What on earth is that term…”re-wilding,” and what does it have to do with health, fitness, nutrition, performance, and longevity? Perhaps more than you can imagine…
Over the last 2.5 million years or so, we humans have spent the majority of our eating careers focused in the consumption of wild food. Only in the last 10,000 to 12,000 years have we shifted a portion (and a large one for many) of our diets toward agricultural products. Chief among these is plant material produced through farming and meats garnered via the slaughter of domesticated animals. And over the past two centuries, we have been part of an ever-increasing production and consumption of hyper-palatable, highly processed, food-like substances. My premise in today’s post is to postulate how our taste buds, brains, and waistlines have been hijacked, and what we can do about this situation.
As we go along, I’d like to talk (write) about grains, sugar, oils, fruits and vegetables, and meat. There are many other topics and my challenge will be to remain concise, but I want to make a case against the artificiality of the modern diet and offer some perspectives and simple suggestions for re-wilding our palates. I’ll emphasize some of the popular talking points and concerns on this subject and I really want all this to come across in favor of enlightenment as opposed to judgement or condemnation. Like it or not, we all are in this food thing together, and we need to work hard to keep food as nourishment and celebration, not as a harbinger of rage, victimization, and poisoning.
This isn’t a post to tell you how or what to eat in specifics. It is merely a general viewpoint shared by many. Whenever we get into this topic, I think it is always paramount to be respectful of others and their situations. Food is surrounded by tradition, religion, and emotion. Availability and affordability is not the same for every person…far from it. Getting our food supply to be more natural, real, fresh, and whole for every person is not a simple consideration. And even when better food is an option, getting people to eat it as opposed to the junk food alternatives which are everywhere is a real challenge. We’ve been blasted with propaganda to consume processed garbage. It is devoid of nutrients, extremely addictive, inflammation-provoking, and the amount of corporate brainwashing that has supported junk food is hard to even comprehend. My position today is that in large part this marketing has been successful because our palates, and our metabolisms, have grown over the last two centuries to actually prefer calorically-dense, nutrient-poor fake food. As I list out some of the issues with our food supply, try not to become enraged and shut down. Read through this and give it some thought on how you might retrain your palate, and help yourself as well as those you love.
The controversy over grains continues to be a hot one. There are the concerns over gliadin, the protein in gluten which drives gut permeability issues in many people, not just those with full-blown Celiac disease. Plant anti-nutrients, which include lectins and phytates, have strong links to many autoimmune disorders and other issues. Practically all U.S. grain is subsidized, genetically modified, and sprayed with glyphosate. Grain consumption has been linked to the the blocking of nutrient absorption. The starches and sugars in most grains rapidly spike blood glucose and have been shown to bind with addiction centers in the brain. But some will say, “When I go to Europe, I can eat the bread and it doesn’t bother me,” and to some extent they are correct. If a person is healthy, active, and occasionally eats products from heirloom grains which are not modified to be dwarf species that contain more starch and gluten, and are not sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and which are fermented or slow-processed (not factory-baked rapidly), then yes, this may be a different scenario. Whether you are tolerant or not, grains are engineered. And they form the base of most of our processed foods. Almost every binder, filler, flour, thickener, starch, and other food glue is grain-based. It usually comes in a box or a bag and won’t pass the “beige glop test,” in which you add a little water and see it turn into a slurry of disgusting gruel in a few hours. Grains can be a part of our diet, but do we really need them in every meal?
Sugar is the largest traded commodity in the world and it’s protected by an international association with more lobbying and marketing power than most small country military operations. I’m not going into its evils here, because I think everybody knows it and hears it often enough. And a durable, tolerant, healthy human metabolism can handle a little sugar. The problem with sugar is that we don’t get that choice (to just have a little sugar now and again) if we eat the Standard American Diet (SAD). Depending on your expert, that diet will have as much as 40% added sugar, and this results in current annual per capita consumption of about a wheelbarrow load. It’s so ironic. Our mouths and brains get used to all that sugar, and we begin to expect it. We actually think that is what food is supposed to taste like. Natural foods, rich in other, but often more subtle flavors, don’t taste right because they aren’t sweet enough. This has set up a monotonous gustatory slavery to the white crystal.
Oils, particularly industrial seed oils we erroneously call vegetable oils, are just another great business success that turned agricultural waste products into something people were taught to buy and eat. Canola, corn, cottonseed, soy, safflower, and sunflower oil are exceedingly high in omega-6 fatty acids, prone to oxidation, and very pro-inflammatory in the body, more so when heated. They are everywhere because they are cheap. And when hydrogenated, or made solid at room temperature, they impart that creamy texture and mouth-feel that industry labs spend millions to create. They help to increase shelf life of all those packaged products and they complete the junk food unholy trinity (grains, sugars, and oils). Simply grind up a bunch of grain to form a base for any junk food. Add some corn starch as a binder. Throw in a bunch of sugar to make it taste super sweet and be addictive. Blend in some seed oil to complete the package. A cheap, tasty BOMB that does not provide satiety, and causes weight gain and disease at an extremely efficient rate.
