Low-carb, keto, low-fat, Atkins, no sugar, gluten free, carb-counting, paleo… Do you feel like you need an advanced degree in nutrition to know what to put in your mouth in order to eat healthy? These days it seems necessary and it’s maddening. No other species on the planet has this kind of problem when it comes to eating. We’re the only ones who don’t seem to have a clue about one of life’s basic survival functions.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Good health revolves around one principle: eat real food. But even then people aren’t sure what’s real food. Here’s the foolproof rule for eating healthy.
If your great-great-great grandma or anyone’s grandma anywhere in 1801 wouldn’t recognize the food or the ingredients in it, put it back on the shelf and don’t eat it.
It’s really that simple.
Why Your 1801 Grandma Ate Best
So why an 1801 grandma? Well, most of our health and weight problems are modern problems that have roots beginning in the mid-1800s when technology began to drastically alter our food culture. Back when our 1801 grandmothers were alive, poor sanitation, childbirth complications, and communicable diseases were the major killers. Now its heart disease (which is getting diagnosed younger and younger).
Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune illnesses and so much more are relatively new phenomena that have exploded across modern life. The changes are most noticeable around our waistlines. Back in the 1970s, being overweight lifted eyebrows when we carried 10 extra pounds. In the 90s it meant carrying 20 extra. Now it requires a lot more because it’s so common. And it’s not just weight problems and their associated health risks that we have but other health problems too. Today 30% of Americans have diabetes and another 30% are pre-diabetic. The majority of people are overweight and more than 30% are obese. New names are being coined every day for new diseases. The latest seems to be diverticulitis. Everyone seems to have it. Tomorrow it’ll be something else and become just as widespread because we’re not changing our eating habits, just making them worse.
Meanwhile our 1801 grandmothers didn’t need to diet. They ate real foods: meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, and tubers. These foods came locally from the garden or market, freshly purchased from the butcher or raised on the farm. Preserved meant smoking, curing or brining with simple ingredients.
So much has changed since the early 1800s but when it comes to health, it’s a game changer. Sanitation, infant and mother mortality, and communicable disease deaths and illnesses are luckily a fraction of what they used to be. Meanwhile diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, cancer, and so much more have exploded in Western culture and gone global.
Why? Our foods have undergone a massive revolution. While yields have skyrocketed where theoretically we can feed the entire planet, many of the manufacturing changes have actually made us worse off health-wise. Here’s what has changed since your 1801 grandma was living and how it’s affected our health.
One of the major changes that have negatively impacted our health is the proliferation of sugar into our diets. In 1801, your grandma would have recognized sugar but only as a spice the wealthy bought. Not until the 1850s did sugar processing technology develop to refine and produce sugar in quantity. In fact, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services, we went from 3 pounds of sugar per person per year in the early 1900s to 153 pounds per person per year in the current decade.
Today it’s in everything. Of course we eat snacks and desserts all the time but it’s not just in our ice creams and Twinkies but also in our drinks, breads, sauces and yogurt that have become daily rituals.
Basically we’re eating as much sugar in a week as our 1901 grandmas ate in a year. But our 1801 grandma? Nope, minuscule amounts if then. She wouldn’t recognize it as an ingredient in most foods or if she did, it would be a spice. Like cinnamon.
In 200 years we’ve really done damage on ourselves with sugar. It’s the first place we need to start when it comes to changing our food lifestyle and regaining our health.
But sugar isn’t the only game changer. Your 1801 grandma also didn’t use sugar as a preservative. Mostly she used salt. It wasn’t until the mid 1900s that processed foods came along thanks to advances in chemistry for creating new preservatives and artificial flavors but also due to new technology for manufacturing refined sugar, refined flour and processed oils. Microwaveable meals, frozen foods, kits, snacks, junk food, chips and so much more are relatively new phenomena that benefit from these technological shifts.
