You may wonder what an article on healthy eating is doing on a Permaculture website. Stick with me, and you will see at the end, but I need to build my case here at the beginning. Our health is intimately associated with our diet, and our diet is directly related to our land…. but I’ll get more into that later.

 

Eat this. Don’t eat that. Don’t eat fat. Eat fat. Eat only the “good fat”. Eat eggs. Don’t eat eggs. Eat eggs. Don’t eat eggs. Don’t salt your food. Use sea salt. Use Kosher salt. Just don’t use too much salt. Don’t eat meat. Eat chicken. Don’t eat pork. Eat pork, the other white meat. Don’t eat carbs. Don’t eat bad carbs. Don’t eat animal protein. Eat lean meat. Eat chicken. Don’t eat chicken. Blah, blah, blah!

Ughhh! This is information coming from “health professionals”.  And we wonder why everyone is so confused.

A few days ago, I walked into the living room while my wife was watching the news. There was a man telling the reporter about a new FDA decision about something. The man was a physician, and he was instructing people through the interview about what we should eat. I cannot remember what he was saying, but I can tell you what I do remember… He was fat! We can call it overweight, obese, morbid obesity, or whatever term is politically correct these days. I sometimes say, “he had a copious quantity of extraneous adiposity”, but it is just easier to say that he was fat.

So, seriously? We are going to take the advice of an significantly overweight person on how to be healthy? That is like taking the advice of an alcoholic with cirrhosis (liver disease), who is sipping from an open bottle of whiskey, on ways we can cut back on drinking. It’s absurd!

The reason I bring this up is that as a Family Medicine Physician I am asked almost every day about losing weight and being healthy. As a Permaculturist, I have a bit of a different take on this subject than many physicians. I want to share with you what I tell my patients.

Can you be healthy and be overweight?
Maybe. I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion about definitions of health, but suffice it to say that health is way more than just the absence of disease. Overweight is defined as a BMI (body mass index) of greater than 24.9. A lot of people argue with the concept of BMI. “I am big boned,” they say. “I would look anorexic if I had a BMI of 24.9 or less.” I appreciate the criticism, but the BMI is a pretty darn good measurement of ideal body weight. It is not perfect. This is why I think a person can be in the “low overweight” range and still be fairly healthy. However, the vast majority of people should be in the “healthy weight” BMI category if they want to optimize their health.

Is it all about calories?
Well, yes, kind of. If we want to lose weight, then it is all about calories. It has to be. For our weight to stay the exact same (meaning we are not losing or gaining weight), then we must have the same energy coming in and going out. I cannot tell you how many times people tell me, “I am eating almost nothing, and I am still gaining weight!” So either they are the first person on Earth to break the first law of thermodynamics (they are creating matter out of nothing), or they are wrong. There are only two reasons for their error: they are either lying to me, or (most likely) they are lying to themselves… but not on purpose. Compared to what they used to eat, they have cut way back, but in comparison to what they should be eating to lose weight, they are not anywhere close.

I had a callous professor once say, “There were no fat people in concentration camps.” While I question his tact, he was correct. It is impossible to maintain, or gain, weight when we do not eat. We need to understand this basic truth if we are to move forward. It is scientifically impossible to gain weight when we are not taking in calories (please dismiss the argumentative statements… i.e. what if a person drank ten gallons of water?).

So again, energy in has to equal energy out for our weight to stay the same. We can only take in energy through food. We can only lose energy through exercise and through something called our basic metabolic rate (BMR). Our BMR is not difficult to understand. If you were knocked in the head and put into a coma, and you had IV’s giving you water, but no food (what we call parenteral nutrition), then over time you would lose weight. Your body burns energy (i.e. calories) just to keep your cells alive.

There are some people, who I rather dislike, who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight. These people have a high BMR. Then there are other people, like me, who have a normal or low-normal BMR. We gain weight easily. Too easily! Occasionally, there are those who have a BMR that is too high or too low, and these people usually have problems with their thyroid. However, this is very uncommon compared to the numbers of people who are overweight, so let’s just assume that we do not have thyroid issues for now.

Therefore, if we want to lose weight, then we have to take in fewer calories than we burn, or we have to burn more calories than we take in.

Can I exercise more to lose weight?
Yes, but not really. We used to be told that one pound (0.45 kg) is equal to 3,500 calories. Recent research (well, not that recent anymore) shows that this is an oversimplification. However, while it is not terribly accurate, we have no other good references for calories and weight loss. With that said, I still like to use this as a generalized rule of thumb. I know that if I run for 20 minutes at a bit faster than jogging pace, I will burn 200 calories. I would need to run for almost 6 hours to burn 3,500 calories. That is more running than most people do. That is really more running than I recommend as well. So unless you are training for a marathon or triathalon, we are not really going to lose much weight with moderate, regular exercise.

Do you recommend exercise?
Yes! Both cardiovascular exercise (walking fast, aerobics, etc.) and resistance exercise (weight lifting, shoveling, etc.) is good for our body. It reduces heart attack risk, stroke risk, cancer risk, depression risk, constipation, osteoporosis, and multiple other things. It improves overall health. It helps us maintain weight that we have lost, but there are very few studies that show moderate exercise alone will help you lose weight. I have many additional thoughts about exercise, but I will save that for another article.

So the key to losing weight is counting calories?
Technically, the key to losing weight is to take in less calories than we burn. That translates into eating less calories. I have never recommended counting calories to lose weight. I will never, ever recommend counting calories to be healthy.

You make it sound like losing weight and being healthy are two different things.
They are! If it is all about calories, then we could eat two candy bars a day and lose weight. One Snickers bar has 280 calories. So two bars would be 560 calories for the day. If that were all the calories we consumed each day, we would lose weight. Easy, right? Sure, but it would be very unhealthy. We would lose weight and be malnourished. It cannot just be about calories.

