer healthy foods (which doesn’t mean that they never eat chocolate or ice cream) don’t feel deprived and they don’t need willpower. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, yoghurt, fresh fish, seafood and meat are their preference, which makes healthy eating effortless. Anyone can achieve that by retraining their taste buds. Just keep trying new, nutrilicious foods. Why not look at it as an adventure that will broaden your horizon?

For more on food processing and convenience, read my tomorrow’s newsletter, Nutrilicious News. There is still time to subscribe. Of course it’s completely free!

Your most hated veg?

This week, our organic vegetable box finally contained something my husband and I have been eagerly waiting for: a bag of Brussels sprouts! Yes, the season has started, and we have no intention to wait until Christmas before tucking in. If anything, we were a little disappointed about the size of the bag: a bit small.

I have always loved sprouts, but apparently not everyone shares that feeling. Much more so than in my home country, I feel that Brussels sprouts are the most hated and probably most misunderstood vegetable in Britain.*

Fresh Brussel sprouts full frame

Continue reading “Your most hated veg?”

How to “just cook something”

Do you like cookbooks and are downloading recipes from the internet all the time? Or do you just cobble something together from what you have?

I love cookbooks and can’t stop buying more, but at the same time I find that more and more often I “just cook something”. Some people swear by meal planning: It helps keeping an eye on what and how much you are eating, and if you are frugal then meal planning is the way to go. You buy what you need for the week or the next few days and then use that. No leftovers. I don’t know about you, but for me that doesn’t really work very well: Continue reading “How to “just cook something””

Can’t really call it “cooking”

A couple of weeks ago, I promised to post a few simple recipes to get you going on the road to culinary expertise. When I say “recipes”, I use the term loosely. Some things are so easy to make that recipes are not required. So here goes:

Fish Parcels

Nothing could be easier. Fish is the ultimate fast food!

All you need is a piece of kitchen foil, a piece of fish (any kind you like) and ingredients you fancy. Pack it all into the foil, scrunch it up and pop in the oven at 180°C for 20 minutes. Done!

You could do fish with

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Can’t cook, won’t cook?

Is that you? Do you think cooking is old fashioned and a waste of time, when these days you could just microwave a ready meal or get a take-away? Why would you cook, when tasty food, cooked by someone else, is so easily available? Here are some reasons why you may reconsider:

It’s healthier

When you cook your own food, you know exactly what’s in it. The more natural your ingredients, the more natural your food. You can buy organic meat, eggs, vegetables, fruits and nuts, but you don’t even have to. If you cannot afford organic food, buying regular ingredients and preparing meals with them is still a far cry from anything you could possibly buy ready made, whether that’s from a shop or a restaurant.

Continue reading “Can’t cook, won’t cook?”