Refined flour is practically dead flour with so little nutrition that it needs fortification. It can sit on shelves forever without spoiling (because nothing wants to eat it, not even bacteria). Refined flour also enters the blood stream with a higher glycemic load than sugar, spiking your blood sugar and helping you eat your way to added weight, diabetes and more. In the West, we live off refined flours. It’s the major vehicle for many of our staples. A close second is corn and all its products from high fructose corn syrup to corn-based chips and cereals that come from refined corn flour.
Thanks to processing, that flour or corn product also comes with added preservatives and other chemicals and stabilizers you’d need a PhD in chemistry to understand. Certainly your 1801 grandma wouldn’t recognize them or use them. They’re also full of salt, sugar and oil. And while your 1801 grandma’s pantry might contain some salt and oil, she mostly cooked with lard and tallow conserved from cooking meats – not the hydrogenated or other processed oils of today that go into everything.
Another change from your 1801 grandma’s day to day life is how impersonal we are with our food. Your 1801 grandma usually cooked her meals from mostly local sources. She was hands on in the process. Today we live in a culture of convenience. We don’t grow our food or really know much about its origins or manufacturing methods. We pick up packaged kits, meals, frozen entrees, junk food, or eat out. That convenience food comes at a health cost, especially over the long-term.
Your 1801 grandma wouldn’t recognize much in the modern food production process. Food is grown today using vast amounts of pesticides on vast swaths of monocultured lands. It’s GMO’d, picked before ripe, gassed, doctored, processed and shipped across the world. Animal farm conditions are horrendous and the animals are raised on unnatural diets, hormones, antibiotics and who knows what else. Processed food comes with some of these rendered animal and plant ingredients but also with a huge helping of chemicals for flavor, texture, stability, shelf-life, color, and more. The packaging makes up for all these flaws, as does the flashy marketing to convince us to eat it.
Basically we’ve outsourced control over our plate to the multi-billion dollar food industry, trusting its manufacturers to produce our food. Yet they’re in it for profit, not for our health, and every day they are looking for new ways to cut costs while addicting and hooking us into buying their products. They’re succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.
Time & Culture
You could claim that we are pressed for time today so lack time to cook or that eating healthy is expensive but plenty of other modern countries and cultures around the world do just fine. Places like New Zealand, Italy, Japan and other parts of the world don’t have our obesity or food-related illness statistics. Plenty of us here in the US eat healthy without cashing a whole paycheck on food too.
The trick is relearning how to shop for and eat real food after a life-time of convenience “food products” that are killing us.
Our 1801 grandmas cooked meals and knew the ingredients that went into every meal. These ingredients were ones she could grow or raise on the farm, buy locally at the market, or create in the kitchen without a chemistry lab or advanced degree in food science. They were whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and tubers or butcher-fresh meats. If you said an ingredient, she had a mental picture and understanding of exactly what it was. How much of what you put into your mouth can you say the same about? How much of what you’re consuming contains ingredients you can only make in a lab?
The fact that most of what we eat isn’t real food or contains chemically produced ingredients should actually worry you when you sit and think about it. The billion dollar marketing on TV and in all our media does a good job distracting us from this unnatural fact.
Eat Like Your 1801 Grandma
If you want to be healthy, eat real food. If you’re not sure if something is healthy for you, you don’t need an app or guru or a nutrition degree. Just ask yourself if your 1801 grandma (or anyone’s in the world back then) would recognize the food or its ingredient. Most of the “foods” on our grocery shelves flunk this basic test. But then again, most of what we put into our mouths isn’t healthy. The average American diet consists 62% of processed foods. 42% of all calories come from low-quality carbs. We are literally eating ourselves to death. To reverse the trend, we need to rein in our taste buds and rediscover real food – the kind that actually contains nutrition that our bodies evolved to consume, not the junk we’ve grown accustomed to eating.
Toss the diet and ever-changing nutrition advice. Simply shop with this one foolproof rule in hand. Every item you pick up, ask if your 1801 grandma would recognize the food or its ingredients. If she wouldn’t, put the toxic “food” back on the shelf and move on. It may be difficult at first but over time you’ll rediscover real food and how wonderfully delicious, inexpensive and healthy it can be. Your life and health will change for the better too.
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