This disconnect between calories and being healthy is a big contributor to the poor health of our nation and our modern world. We are so concerned about eating “low calorie” that we consume things that are hardly capable of being called food, and we think we are being healthy.

Okay then, what is healthy food?
Now we come to the crux of the entire issue… What should we eat? I am not going to write a whole book on this. Heaven knows, we have enough books written about what we should (or should not eat). All these books are not getting us any healthier or skinnier, so let’s toss out the books. Let’s forget what all the doctors say. Let’s ignore all the conflicting health research. Let’s just examine some history. Let’s think about what people ate before all the books and doctors and health researchers. Let’s go back 10,000 years.

If you are a strict evolutionist, you can reason that what people were eating before modern civilization and modern agriculture is what humans evolved to eat through selection pressures. If you believe there is a God who created us, then we can say that what people ate before modern civilization is what were designed to eat. Either way you look at it, going back in time will give us a more clear idea of what humans are supposed to eat.

Ten thousand years ago, people were, by and large, hunter-gatherers. I am sure there are exceptions, as there are to everything in life, but in general, this is a very good place to start. What did hunter-gatherers eat? They ate fruits in season. They ate vegetables (herbaceous plant material that is not fruit) in season; but due to plants growing much of the year, they ate more vegetables than fruit. They ate nuts in season. They ate animals whenever they could; and it is important to note that animals would be available all year long in most climates. They probably ate tubers and other seeds and grains on occasion, but this was a small portion of their diet… it had to be. There were no improved grain varieties or mass cultivated fields to collect this food source. They also ate mushrooms on occasion if they knew how to identify them and did not have any cultural taboos to eating them (we know some paleolithic peoples ate mushrooms as we have found edible species on frozen people!). Some people in certain regions likely ate some dairy, and some people in certain regions likely ate more legumes (beans or peas and their kin).

When we make grains a regular and bulk part of our diet, as has been recommended by numerous government agencies and medical professionals, we have a very real chance of making ourselves unhealthy. Carbohydrates in general, and grains and starches in particular, cause our blood sugar (glucose) to shoot up. Our body releases insulin to counteract this elevated glucose. Insulin causes our glucose to drop. After a heavy load of carbohydrates, our insulin shoots up fast and high. Then our glucose drops fast and goes low. We feel tired at best and sick, shaky, and ill at worst. This yo-yo-ing through the day causes us to end up eating more to counteract the low glucose episodes. This is exactly what leads to diabetes (medically known as diabetes mellitus type 2). This is one of the reasons we take in more calories than we need, and we get fat.

The bottom line is that, in general, humans ate vegetables, meat, fruit, and nuts as their main food source with limited amounts of (if any) tubers, grains, other seeds, mushrooms, and dairy.

This sounds just like the Paleo Diet I keep hearing about.
There is a lot of historical, anthropological, and medical research to support eating in a way similar to the hunter-gatherers of paleolithic times. It is from this research that people have developed dietary guidelines and “diet plans”, and one of the most common iterations is the Paleo Diet. If I go to a book store to find a diet book that is most closely in line with what we should be eating, the Paleo Diet books are probably the closest. The information put out by the Weston A. Price Foundation is also very good. I will never agree entirely with one book or another when it comes to dietary recommendations. The Paleo Diet is no different. There are Paleo Diet books that give recipes for making “paleo pancakes” and “paleo ice cream” and who knows what else. If a person is trying to eat all the same foods as they did before, but they are going to “make it Paleo”, then they kind of missed the point.

Let me be clear. I am not endorsing a specific Paleo Diet. I am promoting a diet that resembles a hunter-gatherer diet from 10,000+ years ago. Because the concept of the Paleo Diet is so similar to what I recommend, it is often easier to just say “Paleo Diet”.

But I saw this TED Talk that said we should not eat the Paleo Diet.
Yes, I saw the same video. If you are going to watch it, please watch the entire video. Professor Christina Warinner’s initial attack of the “Paleo Diet” has some significant errors. I don’t have the desire to take her on point by point (I can, and maybe I will someday), but here is a link to a pretty good rebuttal. However, I will address a few of the major problems with this lecture.

One of the most glaring errors is that she states that humans have no adaptations to eat meat like a carnivore. But, she states, we have many anatomical adaptations similar to herbivores. I have seen variations of this argument for well over a decade. The thing that these agenda-driven people cannot understand is that it is not about carnivores vs. herbivores. There is a third entity… omnivores! Omnivores eat meat and plants. Omnivores don’t have short intestinal tracts like carnivores, and omnivores do not have rumens or chew cud like herbivores. Omnivores fall in between, and humans are omnivores!

Next, Professor Warinner states that the Paleo Diet of today is nothing like what the paleolithic people ate. Again, I think she misses the point. Of course, we are not going to go eat mastadon steaks today. Of course, the fruits and vegetables from back then are not the same ones we eat today; our modern fruits and vegetables were all selectively bred and developed over generations and rarely resemble their original form. The concept of the Paleo Diet, and the idea that I fully endorse, is that we need to be eating more vegetables, more fruit, more meat and fat (of the right kinds!), while decreasing or eliminating our grain, starch, and processed food consumption.

She also asserts that eating a Paleo Diet cannot be recommended on a large scale, because we cannot feed the world this way. This is entirely wrong! I will address this more later in the section on Permaculture, but please understand that this is just not true.

Finally, to be fair, I must add that the second half of her presentation is really quite good. It has some great information about plants and regionality, eating whole foods, eating in season, and preserving the good bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract.

 

Dr. Permaculture’s Guide to Healthy Eating (Part 2) coming soon

 

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