There’s been a lot of debate lately—much of it quite heated—about what sort of diet is best. Vegetarians tell us their diet is the one. Vegans believe their diet is better still. Omnivores insist that meat and other animal products are essential for optimal health. Still others believe that we should eat mostly raw foods. The level of passion in these discussions is reminiscent of the arguments in the Middle Ages over the One True Religion.
Over the years, I’ve met many devotees of each philosophy—some of them healthy and some not so healthy. And since many of these beliefs directly contradict one another, it’s difficult to know who’s right.
But I think I have the answer. They’re all correct…for them. If you’re a vegetarian, your food tastes good and you’re vigorous and healthy, you should be a vegetarian. Same goes for an omnivore. If you like animal products and you feel good, then that’s the right diet for you.
Before I go any further, I should point out that I’m not a doctor, don’t have medical training, and I don’t work in the health field. So this is more of a philosophical treatise than a medical one. Believe this if my line of reasoning makes sense to you, but not because I’m some sort of expert whose pronouncements can be taken on faith.
Each of our bodies is a collection of hundreds of systems—digestive, circulatory, respiratory, etc. All of these operate in dynamic balance with the other systems. So when there’s a change in one system, the others must adjust to keep things in balance.
When you eat, for example, you activate the digestive system. The circulatory system adjusts to this change by diverting more blood to the stomach and intestines. Other systems within the body also adjust to the decreased blood flow and thus the dynamic balance is maintained. Every time something changes in one system, the others adjust themselves to the new circumstances.
Because of this incredibly complex balancing act, it is meaningless to characterize one diet as optimal for all humans. Since each of our bodies must balance its systems in its own way—based on its unique genetics and environment—what works for one person might be disastrous for another. Scientists call this “biochemical individuality.”
Every couple of years, physicians and researchers tell us something new about our diets. Once we were told to eschew butter in favor of margarine. Now we’re told the opposite. Once we were told that we should eat lots of red meat. Now we’re advised to reduce or eliminate it from our diets.
So who are we to believe? The doctors? The vegetarians? The omnivores?
Well, we all have a much more reliable source of nutritional advice than all of these put together: our own bodies. Perhaps it’s the puritanical belief that our natural impulses are base and wicked, but most of us have been conditioned to ignore our bodies’ messages, especially when they contradict the prevailing wisdom. When we crave something or it tastes extra good it is—I believe—our body’s way of telling us what we need.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. I’m not advocating just eating anything you want. There are a few rules that are important to follow, since modern processed foods are designed to trick our bodies. They make us think we’re getting something we need when we aren’t. And our body can’t tell us what it wants if it doesn’t know what it’s getting.
That’s the dirty little secret of the processed food industry. The taste of these foods doesn’t so much come from the vegetables, meats and spices in them, but from added flavor concentrates. Because processing effects flavor, either weakening it or changing it to something unpleasant, quite often the taste that you think is coming from the food ingredients is really from artificial or natural flavorings.
So you can’t really follow your cravings if you eat processed foods. If the ingredient label says “artificial flavor” or “natural flavor,” it means that your body is being tricked. Your craving for, say, bell peppers will be satisfied if the taste of fresh bell peppers is there, even if the nutrients you need from those peppers have been washed out by processing.
Moreover, many of the additives in processed food aren’t there to make it more flavorful or nutritious, but to enable it to withstand the long trip to market and to extend its shelf life. So you have preservatives, chemicals to inhibit the formation of ice crystals, chemicals for the retention of color, etc. None of these additives make the food more healthy.
To avoid this problem, I follow the “200-Year Rule.” If something hasn’t been widely consumed by humans for at least 200 years, I avoid it. So that means no processed foods, no refined sugar and no bleached, fortified white flour. It also means buying organic whenever possible. Other than that, I eat anything that tastes good to me.
For me, that means a diet rich in meat, potatoes and dairy, with very little in the way of grains or green vegetables. While, according to common wisdom, this diet should leave me in horrible health (and likely would for someone else, if their cravings told them otherwise); the effect has been the opposite.
For thirty years I had stomach trouble about three times per week—ranging from a little heartburn to, about once a month, major stomach pain that kept me up all night. It had been going on for so long—regardless of what I ate—that I had assumed it was just something I had to live with. But once I began eating only what I craved—and ignored the food advice that almost everyone wanted to give me—I found the problem disappeared completely. I literally haven’t had any indigestion in over a year and my overall health is better than its been in decades.
So who ya gonna believe? Doctors and researchers whose advice seems to reverse itself every five or ten years, or your very own body—your oldest and most intimate friend? Doctors can only tell us what is good (they believe) for the average person—one size fits all. But our body tells us exactly what is best for us at any given moment. And it tells us with taste and cravings.
All we have to do is pay attention.
WILLIAM B. MC LAUGHLIN
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