The produce, or fruits and vegetables of today, look nothing like the wild plant material that existed for ages. Every fruit and vegetable we now have available has been bred to be larger, softer, sweeter, and more colorful than what nature originally intended. The American consumer will not pursue anything that might be tart, bitter, fibrous, or neutral in color. Sure, organic matters, and it’s very important for most produce, particularly if it grows above ground. However, produce consumption was originally a relatively seasonal pattern, even in most equatorial regions. We simply did not have fruits and veggies available 24/7/365 and we may need to ask ourselves if we really need to “eat the rainbow” three times per day. Just sayin’ and that’s food for thought (couldn’t resist). There also is some confusion about fruit. Yes, many veggies have a higher nutrient to sugar ratio than most fruits, but fruits are generally easier to digest. And we all know that high fructose corn syrup is a concentrated delivery mechanism in junk food that leads to fatty liver and a host of other issues. But fruit in the primal sense was not this bright, sweet, unlimited item. Apples, berries, and the like were much smaller, more fibrous, and lower in fructose content than our modern versions. You have to pound a lot of fruit to get fat, just ask any bear.
Meat, and this is meant to include fish and poultry, is not without sin as well. Meat should be an acronym for Magnificently Edible And Tasty. Current evidence supports the contention that primal man ate a lot of meat…when he could get it. Nose-to-tail animal consumption is still practiced by some cultures, and quite a few health enthusiasts today. Perhaps more so than any other food category, meat is a hotly debated topic that often leaves people vitriolic or apoplectic. I’m not going there, at least today. My only point here is that the American palate has become accustomed to animal products that do not represent wild meat to any degree. Animals raised in close confines (beef, pork, chicken, salmon, etc.), unfavorable and unnatural conditions, fed a diet of grains (not the natural diet of any of these species), and that are generally overweight and diseased, do not produce a meat that is the same quality as wild, natural, free-ranging organisms. I’ve known many people who say they don’t have a taste for grass-fed, grass-finished beef, wild game (from hunting – you can’t get this in a restaurant – by law they have to serve you farm-raised game – it’s not wild), etc. Their palates have become accustomed to very soft-textured, fatty, mono-flavored flesh. Not all meat is supposed to melt in your mouth, even if it was prepared by a phenomenal chef. Meat is supposed to sometimes be tough or taste gamey. We even have teeth designed for that oh-so-human but not so modern activity known as chewing.
Now let’s jump right into the umami of things, and how wild can meet savory. Umami, that rich, deep flavor component related to glutamate content in food, is one of our 5 taste sensation areas in the taste buds (in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Many wild, natural foods are rich in umami but this flavor can sometimes be delicate and is easily overpowered by the large, bold, but not complex impact of sweet (in particular), and salty.
For the record, I’m a salt proponent and I know it to be an essential part of my diet and obviously the primary source of the mineral sodium. Since junk food doesn’t have any umami, they load it with salt and sugar. But when we put the right amount of salt on real food…all I can say is wow. Salt can be an umami-enhancer, as long as nutrition and flavor are in the food to start with.
Everything doesn’t have to be sweet. It’s the least sophisticated of our taste senses. Eating overly sweet processed food is really a rip-off. We are being robbed of the joy of flavor and the dining experience and are relegated to the human version of being in a pen munching endlessly and with no satisfaction from a trough of corn.
Next up on my soap box is the concept of addiction propagation, or the maintenance of a junk food dependency via the prevalence of those fake chips, paleo cakes, stevia cookies, etc. Instead of always going for the cutesy alternative to the junk we have been conditioned to eat, why not get away from it and just eat real food? Sure, those things can be a treat once in a while, or can help a person in a transitional phase getting off packaged fecal-food, but in the end those foods are still highly processed and not natural. Isn’t it better just to get the palate used to eating the foods we evolved on? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves if our grandmother or great-grandmother (depending on how old you are) either had that food available or would have eaten it? Or the caveman test in which we envision an ancestral human (they didn’t all live in caves by the way) and wonder if he had a convenience store cave around every corner full of twinkies and soda.
Lastly, that delusion, denial, and addiction which junk food builds so strongly has many of us (even myself in times past) saying “but I just gotta have my (insert your favorite junk food), I can’t make it without (blank), I could never give up my (even though you know it is making you sick, inflamed, fat, and diseased – so powerful are these dark forces).” You are not giving up anything…you are getting it back. Just challenge yourself to avoid garbage and keep it real. Or wild.