Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

How have we forgotten so much about the food we eat?

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Yesterday I was working on this column and it just wasn’t flowing. Quite the opposite, like trying to get glue out of a tube that was opened a year ago…not rock solid, just enough squeeze to keep you trying but a lot of work for each little smidgen of glue that just wants to ball up in a non-adhesive lump. I really didn’t want to put that out to you readers, boring little clumps of thoughts that were trying too hard to be glutinous but would never stick to your ribs.

And then my computer froze up…completely, not just Word. Nothing worked, not the keyboard, the mouse, not even the force quit command that allows a Mac user to escape from a stubbornly unresponsive program. Ultimately, I had to turn off the power, wondering when I had last saved my work. Would those hard-won pearls of not-very-deep wisdom have completely disappeared? Was this cosmic intervention suggesting that would be for the best? I did recover the document but it didn’t look any better; I gave up on it and went to bed.

This morning I woke up with inspiration returned, realizing I could chuck that writing and address something more significant to me and to everyone; that is, the state of our health and well-being. I was attracted to learning about “alternative” medicine in the early 80s, which also has been called, “complementary, wholistic, integrative and natural health.”

Earlier, in 1970, my awareness was raised about the American diet and how badly we were doing when author Adelle Davis published, Let’s Eat Right and Keep Fit. I thought she invented the expression “you are what you eat” but those people who live inside my computer who somehow manage to track down these esoteric bits of knowledge reveal that in 1826, Frenchman Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are]. In 1863, German Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach wrote, “Der Mensch ist, was er isst” which translates as “Man is what he eats.” It was first used in English in the 1920s by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, a strong believer in the idea that food controls health and author of the Catabolic Diet. The view caught on to some degree. In 1923 an advertisement in the Bridgeport Telegraph for the United Meat Markets read, “Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” In 1942, Lindlahr published You Are What You Eat: how to win and keep health with diet, which popularized the phrase more widely as did his radio talks. The phrase (and the wisdom?) went underground for a bit and reemerged in the 60’s with the macrobiotic movement as a slogan for healthy eating. Adelle Davis was at the forefront of the organic food movement; she allegedly attributed the cancer that later killed her to the junk food she had eaten at college.

I take you through that rather tortuous journey to highlight the question that persists for me: How did we get so stupid so quickly about food? People knew in the 1800s, and, no doubt, earlier, that what you put in your mouth affected how you felt and your health but ignored that knowledge as blithely as we have in modern culture. How could we think that we can fuel our bodies with sugar, refined carbohydrates, dyes, preservatives and artificial everything and not pay the piper? When did we forego common sense? If a cave man overindulged in raw yak, then suffered stomach pains and heartburn, don’t you think he probably figured there was a connection?

In the early 1900s, America was still largely agrarian but becoming more urbanized as industrialization gained momentum; people were still eating whole food (not processed) primarily from local farms and personal gardens, grown in rich soil full of essential nutrients. It was a period of time unsurpassed in inventiveness spurred on by the government money that poured into research and manufacturing during both world wars. The country came out of World War II with people ready for better times after two decades of depression and war, hungry for the array of products available for the first time and ready to consume: modern appliances, cars, modern Scandinavian furniture, linoleum and paints available in beautiful colors. Pastels were favorites, especially pink, turquoise and light green as well as bold, contrasting colors to decorate the homes it was now possible to purchase through VA and FHA loans.

Americans were ready to embrace all things modern, which included processed foods, and the food industry was eager to answer the call, promising the 50’s housewife easier, nutritious products to feed her family. With the advent of television and TV trays, dining room tables were often abandoned to enjoy dinner with Ed Sullivan, and fast food outlets were just getting started. I remember my hometown had a Tastee Freeze, an A&W and a McDonald’s, which proudly boasted “over 100,000 sold”, and it was a rare treat for us to be able to go to any of them. When I returned for my 30th class reunion, the main highway was lined with every fast food chain I could think of except for two and it looked like the outskirts of Any Town, America.

My mom was a home economist and presumably pretty smart about food. She and my dad had a huge Victory garden and raised rabbits for meat, but while she prepared mostly whole foods and made bakery goods from scratch, I remember thinking her food was pretty boring and was always craving sweets. I never had fresh spinach or mushrooms until I was an adult since she always used the canned versions, and I never knew that any kind of lettuce existed except for iceberg, which we ate in wedges with sugar on it. I was a sugar addict from as young as I can remember, which may have had something to do with mom’s drinking or her eating habits when I was pregnant; I really don’t know. But, whatever happened in my formative years left me with a lifelong struggle with carbohydrates, and in spite of my seeking out good information about food and other therapies, I managed to remain pretty stupid along with the majority of the population when it comes to making healthy choices.

A 2004 Fortune article summed it up: “Consumers want healthy food options, but they also want indulgent options and they refuse to have to choose between the two.” Yep, that pretty much spells it out: we want to have infinite choices and we don’t want to be forced to choose or be responsible for the choices me make. Multiple diet fads, exercise trends, information and misinformation about nutrition and healthy choices have swept through our culture in the last six decades, but the answers really are pretty simple and clear. I do have some remnants of hope for myself and the rest of us, if only because we’d have to be blind not to see the writing on the wall about our health, individually and as a nation, supported by repeated studies costing billions, revealing over and over that to be healthy, we need to eat a balanced diet of good food (meaning whole food) in moderate proportions, exercise regularly, and get sufficient sleep.

More good news is that there are many health practitioners right here in our area with a lot of good information about nutrition, exercise, and therapies that can help you get on the right track. One group of practitioners, which I’m a part of, will be offering a workshop on improving liver health, which is critical for overall health, on May 13 at 7 p.m. at the Hidden Valley Chalet in Ely for a free will donation. This is one opportunity of many to learn more, ask a lot of questions, and find support for a healthier life.

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