Why you should take dietary advice from your grandmother
Put away the fancy smoothies, kale salads and cold-pressed juice. It could be that noodle soups, lentils and rice, or cabbage with meat are far healthier for you.
Stephen Le is a Canadian biological anthropologist. When his mother died suddenly of cancer at age 66, only two years after her own mother died at 92, Le dealt with his grief by plunging into research. He wanted to understand how there could be such a catastrophic drop in lifespan from one generation to the other, and whether diet played a significant role.
Le’s family emigrated from Vietnam to Canada in the 1960s. While his grandparents stuck to a traditional diet (Le remembers the old rice cooker and a bottle of fish sauce, not much more, in their apartment), his scientist parents embraced every new dietary recommendation, such as replacing butter with margarine and the like.
Over the course of extensive travels and much time spent writing, Le has published a book called “100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today.” He found some interesting things – that humans on average don’t eat more calories now than they did in the past, and that our faster metabolism rates mean that we expend the same number of calories as past generations. So the key must lie in what we are eating.
Le argues that it’s crucial for humans to return to traditional ways of eating and that we’d be much better off following the diet of our great-great-great-great grandparents than paying big bucks for the newest super-fruit discovered in the far reaches of the Amazon rainforest. He says that the food that is healthiest for you (there’s no one-size-fits-all here) is one that’s tied to your particular cultural and genetic heritage – and yet, that’s the very opposite of how we eat these days.
In a review of Le’s book, Maclean’s writes: “We are a society of culinary cherry pickers, unfettered by cultural boundaries. We still love fusion, 25 years later. Our food trick du jour: the lunch bowl, in which Japanese miso, Indian curry, avocados, South American quinoa and Greek yogourt all cohabit, constrained only by a cook’s imagination.”
It is necessary to understand human nutrition and health together with evolution. Le “traces the history of eating from our predecessors’ insect-chowing days of 100 million years ago—we once had abundant enzymes to digest the hard exoskeletons of insects—to a primate fruit diet of 30 to 60 million years ago, through the emergence of dairy and alcohol and on, to see how we got to the present day” (Maclean’s).
He comes out with some surprising directives, such as vegetables aren’t as hugely important as we think. They were relatively late arrivals to the human diet, due to the toxins contained in many vegetables that can actually harm humans. Many symptoms associated with gluten insensitivity could even be triggered by exposure to sugars found in everything from apples, peaches, artichokes, to sugar snap peas and cauliflower.
The idea of returning to a traditional diet is problematic for many Western eaters, as we’ve become accustomed to having a broad range of choices. For many, it’s unthinkable to imagine returning to a monotonous diet of boiled beef, potatoes, and cabbage.
Le suggests choosing any traditional diet (if your own is far too depressing) and sticking to it as much as possible. While traveling, of course it’s important to eat local food, but it’s the everyday choices at home that matter most. So perhaps you should skip the tahini-kale-date almond milk smoothie this morning and try some fried potatoes and fresh apples instead.