Sundin column: What to eat and what not to eat |

Sundin column: What to eat and what not to eat

Hal Sundin

Every time we pick up a newspaper or magazine we find some new (and often contradictory) advice on nutrition — just like the weight-loss and exercise fads that are constantly being invented. We used to be told that butter was bad for us and to use margarine instead — now butter is better for us and we shouldn’t use margarine. Milk and eggs, which used to be considered nutritious, are now to be avoided.

I have no argument with the advice to limit the amount of sugar, salt and fat in our diets, and minimizing or eliminating our intake of processed foods, which tend to be high in those substances. But I strongly advocate moderation in all dietary recommendations, and like one shoe doesn’t fit all feet, one diet is not appropriate for everyone because it does not recognize the difference in our heredities and our lifestyles.

Homo sapiens have evolved as omnivorous, and for many generations our ancestors were hunters and gatherers thriving on the animals they were able to hunt down and the fruits, berries, nuts, seeds and edible leaves and stalks they gathered — what could be considered a fairly well-balanced diet. Just 10,000 years ago, our ancestors began to plant and harvest crops, and in the Old World started domesticating animals (cattle, hogs, sheep, goats and poultry), potentially assuring a more reliable source of a wide variety of foods.

Due to the difference in climates (temperatures and precipitation) in various parts of the world, and the different crops (including what was needed to feed their animals) that prospered in those different climates, the diets of people living in various parts of the world became quite different from one another.

People living around the Mediterranean Sea have adopted what we call a “Mediterranean Diet,” largely pasta and olive oil and tomatoes (imported from the New World 500 years ago). The diet of those living in northern Europe was richer in meat and dairy products. The Japanese diet is based largely on rice and fish. The diet of Eskimos was almost exclusively derived from land and sea animals (very heavy on fat) and included very little plant-based food. These peoples’ heredities have not prepared them for the “standard American diet,” in particular large amounts of sugar, and the result has been a high incidence of obesity and diabetes.

The change in people’s lifestyles in much of the world in the last 100 years is also a cause of dietary problems. Until the early 1900s a majority of jobs involved a large amount of strenuous physical activity and required a high-calorie, largely meat-based diet.

That is no longer the case. Most jobs today are sedentary, like staring into a computer screen, and require little more physical activity than getting up to answer nature’s call or to pick up an unhealthy snack. For many of the younger generation, their thumbs may be the only part of their body that gets a real workout.

My thesis is that through evolution, our ancestors adapted to the foods that were available to them and that we are products of that evolution.

Deviating drastically from that diet and adopting a vastly different diet creates some serious problems, like the high rates of obesity and diabetes among Native Americans. Another example is the inability of people from many parts of Africa, where their ancestors never saw a cow, to digest cows’ milk. But adopting some food fad published in a magazine or newspaper is not the best thing for any of us.

We should recognize that evolution cannot keep up with the changes that have taken place in our lifestyle in just a generation or two.

We need to adopt a diet that is more appropriate for the sedentary lives most of us are leading. That means cutting back on, but not necessarily eliminating certain foods, particularly meat and fat, and replacing them with more fruits, vegetables and grains.

Exercise (there’s that dirty word again) is extremely important to our well-being. Not only does it compensate for the dietary effect of the reduced physical activity in the modern work place, but it is essential for a strong body and healthy cardiovascular system.

Hal Sundin’s As I See It column appears on the first Thursday of the month.

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