Original Link : https://heated.medium.com/how-to-eat-8cfe8e954f6c

Why isn’t this clear already?

When I was writing for the Opinion section of the Times, I had a number of close advisors. On nutrition matters, I came to rely more and more heavily on David Katz. Later, we became friends and, in 2018, I asked him to sit down and talk with me about how we should be eating, for a Grub Street piece which ran (untruthfully) as “The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right.”

The response was tremendous, as one of the most-read articles of the year — not just in food; not just for New York Magazine, but online, period.

What we didn’t realize until then, was the degree to which people are looking for guidance on how to eat from people they can trust. And that we qualified.

The net result is our new book, “How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered.” In it, we answer what we gathered and hope are the most pressing questions about diet that confront many readers. We think it’s a useful tool to understand, commit to and maintain a truly healthy diet, and one that will serve as a useful counter to all the bullshit out there.

Here’s an excerpt, beginning with the most obvious question.

“How to Eat” by Mark Bittman and David L. Katz, M.D., is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available here on March 3.


Shouldn’t “how to eat” be clear already?

In a way, it is. Every animal knows how to eat, and only in humans (and the animals under their control) has this been perverted. In the last century or so, we’ve been led astray. And we’re so far from our origins that it’s proving hard to find our way back.

Yet there’s nothing more important: Food is the fuel that runs every function of the complex human machine. It is the source of construction material for the growing bodies of children and all the replacements adult bodies require on a daily basis. What we eat is crucial to the integrity of the nervous system, the balance of hormones, the function of our blood vessels, the responses of the immune system. If there were one thing we’d say, it’s this: You don’t want to eat non-food. Period. But we’ll get back to that.

Take me back to a time before mass food production.

Close your eyes and try to imagine: Nearly every culture since the dawn of agriculture relied on grains as the foundation of their diet; they were (and are) inexpensive because they were (and are) easy to grow in quantity.

Everyone ate mostly . . . what?

Virtually everyone ate grains: rice, wheat, corn, millet, depending on the region. Grains were staples. In some places, the aristocracy ate delicacies.

Like what?

Like meat. Until recently, eating meat was a rare indulgence. Which wasn’t a bad thing: Low consumption of animal products is good for all parties concerned (humans and animals). And until the 20th century, the harm imposed on the animals was minimal.

The 20th century was a turning point, and a marked departure from all prior history. While people used to eat food that was almost exclusively grown nearby, now we have commodities — including meat — produced in industrial conditions and shipped all around the world. And the harm imposed on animals raised for food is incalculable.

But to be clear, until recently humans lived on a plant-based diet?

Yes, almost entirely; there was no choice. Where there are exceptions due to survival imperatives — where people like the Inuit must eat a great deal of meat because that’s what there is — they are not generally associated with enviable health outcomes. But most humans were plant-predominant omnivores. We have a really good extant example of that in the Bolivian Tsimané — also known as the Chimane — a tribe of modern-day foragers who came to scientific attention in the last couple of years because they have the cleanest coronary arteries known to science, and have absolutely no heart disease.

How is that possible?

A big part of that is their lifestyle, which includes a mostly plant-based diet. They eat plants that they grow and find locally. If it’s a bad crop season, they hunt and fish.

It’s not just a connected, healthy way to live — it’s their only choice. Throughout history, the traditional practice of eating a plant-based diet was about expediency, survival, and making the most out of what was available; people weren’t thinking about environmental footprint or ethics. Those are modern indulgences: We have so much food — and so much impact — that we must make choices.

How do we even know that in the past, almost everyone was a plant-predominant omnivore?

Evolutionary biology. We also know what there was to eat, and we know that humans are naturally omnivorous. What our taste buds like is not accidental. What tastes good is associated with survival.

Then why do I adore ice cream? That can’t be the best choice for my survival.

We like sugar for good reason — breast milk is sweet; so are fruits.

What’s the reasoning behind my addiction to salty food?

We can think of our origins in the briny deep where sodium is everywhere; we were adapted to actually be soaking in the stuff. Then we crawled out of the ocean and figured out how to make a living on land — leaving all of our treasured sodium behind. We were obligated to go from being good at expelling the excess (as all sea creatures do) to being good at finding some (as most land animals work to do).

In the natural world on land, it isn’t easy to get a lot of salt, which is why most terrestrial animals look for it. (This is why your dog likes to lick your skin when you’re sweaty, deer go to a salt lick, elephants gather to suck up mineral-rich mud, and so on.) Once humans began to mine salt, it became easy to get. But our cravings for it are ancient, and baked into our DNA: Give us a more-than-adequate supply, and we may overconsume. You don’t stop having Stone Age impulses just because they no longer serve you well in a modern world.

Can evolutionary biology explain why I love fried food and a greasy hamburger? It would make me feel better to have scientific justification.

In addition to responding to sweet and salty tastes, our taste buds also reward us for the feel and texture of fat because it’s the most energy-dense of the three macronutrients, with more than twice as many calories per gram as protein and carbs. If you were living in a world with scarce food and working hard to chase after your calories, fat would be a huge win. So, yes — it makes sense to love grease, to love salt, to love sweet; they’re the trifecta of survival in a world where finding food meant hunting and foraging.

Why aren’t our taste buds designed to find vegetables as delicious as junk food?

Plants tend to be energy dilute; wild animals aren’t high in fat, either. People had to work really hard to find high-calorie, energy-dense foods like nuts, seeds, eggs, organ meats, and bone marrow. It makes sense that the people who found those foods were better at making babies than the people who didn’t.

You’re saying that all the unhealthy cravings I have are linked to ancient survival instincts?

Yup. But remember, these things were not unhealthy when they were scarce and hard to find; rather, our ancestors needed them. Salt is not unhealthy unless you get too much, and you need some to live; same with fat. Sugar is not unhealthy when the only places to find it are breast milk, whole fruits, and honey you have to wrestle from a swarm of angry bees. The cravings were good in their native context; we’ve changed that context.

Ha! That’s ironic.

Yes, and unfortunate: Food processors take advantage of our taste buds to make us buy their products.

Are we so easily manipulated? Is there a way out? Or are we doomed to eat junk forever?

The good news is that taste buds are adaptable little things (they’re bundles of nerves, actually), and readily learn to love the foods they’re with. One of the most potent determinants of dietary preference is familiarity. So, yes, we all have some native tendencies cooked into our DNA. But what we choose to eat powerfully shapes our actual preferences.

Consider the transcultural evidence of that: Traditionally, Mexican babies learned to love rice and beans; Indian babies learned to love dal and chapati; Japanese babies learned to love fish and tofu; Inuit babies learned to love seal; and American babies . . . learned to love Froot Loops. This shows that what we eat can shape what foods we prefer. And in that resides the tremendous promise of “taste bud rehab,” and the chance we all have to learn to love food that loves us back.

I need to start my taste bud rehab ASAP. There are so many diets I could choose for this. If you had to use one word to describe a healthy diet, what would it be?

Balance.

Like “everything in moderation”?

Corny as it is, that’s about the right mantra for diet. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and contains some saturated fat. But you can’t point to saturated fat in this instance and say that it’s doing any harm, because it fits into an overall balance of nutrients. Balance confers an overall health benefit.

But let’s be careful about “everything” and “moderation.” There are foods — let’s call them junk foods! — that are best avoided altogether, for reasons of health, ethics, and/or environmental impact. And moderation readily becomes a slippery slope, where a little of this and a little of that . . . adds up to a LOT of “this + that.” But if a diet is mostly made up of the right stuff — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and plain water — then truly most else in genuine moderation would be OK.