“You are what you eat.”
While this phrase originated with a French author in 1826, it still rings true today.
Food is a a central part of our daily lives and big business. Every day we are bombarded with marketing and information about what we should eat and why, but the intent behind the messages are just as important as the accuracy of the messages themselves.
Over the last 100 years, the Standard North American Diet has evolved through some significant changes. World War I and World War II transformed meals from simple and home-made dishes to largely processed and packaged products. North American health has declined just as dramatically.
In the early 1900s, urban populations were changing meal preparation from farm and home-grown, seasonal fruits and vegetables with local farm meat or hunted game to grocery store ingredients. Meat was a mainstay in family meals but dairy products were not. With the supply chain needed to bring products in-store, new processes and refrigeration options were used to extend the life of perishable products. As electric refrigerators become a home staple, families became increasingly disconnected from the local farms. World War I and World War II increased the range of highly processed foods as technologies were developed to preserve, can, dry and freeze food for army personnel. This transition also introduced civilians to cheaper foods with extended shelf lives that reduced the seasonality and availability of many products. As WWII ended, companies that has been supplying the army turned their attention to family life and started marketing the convenience of their products to the North American housewife. The introduction of industrial farming in WWII with fertilizers and irrigation systems increased yields for grains and vegetables, but decreased the nutrition provided by each crop. This diminished nutritional value translated into animal feed along with declining animal husbandry practices in industrial meat production that has decreased the nutritional content of meat and dairy products.
In the 1950s, the Standard North American Diet took hold as pre-packaged and processed foods, fast food, and the introduction of many synthetic food additives entered the market with little evaluation for their impacts on health. In the 1970s, typical portion sizes also grew by 15-25%; as bigger became ‘better’, food continued to lose nutritional value with the introduction of fillers. Decades later, this diet has been documented to be the source of many chronic illnesses and health problems such as Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, chronic inflammation, diminished brain function, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and cancer.
So if what we are eating is no longer providing us the nutritional value we need to be healthy and is actually causing many of the health issues we are experiencing as a society, what can we do?
Eat a diverse diet. With many processed foods having unnecessary added fats, carbohydrates, salt and additives, eating whole foods is an easy way to avoid many of the ingredients that cause inflammation, the initial catalyst for many diseases, in our bodies. Diversity in our food choices can satiate the flavours we are often craving in processed foods, without the elevated levels of salt, fat and sweeteners.
Prioritize quality over quantity. Modifying grocery shopping to the prioritize foods on the perimeter of grocery stores will increase the unprocessed foods that you can make delicious meals with. (Perishable foods are generally on the perimeter aisles of stores because they need to be restocked more often, where as the boxed and bagged, highly processed products in the middle aisles can stay there for months at a time.)
Learn the foods that work for you. Western Medicine has a prescription for everything; as a science, it prioritizes treating the symptoms over resolving the causes of illness. Indigestion is a reliable first sign that we are eating something that our bodies do not want, but culturally, we often accept indigestion as normal and rarely ask what could be causing it. When we continue to eat foods that disrupt our digestion, we experience bloating, gastro-intestinal disorders, declined brain health, and fatigue. These symptoms make it hard for our bodies to properly absorb the nutrients in our food, so the compounding reduction in nutrition reduces our overall health. Listening to those early indigestion symptoms can help identify foods that that may be worth removing from your diet. Below is a list of foods that cause indigestion.
- Milk ingredients - 10-15% of Americans are lactose intolerant and as we age, our ability to digest dairy products can decrease.
- Sugar replacements - Our bodies process all simple carbohydrates the same way, but marketing campaigns have demonized sugar as a significant cause of Type 2 Diabetes without communicating the fact that many of the sugar replacements found in foods spike our blood sugar at the same or higher levels. The limited calorie reduction in these replacements often makes people feel they can eat more of the products while the sweeteners inhibit our self control.
- High FODMAP foods - Foods that naturally or artificially contain fructose, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polls (sugar alcohols) are added to many of our normal foods, but can create a lot of pain and digestive disruption. If our digestive tract isn’t functioning properly, it affects every other system in our body.
- Fillers - Many companies are making food using higher quantities of cheap ingredients instead of a reduced amount of quality ingredients. Fillers rarely have nutritional function, so learning how to recognize those fillers and focus on quality ingredients can actually be more economical in the long run as we avoid diet related illnesses.
While thinking about dietary changes can feel overwhelming, it doesn't need to be. What's a great place to start? Notice how you feel with the foods you are eating. Are there patterns for when you feel bloated or low energy? Are you craving certain foods for entertainment? Do you feel like you have a healthy diet?
Start with a few of those questions, listen to your body and you will start to gravitate towards a diet that works for you!