Food, part 1: The Biological (and personal)

Food is necessary for human survival. It also is a core part of our culture. It has deep religious significance in many traditions, so much so that many traditions tell you what you can and cannot eat, and when you can and cannot eat it. It’s complicated, and as a culture, Americans are making it even more complicated still.

Food is something that intrigues me greatly, so I’m going to spend some time writing about it. This part, is about biology and health, and food’s role. I might expand on issues relating to our food production system in a later post. I’ll also touch on spirituality and economics in this series. I might even talk about cooking, one of my favorite activities ever.

In my life, I’ve mostly been an omnivore, with some periods where, for health or ethical reasons, I’ve chosen to limit the kinds of food I eat. At times, I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian and a pescadarian (vegetarian who eats seafood.) More recently, I was a vegan because of a flare up of pancreatitis, but now that I no longer live in the city, that has cleared up, and I’m back to being mostly an omnivore (with some refinements I’ll describe in some detail.)

Food, in a biological sense, is either other organisms, or their products. That’s it. There aren’t any other things we can eat that will give us nutrients. Ultimately, even carnivores are dependent on plants (or blue-green algae in the oceans), which are dependent on the sun. It is, then, the sun, through a very complex set of biological processes, that keeps us alive. Every day, we eat the gift of the tiny part of the sun’s energy that reaches this planet.

We are deeply a part of the biological system of the planet, even though we like to forget this. Those organisms, like us, who are at the top of the food chain, are still eventually food for others. It’s the way it works. (I’ll have a spiritual reflection on that in a later post.)

Human beings have, since the agricultural revolution, modified this cycle of life to benefit us. We domesticated animals, selected certain strains of plants that gave us better yields of fruits and seeds. More recently, we have made so many modifications in the cycle of life that we have little idea of what the effects will be. And we don’t really have an idea of how the food we produce, particularly processed food, really affects our bodies.

I live in the country now, and pretty far away from the places I’ve been used to getting food in the city. I now have to go to Safeway for some things. There is a nice, cute, natural food market about 15 minutes away, but it is tiny, and limited in what they have. It has been a very long time since I’ve shopped at a standard grocery store with any regularity. (More on economics in a future post.) I am, frankly, stunned at the things that are called “food.” Sometimes, when I’m behind someone in line who has a basket full of sugary breakfast cereal, frozen pizzas, squishy bread, and not a vegetable in sight, I feel like screaming.

When I got sick two years ago with pancreatitis, I’ve had to really notice what I took into my body. I actually count myself lucky in this regard, now. Because I think that I was slowly making myself pretty sick over the years, even though I only gave McDonald’s (or, more like, Taco Bell) very occasional visits. As much as I like to cook, I still ate a lot of prepared foods, and ate a lot of wheat and soy. And I’ve come to learn that those were a mistake.

Everyone is different – I am not one to prescribe a diet for anyone else except me. And everything I’ve done to figure out my diet in the last two years has been totally experiential. Do I feel better or worse if I eat this thing, or that thing?

And what I’ve found actually is pretty much in line with what a lot of people say about some foods. There is a lot of brou-ha-ha about wheat, and how bad it might be for us. And I’ve found, by experience, that I should not eat wheat. At all. I recently, as a trial, eliminated it from my diet, I felt really great, but it wasn’t until I ate some wheat that I realized that a lot of the arthritis pain that I’d taken as just par for the course had everything to do with my eating wheat. It’s been over a week since I ate wheat, and I’m still feeling it, although I also feel it slowly leaving my system.

So by experience, I’ve found the diet that works for me. Funny, that it’s sort of a mediterranean-paleo hybrid. Tons of vegetables, a lot of fruit, and moderate amounts of other things. I eat more meat than the mediterranean ideal, but less meat (and more legumes and whole grains) than the paleo ideal. I eschew wheat and soy, and any none-whole grains, and as much as I possibly can of things that are processed or prepared. I have yet to figure out how to make my own ketchup or worchestershire sauce, but I’ll be making my own mustard and mayonaise. And, of course, I have to use varied oils, but I try to use those that are less refined. I’m eliminating sugar and juice. I’m considering eliminating most dairy as well, except eggs and occasionally treating myself to cheese (I love cheese.)

It’s actually the diet that many people in the world eat. It’s the diet that humans have largely been eating until the mid-20th century. And, by experience, its the diet that works the best for me.

It’s worth trying, figuring out what works for your body. It takes work and dedication, because it’s not immediate. It sometimes takes eliminating something for a week or more before you feel different. But it’s really worth it. You might end up feeling like this or that health problem that you just thought was par for the course was because you were eating something your body didn’t want you to.