I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
There are few areas of modern life that are burdened by as much information and advice, often contradictory, as our diet and health: eat a lot of meat, eat no meat; whole-grains are healthy, whole-grains are a disaster; eat everything in moderation; eat only certain foods--and on and on. In One Hundred Million Years of Food biological anthropologist Stephen Le explains how cuisines of different cultures are a result of centuries of evolution, finely tuned to our biology and surroundings. Today many cultures have strayed from their ancestral diets, relying instead on mass-produced food often made with chemicals that may be contributing to a rise in so-called "Western diseases," such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity.
Travelling around the world to places as far-flung as Vietnam, Kenya, India, and the US, Stephen Le introduces us to people who are growing, cooking, and eating food using both traditional and modern methods, striving for a sustainable, healthy diet. In clear, compelling arguments based on scientific research, Le contends that our ancestral diets provide the best first line of defense in protecting our health and providing a balanced diet. Fast-food diets, as well as strict regimens like paleo or vegan, in effect highjack our biology and ignore the complex nature of our bodies. In One Hundred Million Years of Food Le takes us on a guided tour of evolution, demonstrating how our diets are the result of millions of years of history, and how we can return to a sustainable, healthier way of eating.
This author tackles a variety of interesting topics, each one feeling like it could be the basis for its own book. He plunges right in, pointing out that many primates are insectivorous and that many traditional cuisines include insects on the menu. Fortunately or unfortunately (whichever way you choose to look at it), most of us have lost our taste for the chitinous creatures and our prejudices have rubbed off on those who earlier in history did enjoy this high protein foodstuff. (Just for the record, I will NOT be joining this movement!)
Wherever you look nowadays, there is someone who is willing to tell you what you should be eating and why. Should we give up meat? If so, should we eat dairy products or should we go vegan? Should we be eating fish? How about agricultural staples like wheat or legumes? You can find opinions on all of these questions, just hunt around on the internet for a little while.
As Stephen Le points out, some of these issues are going to boil down to sustainability issues. We are rapidly depleting the ocean’s fish and clearing the oxygen-generating forests to create grazing land for cattle, which are quite inefficient at converting vegetation into flesh.
What I really liked was his sensible suggestion that we quit looking at food in terms of specific nutrients and instead consider it in whole cuisines. So a person should consider their genetic heritage and try eating more foods consistent with what their own specific ancestors ate. As a descendant of Danish immigrants, I am probably fine eating dairy products (while many Asian and Native Canadians lack the digestive enzymes to deal effectively with lactose). I should also consider including more fish in my meal planning (pickled herring, anyone?) to mimic the ancestral condition. However, I am a devoted maker of curries and stir fries, not very Scandinavian!
Lots to think about, but nothing startling. Yes, we should exercise more (going walking this evening), eat more like our ancestors (without worrying about going all Paleo), worry less about vitamin pills (as my doctor says, they just produce expensive urine), and eat real food (shades of Michael Pollen).
A nice summary for those who aren’t sure about all the food wars raging in cyberspace.